Bent, Folded, and Fine
During the past few months, all of my available Underpinnings time has been consumed with work on a video for the DFI Women in Deep Foundations Committee to educate women and girls about our field. Every bit of my “Go Team!” energy has been focused on that effort, so blog posts have been moved to the side. Until last week.
I happened to be scrolling through news headlines on my phone while sitting through a particularly painful meeting when I spotted a story about actor Ryan Phillippe’s court case. The headline mentioned something about ex-wife Reese Witherspoon being drug into the mess, and I immediately went from zero to furious, assuming his turmoil was unfairly spilling over onto someone who had managed to pull herself out of his dysfunctional orbit. What I found had nothing to do with Witherspoon but made me even madder.
The gist of the saga is that Phillippe and an ex-girlfriend both claim the other engaged in harassing behavior. Text messages were brought in as evidence. One of Phillippe’s messages to his then-girlfriend was listed in the article as,
“…you’re too great as you are bb. you’re so smart and funny and complicated and damaged, and stunningly beautiful – all traits i find the most engaging and attractive.”
And that’s where I went through the roof.
Have you noticed the use of the word “damaged” in our current culture? It is often brought up in book reviews and synopses, describing the heroine of a touching memoir or the main character in a dark romance. “This book explores how the damaged, fragile young artist finds her way back to creating a real relationship after she thinks she has lost all hope,” – or some such nonsense. Movies capitalize on the idea, sometimes even working the word “damaged” into exposition.
Have you also noticed that the same word is rarely used to describe a man? No, damaged is all about women. It’s an expression conveying tragedy or heartbreak or mistakes that somehow have managed to ruin the main character. But ruined for what? What does damaged actually mean? More importantly, why has the term become accepted as some sort of romantic asset?
The word damaged typically means that someone or something is no longer in perfect condition. To take it a step further, it conveys the idea that someone or something no longer works properly.
Either definition begs the question, “What is perfect? What is proper working condition for a human being?” To be more pointed about it, what is “undamaged” condition for a woman?
We all are aware of societal stereotypes regarding the “perfect” life for a woman. You grow up in a loving house and work hard to be an obedient, accomplished young lady. You develop into a well-behaved woman who maybe has a tasteful career or maybe doesn’t. You have several beautiful children with a fabulous man, and you spend every last lick of energy giving them perfect lives and telling the world how #blessed you are. You are upheld as a paragon of selflessness and good sense, and you are told that you are beautiful when you spend what little time you have for yourself on getting your hair and nails done in whatever is the currently-accepted fashion.
So what constitutes damaged? Based on my study of current books and movies using the term, damaged involves a woman who made a bad decision and took a turn off that “perfect” life route. Damaged includes women who have dealt with emotional problems and diseases like addiction. Damaged includes women who have been victims of other people’s problems, women who have been beaten and oppressed and ignored. Damaged also covers women who have made a decision that led to problems, even when those problems weren’t of their own making. Damaged is anything beyond “perfect.”
Wait – isn’t that just life? Isn’t life all about making mistakes and learning from them? Aren’t we supposed to mature and evolve and get smarter as we get older? You don’t do that by sitting in a bubble and conducting a faultless life unscathed by reality.
Somehow we reached 2019 and we have managed to hang onto the term “damaged” to describe women who have strayed from some outdated norm. Let’s face it – the label is actually a shortened version of the term “damaged goods,” a phrase that used to pertain to women who were unmarriageable because they weren’t virgins. Even if they were the victims of horrible crimes, they were considered soiled and unworthy of a respectable match. So they were tossed out as defective, basically useless in polite society.
We have to be the advocates who reinforce the idea that women can make mistakes and have problems, just like men, and that doesn’t make them damaged. Furthermore, we can take paths in life that are not exactly like the #blessed route AND THAT’S OKAY. That woman who struggled with insecurity in high school and developed an eating disorder? She has learned to deal with her issues, and she is strong now. The girl you knew who misunderstood the jackass she married and found out too late that he settled arguments with his fists? Her scars are proof that she survived, and she can handle anything you throw at her now in your high stress work environment. And your old friend who wandered between majors in college and “lost” 10 years figuring out what she wanted to be? She probably knows more about herself than the average bear and will navigate the rest of her life with a clear vision. And that woman you know through work who unknowingly married an alcoholic and finally divorced him, only to marry another control freak because she had lost all perspective on what a good relationship was? Well, that’s me, and I’m just fine now. My life probably hasn’t looked like yours, but I’ve learned a lot and I have a life full of outstanding people.
The more sinister side of acceptance of the “damaged” label is the cultural use that is disguised as a romantic tribute by men who are actually hoping to control the woman in question. They act as though a “damaged” woman is more complex. Phillippe composed his text ode to his girlfriend as if he were saying how wonderful she was. But by calling her damaged, he was inferring that she was less than perfect. Men that use the term in this passive-aggressive way intend to reduce a woman’s confidence by reinforcing her imperfections, even if they profess to love those same flaws. It’s an insidious, degrading tactic that is anything but romantic. And books and movies that employ the same technique are no better. We must push back against this. Enough with calling the interesting movie heroines “damaged.” Has anyone ever called Batman damaged? No, he’s just dark, which is exciting.
The basic problem with the use of this word is that it implies that someone is not perfect. And that idea suggests that perfection is not just attainable but quantifiable. We, as women of 2019, should be able to just live and work and play and love. Perfection should not be a goal. Someone else’s idea of perfection should be something to avoid. And using someone else’s idea of perfection as a weapon for control should be a crime.
For All Our Galentines
This is a week of treats, and we all like something salty and sweet, don’t we? So here is our offering to you for your morning or afternoon snack – or your midnight munchie. Something salty and something sweet.
Salty: The Spread
This morning was the fourth time in the past few months that I was subjected to what I have come to call The Spread. Sitting in my airline seat with my belongings tucked beneath the seat in front of me, I suddenly felt pressure on my right leg. I looked over and… there it was. The man in the seat next to me had settled into a comfortable position that included his legs forming a 90 degree angle, aka The Spread. About 25% of his leg mass had drifted into my seat space and was encroaching on my useable area.
I did what I normally do when this happened today – I ever so slightly pushed back, giving the guy a subtle “Hey, you’re in my space” nudge. But, as so often occurs, he was oblivious. I spent the rest of the thankfully short flight with even less room than current airplane seat measurements allow. By the time I got off the plane, I was irritated and resentful. The whole situation was even more puzzling when the guy turned out to be a very considerate gentleman when it came time to unload bags from the overhead compartments and disembark the plane.
I realize that this issue is but a small slight in the general realm of sexism, and I should be happy that I was on a plane because I have a job where I am unconstrained by sexist bosses and I get to travel to work for enlightened clients. On the other hand, the plane scenario, and its commonality in other places, feels a bit to me like a metaphor for women’s places in the world and the current state of our progress. There seem to be a number of guys who still want to stress that this is their world and they’ll encroach and make us uncomfortable if they want.
Certainly some of you are yelling at me right now, “Just tell him to move!” And yes, this also illustrates that not all of us are comfortable with just calling a guy out directly for his rude or sexist behavior. My southern sensibilities discourage it. My feeling is that it’s not a big enough deal and it will make the rest of the trip uncomfortable. What I actually would like to do would be to say, “Look – if you have a fungus and you’re uncomfortable, go get some medicine, but get out of my space!” But my sensitivity to other’s feelings tells me that maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s doing and perhaps he would be really embarrassed if I called him out directly.
‘And maybe that’s the real lesson here. Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s doing. Of course, some percentage of the guys who Spread are completely aware of their actions, because there will always be jerks EVERYWHERE. But maybe some of these guys on planes and in stadiums are just like guys at work who interrupt us and push us out. Maybe their behavior was learned at an early age and they don’t realize its implications. So the proper response would be to clearly point out the issue, but without animosity. “Excuse me, would you mind moving your leg?” might be in the same league with “Could you work on not interrupting me during meetings?” If he responds badly, he’s a jerk being a jerk, not a good guy being clueless. And you can proceed accordingly. In fact, perhaps you can diplomatically educate the men in your life (husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, shoe salesmen) that to Spread is to be inconsiderate. Revolutionary behavior doesn’t always involve hostile confrontations, and sensitivity to other people being human often results in allies.
Sweet: Happy Valentine’s Week!
If you have been reading here for a while, you know that I am a perpetual optimist. On a crowded, noisy train I remind myself that some people never travel more than 5 miles from their homes. When my basement flooded, I said it was an opportunity to remodel. Other than the first week after football season is over, I can almost always find a way to summon a positive angle on a situation. It’s my survival mechanism.
As such, no one should be surprised that I love Valentine’s Day. Even absent a current Significant Other, I think it’s quite a fabulous holiday. The decorations are pretty, the movies on TV are sappy and hopeful, and every person has an opportunity to tell the people around her that she loves them.
Some among us are very cynical about the holiday, citing pressure on gifting, commercialism, and “It’s a made-up holiday”, as some of their reasons for being negative. (What holiday isn’t made up? Not even Jesus said, “Hey – make a really big deal about my birthday.”)
But I feel the opposite. I think this is a gift-wrapped chance to appreciate people, in case you’ve been too busy to do so. There is no law that says the person you are honoring is your sweetie. It could be your mom, your former teacher, your kids’ nanny – anyone! A positive sentiment is never a bad idea. And reminding yourself of all the good things in your life is a beneficial exercise whenever it may occur.
I have said something here before that bears repeating: Happiness is hard. Cynicism is easy. Negativity, skepticism, distrust, disbelief – all of these are conditions that some people would have you believe are the signs of intelligence. In fact, they are signs of fear. It is easier to be cranky and cynical and tell everyone that you didn’t ever expect to be treated equal to men in your job anyway, and all the men out there are malicious jerks. It’s hard to have hope. It’s brave to take the chance that your new boss really will support you in a male-dominated environment, and you’ll get to explore your career opportunities unfettered by the ignorance of others. Optimism and love are accompanied by the risk that your hopes will be dashed. But if the potential win is that you will realize your own goals and aspirations, or perhaps you’ll find happiness in another person, how can you afford to be negative and skeptical?
In the spirit of the season, I would like to say how much I care about all of my sisters in arms and everything you give me on a daily basis. I am constantly inspired and supported and encouraged by you, and you make my life a richer, more fulfilling existence.
I also appreciate all of the men who treat us as equals, fight for our progress, and don’t encroach on our figurative airline seats. I heart you guys, and I thank you for the daily dose of happiness you give me and others.
There will be crises and problems in our lives, but there also always will be goodness and love. I hope you can find some reason to be optimistic and grateful during the Valentine’s holiday. If you’re at a loss, message me and I’ll send you a list of shoe sales.
I Just Want It To Be Perfect
When I was young I used to haul around a sketch pad with me everywhere. I spent hours and hours drawing…dresses. I was fascinated by fabric and design and endlessly intrigued by art that one can wear. As I grew older, I found out that my passion for art was balanced by my interest in science and engineering. I thought the Great Pyramids were beautiful, but I also constantly found myself saying, “But how did they build that?” I think you know which direction I chose when I hit the unavoidable fork in the career road in college.
My artistic beginnings are probably some of the reasons I’m such a big fan of the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress.” No, it’s not the family drama. It’s not the suspense. (Will she find a dress?! Or will she go to her $150,000 wedding in a sundress from Target?) It’s truly the dresses. At the end of a long week when I’m trying to decide if I want to be an engineer again on Monday, I can sit on the couch on Friday night and say, “Ooo – look how well that drapes!”
On the other hand, the quickest way for me lose my Friday night happy coma is for one of the brides to implore, “But I just want it to be perfect!” This statement typically is said in the same tone a defeated peasant uses as she watches the invading army ride into town – “I just hope they let some of us live!” The desperate brides who use this phrase lead us to believe that their lives will be over if every detail in their weddings is not exactly as they have envisioned it. The cynic in me often yells at the screen, “You mean not perfect, as in something might happen that you haven’t imagined in your short, limited little life? Something that might be better than what you dreamt of in your narrow-minded pursuit of an impossible goal but that you’ll be too myopic to appreciate?!” Okay, I try to keep my blood pressure low by ignoring this part of the episodes, but sometimes I can’t help it. And it seems as if this illusion of perfection is everywhere these days. It drives me crazy. More importantly, it seems to me that the goal of perfection is much more prevalent among women than among men.
My distaste for this idea of perfection turned into a more mature interest when I heard this TED Talk. Throughout Ms. Saujauni’s presentation, I kept saying, “Yes! Yes!” The idea of having to attain perfection is much more than a dramatic moment on a Friday night reality show. Her insights made me see that my revulsion on Friday nights was a response to a much larger condition than simply a tulle vs. silk predicament. Soon after I listened to her talk, I read this post . I think both ladies have very similar messages, and I think we need to sit up and take notice, for our daughters’ sakes.
Human beings are, by definition, imperfect. Our world also is imperfect. We might use the word with abandon when it comes to spring days and d’Orsay heels and men who play James Bond. But the truth is that none of those things and none of this world actually are perfect. And those who pursue the nonexistent are doomed to the frustration of futility.
So why do we ask our daughters to be perfect? Why do we encourage them to attempt only things in which they have some chance of succeeding? Why do we do everything in our power to protect them from making mistakes? Why are we so petrified that they will make mistakes?
As a perpetual optimist, I like to think the root of this problem is in biology, not in maliciousness. As our species was becoming established, it was necessary for women to be as “perfect” as possible to be attractive to potential mates. Women who did not reproduce and who weren’t married often did not have the protection of a man and could end up in dire straits. Families wanted to make sure their daughters didn’t end up poor and at the mercy of a less-than-benevolent society, so they pushed them to be without any possible flaws that could be construed as unsuitable for a potential mate.
This anthropological analysis (without any expertise to back it up), would explain an 1850s frontier family’s extreme concern over their oldest daughter’s penchant for wearing men’s pants while doing her farm chores. In 1850, the negative reaction from the rest of the people in the small prairie town could lead to more than just some counseling sessions over bullying at the general store. Being unmarriageable on the frontier could lead to problems for the whole family, including lack of protection from hostile raids and exclusion from pooling of resources.
But this isn’t 1850. Even if your grandmother scolds you that you won’t find a man with hands that dirty (I proved her wrong more than once), the family is not likely to end up starving and surrounded by pirates/bandits just because you spend your days smeared with unladylike mud from various construction sites.
And yet, we continue to hold onto this idea of perfection. We cringe at the thought of our daughters doing anything to generate negative attention. If I hear “But in this age of social media, their mistakes will follow them everywhere” one more time I’ll scream. Yes, your mistakes will be preserved for all eternity, but so what? They are mistakes. By teaching our daughters that mistakes should be avoided and covered up at all costs, we are telling them that they are not okay if they make a mistake. We are saying that evidence of a mistake made 15 years ago might very well ruin an entire life. And, in doing so, we discourage them from taking risks. We teach them not to be brave.
I would be willing to gamble some hard-earned pennies that most of the women reading this post who have succeeded in engineering or construction careers have felt during at least part of those careers that they could not make any mistakes. They knew that any one mistake, whether it be professional or personal, could spell the end of their careers. After all, there were many men just looking for reasons as to why those women shouldn’t be in their jobs. A mistake of any sort would provide just the ammunition a misogynist would need to say, “See? I told you she didn’t belong here.”
When was the last time you heard about a guy who slept with his secretary or his foreperson or his IT expert and it didn’t affect his job. The answer is yesterday. Even better, when was the last time you saw a male co-worker get completely ripped at a company party and dance around with the proverbial lamp shade on his head? Again, the answer is yesterday. Many people would say, “Wow, that guy…” as they chuckled to themselves. But the philanderer and the drunk both would keep their jobs. “But, he’s good at his job, right?”
Now put a woman in both of those scenarios. She’s not going to survive either one of these incidents. Because both involve mistakes. And both involve a lapse in judgment, which we are not allowed to have. “What else will she do? She might end up sleeping with the whole second floor IT department! And if her judgment is bad in this area, how can she possibly size a beam for a load test? Off with her head!”
So we tell our daughters to be strong and ambitious and go get a great career….as long as they do it perfectly. If any mistakes are made, we’ll hire social media experts to wipe away the evidence, and we’ll spirit the girl off to an isolated location for trauma control. Yes, go get that engineering degree from Berkeley, but be sure to get straight As and make sure you agree with everyone you encounter. They’ll call you a star if you’re perfect! Of course, you’ll never have an opportunity to learn from any mistakes, and your risk-avoidance will prohibit you from trying anything new or innovative. But have a great life!
Is this what we want? I know I don’t. Over the years some of my most spectacular mistakes have taught me the most. And I don’t want the false sense of security that I’m only okay if I’m perfect, which I’m not. (I think there is a full astral plane between me and perfection).
So what do we do about this? Or do we do something about this – is perfection the right goal? Stay tuned for Part II.
90% Ready for Change, 10% Irritated
By Guest Contributor Lori Simpson, (who we’re 90% sure is CGG (Chief Geotechnical Genius) at Langan)
On a recent conference call my headset microphone wasn’t working and I couldn’t speak. Many people on the call didn’t notice the difference, well, because how often do women speak up on conference calls…or in meetings for that matter? Ok, ok, don’t get indignant. Of course we women speak. Some might say we are Chatty Kathys (no knock on Kathys) or that we “pick a little talk a little, pick a little talk a little, cheep cheep cheep talk a lot pick a little more.” (Any fans of the Music Man? I played Miriam’s mother in my middle school production). So how did we women get the reputation for talking too much when we don’t speak up enough?
They say that a woman needs to be 90% sure about something before she speaks up but a man only needs to be 10% sure. I see this in meetings all the time. When I was a junior engineer, I would go to meetings with a senior engineer (male, obviously, as there were no female senior engineers in my world). I would practically kick him under the conference room table because of some of the stuff that would come out of his mouth. No, he wasn’t being disrespectful; he was saying things that were flat out incorrect. As the junior engineer, I knew the details of the project,so I would know when he was wrong. Later, as I became the lead geotechnical engineer… (I’m not going to say I was senior, because well, that would speak to my age and we aren’t going there in this post…although there has been some previous discussion about my age, and I will speak to that in another post someday)…okay, where was I? Oh yes, being the lead engineer and sitting in meetings. Every time a question came to me I would take time to think and slowly respond with an answer that had a lot of qualifiers: “if”, “likely”, “might”, “could”, etc. Basically I knew there there was not an absolute answer (in geotechnical engineering there never is), so I made it clear that I was not asserting one definite position. So often in these meetings I would get a sense of dissatisfaction about my response. I think I was dissatisfied too. How come I couldn’t give a definite answer like EVERYONE else in the room? Note that everyone else was male (I’m sorry if I keep stating the obvious…but hopefully it’s not that way now so our younger readers might not think it’s obvious). It wasn’t because I was shy. It wasn’t because I felt like I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I was doing. So WHY?
At one point I attended a conference called Groundbreaking Women in Construction. This conference is alive and well and you should go. And while you are there, call me because it’s always in SF and I would love to meet you for a drink. But I digress. I attended a panel on the different leadership styles of men and women. This was the first time I had ever heard about this -what? Men and women are different? This was an eye opener. I mean, I grew up in the era of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, but I had never read it, and I didn’t think it applied to the working world (maybe because I had never read it?) One of the things that was presented was that women need to be something like 90% sure and men need to be only 10% sure before speaking up. GAME CHANGER!
I knew that when the senior engineer spoke incorrectly, he was saying what others wanted to hear—a confident answer. I also knew that he didn’t know all the details so he couldn’t give the entirely correct answer. What I didn’t know was that him knowing just enough about the project meant that he felt confident to give an answer. After that conference session, I noticed what was happening. All the men in the room knew just enough and spoke freely and sometimes incorrectly. The women (ok, woman) in the room wasn’t always 90% sure so she didn’t speak up…or when asked, gave an answers with lots of qualifiers so that the 10% she didn’t know was covered.
So does this mean that the outcomes of meetings with all or mostly men are based on an inadequate amount of information? Does it mean that the wrong conclusions are made? I would say generally no. Maybe it takes more meetings to get to the final answer because if you only know 10%, it might take you 10 meetings to get to the solution. And because women aren’t speaking up, even though they know 90%, they aren’t helping everyone get there. I don’t really believe in this math, but it makes me wonder -should men be more prepared and consider their responses before they give them? Or should women be more willing to “go out on a limb” when they don’t have all the information? On the one hand it seems obvious that the men should be more prepared and only speak up when they know more about the subject. And if a woman actually speaks up, you should put 9 times more weight on her answer. But I think there is value in the “brainstorming” method that I think occurs in meetings with men.
Ultimately, my observation is that people want you to speak up. They want to hear what you have to say. You are there for a reason, hopefully at a high billing rate, so contribute. You can put in an “if” or a “likely,” but they want you to sound confident. You might give the reasons why it is not a sure thing. Or you might say that this is the way you think it should go but there are some risks that you can explain. Either way–be confident.
After I heard the 10%/90% philosophy, my competitive nature erupted and now I try to speak up in meetings just to compete with the men for airtime. I watch how interruptions are made and how they speak over each other and join in the fun. And as long as I know at least 10% about what I am talking about, I’m on equal ground.
Yes, I’m Supposed to Be Here
Confidence is a subject we have covered extensively on this forum. It should not be a surprise to anyone currently engaged in our dialogue about women’s issues in a male-dominated workplace that a lack of confidence runs rampant through our ranks. Yes, there are women who blaze a trail unencumbered by self-doubt, and they are our heroes. But the rest of us continue to wage a battle for our place in the working world with compromised armor.
I am always fascinated by those women who sail through sexist-infested waters with no apparent recognition of the doubters and haters around them. These are the women who don’t hesitate to state their opinions, do their jobs, and tell any obstructionists to get the hell out of the way. So I study them in hopes that I might learn their secrets. No retraining orders have been filed thus far, so apparently my approach has been anthropologist-worthy. In any case, I have observed some of the most inspiring attitudes from a completely unexpected source.
The first twelve years of my education (plus kindergarten) were overseen and influenced by Roman Catholic nuns. My grade school nuns were Ursuline Sisters, and my high school nuns were Sisters of Mercy. In addition, my great aunt was a Sister of Charity. I still deal with nuns from a number of orders regularly at church and through charity work. I have the utmost respect for the dedication, work ethic, organizational skills, and focus of nuns as a whole. (I left out integrity, honesty, humility, etc., because I think those are givens). I’m also in awe of the fact that they tolerate spending their whole lives in boring, sensible shoes. That’s grit.
I cannot recall a single nun who appeared to be tentative or lacking in confidence when it came to executing her duties. Yes, I have known sisters who were shy, but the vast majority in my experience have been downright commanding in their work lives. I certainly never saw a nun defer to a man simply because he was a man. Surely you have seen or heard jokes about drill sergeant-like nuns as teachers? Plays and musicals have been written about hard core, rigid nuns issuing orders and demanding respect from masses of obedient students and adults alike.
If you read the Outlander books, (and if you don’t, we cannot be friends), the author, Diana Gabaldon, wrote a passage in which the main character reflects on where she learned to have a commanding presence in her role as a battlefield nurse during World War II. She observed nuns ordering soldiers around who were twice their size and gaining cooperation by not accepting anything else. She learned by their example that if she barked an order and acted authoritative, many men would simply comply. In a major role in one of the books, the Mother Superior of a hospital in France directs men and women about equally, never giving either subordinates or colleagues the opportunity to disagree. The character would be called “fierce” in 2018, and she serves as inspiration for the heroine when she needs to marshal her courage.
It might seem a bit counter intuitive to look for help with confidence from a group of women whose very vows could be perceived as subservient. They do not attain positions of commercial success in our society. They are forbidden from accumulating wealth or possessions. They are committed to advancing the work of their order and the church instead of their own desires.
But nuns are also some of the smartest and most well-educated women around. Sister Mary Prisca Pfeffer, my former high school principal and English teacher, died at the age of 96 with more college degrees than I could count. My great aunt insisted that my dad speak only in French during the summer so he could learn the language better. And these two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
So where does their example leave the rest of us? More importantly, how do they achieve such confidence, and where can we get some of that?
Of course, part of the answer must include the fact that the sisters believe God is on their side. How can you not go about your work with forcefulness and aplomb when you believe that your mission has divine approval?
But beyond the obvious, I feel that many nuns stride purposefully through their vocation because they truly believe they are supposed to be there. Well, of course they do, you say. That’s no revelation. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken vows and devoted themselves to the lives they have, right? So, if they believe so strongly in their rightful places in their roles, why don’t we?
History, of course, is one answer to that question. Nuns have filled the roles of nurses and teachers and missionaries feeding the hungry for years. They don’t have to overcome the fact that there were few, if any women in their roles 50 years ago. In fact, nuns are all women!
But what if we borrow their attitude? What if we simply decide we’re supposed to be here? We adopt that don’t-waste-time-arguing-with-me-because-it-won’t-do-you-any-good demeanor and make those around us believe it?
Before I learned that it was okay to be my age (see this post) I often joked that I graduated from college in 2007. I have told many people that others will be believe even something improbable if you look them directly in the eyes and sound confident in your statement. Actually, that’s usually true. So what if we just deal with others in the workplace every day as if it’s understood that we should be there (BECAUSE IT’S TRUE), and completely tune out any doubters. It would be even more fabulous if we could slap the knuckles of all of those doubters with a ruler, but I think there might be various local and federal laws against that.
I urge you to try the “Nun Approach” in your workplace this week. Of course it should be accompanied by all appropriate courtesies, particularly if you work anywhere that could be construed as southern. (“Yes, sir, you have inadequate clearance around your rebar for shafts C12 and F7. Those need to be fixed ASAP or your concrete is going right back to the plant. Thank you for getting this done right now.”)
The most important part of this plan is the change that will take place in your own head. If you don’t let anyone else stop to question your presence in your job, you’ll forget the question it, too. Sister Mary Prisca NEVER let anyone question her authority or her expertise, and she was right. I can diagram the previous sentence for you as proof. So we need to put her and other sisters on a pedestal and follow their lead. We’ll just wear different shoes.
We’ve been a bit absent here at Underpinnings lately, and I was going to lead off this post by apologizing. I’m so sorry that I am overloaded with work, that I’m in charge of various parts of three separate charity fundraisers in three months, that I’m trying to run a group of 25 community volunteers, and that I have ongoing chaos in my family right now. But I’m not. (And Superwoman Helen shouldn’t even dream of apologizing).
I’m not going to apologize. All of these activities and situations are important to me, and it was my choice to prioritize them. More importantly, I’m not going to try to ameliorate a failure or bad situation that exists only in my mind by offering an apology.
Studies and statistics and charts and graphs and barroom conversations all state that many women tend to apologize routinely in business and in life in general. We use the apology as a means to do a number of things, none of which are good. (Some anomalous women don’t do this – you know who you are, so just sit there and be smug).
1) We apologize to soften the blow of a difficult conversation. We assume that if we explicitly take some of the blame for a bad situation, the other person or persons will be less likely to be confrontational and a resolution might be reached.
2) We apologize to show that we are accountable, even if we had nothing to do with the problem at hand. We want to show that we are willing to share the blame for a bad situation, thus showing our willingness to be a team player in effecting a solution.
3) We apologize to keep another person from feeling badly. We willingly take unwarranted blame so that another person won’t be upset, thus regulating the emotional barometer of the room.
4) We apologize because we want people to know that we’re just lucky to be here and have a chance at a seat at the table. We’re willing to fall on our swords to express our humility.
5) We apologize because the 4,000 demands of our everyday lives cannot be met and we feel inadequate. See paragraph #1 of this post.
None of these reasons are okay. Some, particularly #4, are downright upsetting. Should I really still be trying to make nice after all these years? Am I still worried that if I make trouble or if I don’t appear to be a martyr that someone will decide that I’m not worthy to have my job/family/life?
Unfortunately, apparently many of us still feel this way, even if it’s only subconsciously. We apologize to create a buffer in our lives. In effect, we apologize for who we are.
When was the last time you apologized? Have you told a client this week that you’re so sorry the foundation cost turned out to be higher than he expected? Have you messaged your best friend and said you’re terribly sorry you haven’t called her this week and you’re a bad friend? Have you apologized to a co-worker because you were already scheduled to be on a site in San Francisco and he needs help on a job in Miami? Stop it. None of these things are your fault. You are not a bad person. Falling on your sword will only ruin your outfit.
Just this week I found out that a manufacturer supplying products for a volunteer project of mine had neglected to tell me that he didn’t start producing the planters we ordered until about three weeks after he originally intended. The delay meant that my volunteer organization would not be able to place the planters on the new city medians and fill them with flowers in time for a big fireworks show being held where I live. Keep in mind, not only was the delay not my fault, but I’ve given hundreds of volunteer hours to this project. But my first reaction was to contact city officials and apologize for the delay. “I’m so very sorry that we will not have those flowers out for the tourists, and I feel very badly about it.” Yes, I did feel badly about it, because I was looking forward to seeing the street planters spilling over with beautiful flowers. But should I apologize? Absolutely not. It would send the wrong message – that my best wasn’t enough, and that any problems should be attributed to me. In actuality, I worked my petunia off on that project, and everything but this one item worked out. But we women rarely emphasize what we’ve done right. Instead, we dwell on what we’ve done wrong, even if we didn’t do it!
It took all of my strength to contact the various city officials and never say the words “I’m sorry.” After I was done, I had the horrible urge to call them all back and stress that I REALLY WAS SORRY. But I resisted, and I have to say I’m pretty proud of myself.
For many of us, apologizing is a salve to the open wound that is our feeling of not being enough. We have decided that the only way we can justify having the jobs we have and the family lives we want and the shoes we love is to acknowledge to the world that we somehow are falling short. It must be perfect, or someone will come and tell me I’m fired. What in the hell is perfect? And who is making all of these impossible standards for us that no one could attain? We are. And we need to stop. We need to go after the job and kiss the guy and have the kids and bake the cake and buy the shoes and not get to the end of it and decide that the cake was a little dry and the kiss should have been longer.
I do want to mention that I’m not speaking against compassion (“I’m so sorry that you’re not feeling well”), and I am a firm believer in accountability, a virtue that seems to be escaping many millennials (“I’m truly sorry that I was busy talking on my phone and knocked over your ladder and caused you to fall two stories to the pavement. I’m also sorry that I stayed two extra days on my ayurvedic retreat, causing us to lose the contract for the project I was on”). Always always be considerate and compassionate. However, doing so doesn’t mean giving away situational power for no reason. You are not doing a good thing by assuming blame for something out of your control or an error committed by others. And if your life includes the things you want it to include, don’t second guess your choices and apologize. The new hashtag to replace #sorrynotsorry is simply #notsorry.
We Can Do It…Even Better Now
If you follow our little blog and read the comments from our readers, you might have seen a rather pointed comment on our introduction of our contest winner, Lori Simpson, back in December. After we listed all of Lori’s lengthy accomplishments, I suggested that this was all very impressive because Lori was only 25. The implication, of course, was that it would be more desirable if Lori were 25 than her actual age, which is not my business to disclose. (I wasn’t raised by wolves). One of our readers expressed her dismay at the joke and suggested that we stop acting like younger is better and start showing some respect for the accomplishments and benefits of age.
Okay, just between us chickens, my initial reaction was not one that appreciated her insights. In fact, I think the mumbling alone in my office went something like, “Oh sure – you’re probably, what? 35? If that? I’ll bet you don’t spend a good portion of your time trying to keep your rear end from hanging down to the backs of your knees. You probably don’t even know what Retinol is. You have maybe one wrinkle? And you probably told all your friends about how horrible it is. Just wait until your face looks like a topo map and then talk to me about how great age is. You’ll just love it when you look like Mrs. Claus and all the guys just want you to bake them cookies.” There might have been some uglier rambling, but I’ll spare you that.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about her comments. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. I hate it when that happens. My attitude about my own age in fact does nothing more than contribute to accepted social negativity. As long as I focus on the drawbacks of maturity and fail to celebrate the benefits, I’m just making the problem worse.
So I need to embrace the beauty of maturity and wisdom and stop acting like younger is better. This is nothing we all haven’t read in a thousand magazines. Extol the mystique and allure of my accumulated years and celebrate the fact that I have a lot more career experience and knowledge than the average bear. Appreciate that I am in a position now to help my clients and contribute professionally with a unique perspective based on a long history of project execution and successes.
Fabulous. So I conceded my error (even though our beloved reader never knew of my solo rant) and issued a retraction in the form of a Solution Feature that embraced the value of age.
But the issue kept bugging me. There was something missing from this newly accepted perspective. Even though I was not drinking wine at a café in Paris, adorned with an artfully arranged scarf and chatting with the most recent in a string of fabulous lovers, I could see myself better in the framework of an accomplished woman of 50. (There, it’s out there. It only took 45 minutes for me to type that number). But the career side didn’t fit. So I had to sort through it to understand why.
Many times I’ve been with my dad at a site, and an owner or a contractor or another engineer has listened to him and not me. I can’t count how many times he’s said to me, “You just don’t have enough gray hair.” To which I usually replied, “I have a salon to make sure that never happens.” It’s been our running joke for years. When I tried to figure out what piece of the maturity puzzle was missing, I realized that this was it.
Women only began working in our industry in visible numbers in recent years. It’s reasonable to say that women only really began entering our field in significant numbers in the mid-1980s. If a woman graduated from college in 1985, she would be about 55 years old now. What does this mean? This means that most of the guys on jobsites and at design firms have no experience in dealing with a “gray-haired” woman in our industry. They don’t associate a gray-haired woman in our position with a paragon of wisdom, because they have no frame of reference.
So doesn’t that just mean that we’re creating a new identity and men in our field will start to recognize it? If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, in our business, we have trouble with our roles to begin with. Many guys don’t acknowledge us at all. Being older won’t have any effect on their apathy. Other men pay attention to us only because we’re female. (“You smell better than the concrete crew.” So do some horses, but the gist of the compliment was understood). We hope and pray that our expertise will widen their appreciation of our abilities beyond just physical appearance and they’ll eventually regard us as worthwhile professionals. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. For those guys, age cancels out any reason to pay attention to us. We’re old and unattractive to them. For another subset of guys, an older woman creates nothing but a worry or a hazard on a jobsite. “Don’t break a hip!” “Wouldn’t you be happier somewhere you can get your knitting needles out and work?”
We don’t have that magical role of a wise sage to attain, because it doesn’t exist in the female form in our industry. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant femmes d’un certain age in our field. But they are so few as to not be known by the masses.
What that means for us is that Joe B. Superintendent might ask me if I’m at a site to visit my grandson, or if I’m someone’s secretary delivering shop drawings. He might hold my elbow when I step over piles of rebar because he’s afraid I’ll break a bone and end up in a nursing home forever. He might ignore me thinking I have nothing useful to share.
This sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? On the contrary, much like everything else we have dealt with in our roles as women in a male-dominated profession, this is just another opportunity to blaze a trail. In fact, this gives us the chance to define what the image of an experienced, mature female engineer or contractor will be in the deep foundations business. I’m thinking we can do a lot with this. My contribution might be along the lines of Indiana Jones meets Dorothy Parker meets Reese Witherspoon. We are not conventional women and we won’t leave conventional marks. And all the boys on the jobsites will recognize that they will have no idea what to expect when they see a female “gray hair,” but we’ll have important things to contribute. I’m not suggesting this will be easy, but it gives us something more positive to reach for in our dotage when we start getting negative or apathetic reactions instead of the respect we deserve. I hope you’ll write this script with me.
(It’s important to note that I say gray hair symbolically and metaphorically. I honor every woman’s choice, but I’m southern. We don’t do that salt and pepper nonsense, and you will not convince me that it’s more authentic or honest or whatever other fairy tale you want to sell me. Hair colorists need jobs, and I won’t let them down. But I’ll project that “gray hair” aura with pride).
The Casualties Are Higher When It’s Personal
It didn’t take the #metoo movement for most of us to be familiar with being undervalued or disrespected or ignored at work or in school. Even our youngest millennials who work in progressive companies with open-minded colleagues have run into ugliness at some point. The trouble may have come from a backwards guy on a jobsite spouting obscene suggestions while he ignored your engineering evaluation of the problem with his soil nail wall. You may have lost a promotion to a guy with less experience but who the boss felt more comfortable sending out to construction sites. Or the issue may have been more subtle; a manager who professed to care about your career but who kept assigning difficult projects to others in order to “give you less stress.”
As we wade through these swine-infested waters, the implication is that all of our problems are work issues. The offenders are people from families that aren’t yours. The misogynists are other women’s husbands (bless their hearts). And when you leave the offensive situation at work, you get to go home to sympathetic people who love you and value you for everything wonderful that you are.
Yes, in the candy-canes-and-teddy-bears world in my head this is true. We all have supportive, understanding partners and close-knit, warm families. Diane Keaton will be playing your mom in the movie about how you took on the unequal power structure at your company and won, and Kelly Clarkson will do the soundtrack.
How often is this really true? Using the analytical side of our personalities, does it make statistical sense that all of us fabulous women in our field would have enlightened partners and families? Not a chance. We have to be realistic about the fact that our career choices likely will make waves for us personally as well as professionally. And it’s doubtful that there’s an HR office in your house to sort it out. So solving your inequality problems with people you are tied to legally and genetically probably will be much more complicated than taking care of your work issues. And much more painful.
I worked with a woman years ago whose father was an earthwork contractor. He had raised his two sons to work in the family business, and neither had ended up working with him. On the other hand, his daughter had spent her childhood begging to learn how to operate a backhoe, asking questions about grade stakes and stockpiles. He told her that girls had no place in construction. She tried for years, only to be rebuffed. Finally out of high school, she chose to go to engineering school, hoping for a “backdoor” into her father’s world. Sadly, he never accepted her. His disapproval and lack of pride in his daughter’s accomplishments led to bitterness and anger in her. When I met her she was in her late twenties, and her bitterness toward her father subconsciously controlled most of her actions. She slept with men of whom she knew he would disapprove; she slanted all of her evaluations on jobsites against the interests of the contractors; and she measured every career victory in terms of what her father was missing. It was tragic.
Could she have changed her father’s longstanding opinions if she had tried a different approach? Could she have proven to him through actions that his outdated beliefs were wrong? We’ll never know. They stopped speaking to each other years ago.
Many counselors and psychologists will tell you that insecurities are magnified a thousand fold with your “family of origin.” This sensitivity can make rectifying a bad situation seem insurmountable. The emotions involved can cloud reason and douse any flame of energy for being patient with ingrained prejudices and longstanding beliefs. With family, a woman must have a true desire to change her relatives’ beliefs and behaviors. And she must have patience above all. Because she is not just redefining another person’s beliefs, she is restructuring the family unit. Making progress may not always be possible, and it will be arduous when it does occur.
A relationship with a partner is a completely different issue. A partner is someone who has been chosen. The implication is that the chosen person loves you and wants what’s best for you, no matter what. Even if such a person would have outdated beliefs, they would be easy to convert to a more progressive mindset because they think you’re fabulous.
If only it were that simple. As Annie Schmelzer said so brilliantly in this post, most guys don’t go around with a T-shirt that says they’re insecure sexists who will try to undermine you the minute they feel threatened. Wait – threatened? If you love a man and he loves you, why should he ever feel threatened? If you really love each other (and you didn’t get together just because all of your other friends were getting married and it was “time”), you both want nothing more than the health and happiness of the other person. Anything less isn’t real love. But close-but-no-cigar love often comes disguised as real love. Unfortunately, the voids usually don’t appear until it’s too complicated to just walk away.
My mistakes in this area have been spectacular, the product of my leap-before-I-look personality and my perpetual optimism. (Really? That alcoholic who flirts with me every time I come out on site doesn’t respect me? But he said he likes me…) My longtime boyfriend in college was very supportive of my engineering career until I ran into a problem with a guy on my second co-op job in school. When I told my boyfriend that I had brought it up to my boss, he said, “Hey – I didn’t sign up for any feminist crusade.” A guy had just been extremely disrespectful to me, and all my boyfriend could think about was not being involved in a conflict. And I was too stupid to get out of the relationship at the time.
Even though I broke up with that guy later, my obliviousness continued. Probably the most painful experience I had was when I got married to a man who professed to think that my job was “cool” and that he was proud of me. I had always thought that the best part of marriage was sharing yourself with another person, not being afraid that the other person will judge you or use what you share against you. Both of you are supposed to always be on the other’s side. But what I found is that every time I did well at work, my husband would use something I had told him against me. If I solved a dispute on a construction site, he would remind me that I had stomach ulcers and was “weak.” If I gained a new client, he would work into conversation that I get my rights and my lefts mixed up often. If someone else complimented me on my work at a party, he would tell the crowd that I told him how nervous I was when I had to deal with a particular client. I didn’t recognize the pattern – or the motive – at first, but as time went on his comments became meaner and his acknowledgements of anything I did well fewer and far between. Needless to say, he loved some idea of me, but not the actual me. Not the me who wades through mud in deep sinkholes. Not the me who changes her own tires and doesn’t automatically ask a man to perform tough jobs. And being with someone who didn’t want me to be the best person I could, whether as a muddy engineer or in a more traditional role, wasn’t healthy.
As difficult as our professional problems with gender inequality may be, solving the same problems in our personal lives is far more complicated and burdensome. The emotions involved can distort our perceptions of what is best for us and distract us from the truth in our lives. There is no handbook, no company policy, no legal recourse for being narrow-minded in a personal relationship. But we have our sisterhood in this, too, and we owe it to other women to support them when they need us, whether the problem is personal or professional. People we love and who allege to love us should love us for who we are, not who they want us to be. And just like in our professional lives, we owe it to ourselves not to settle for less.
And In Second Place…
First Runner Up in our anniversary contest, Lucky Nagarajan is a powerhouse in a tiny package, a true spitfire. She is never without a smile and tackles every new task with a positive attitude. She obtained her Master of Science in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington and since then has been flexing her dirt muscles all over the United States. She currently is Business Development Manager and official Skirt in Dirt for Skyline Steel. If you know her, Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant” (1956) will come to mind as you read this story.
Being in the field was and is still fascinating to me. Just getting up at the crack of dawn and working till the last ray of daylight, safety meetings, no restrictions to working in extreme conditions (well most of the time), working with people of different cultures and personalities, etc. The list can go on and on. Another best part about my field life was that I got to visit some of the remote locations of the country. Everyday posted a new and interesting challenge.
A few years ago, I was in Aberdeen, SD for a project. It was October and winter was starting to kick in. I checked in to the hotel and saw pheasant “bird” pictures, awards, beautiful taxidermy birds and noticed safe hunting posters in the lobby. It was late in the night, I was totally exhausted and cold, so I didn’t feel curious enough to ask about any of this. After “not so good” sleep, I came down to get breakfast bright and early. I see only men in the breakfast area in camouflaged clothing. They all looked up at the same time to see who I am. Not knowing what is happening, I asked the courteous lady who offers me piping hot coffee what’s going on. It happens to be the first day of pheasant hunting in good old Aberdeen. Curiosity got my ear and I started listening to people’s conversations. I got to know successful and not so successful stories about their hunting, challenges of transporting the meat after skinning the animals and so on and so forth. This is like entering an unknown, exciting world of Americans to me. So I finished my breakfast and headed out to the site.
In Aberdeen, once you leave the college town, you don’t see too many people around. Miles and miles of flat farm lands, houses every mile or 2, dogs outside the house just waiting for their owners to let them in the house, horses and cows happy to see daylight and eating away; I am enjoying the rising sun. Winter is beautiful even in this tiny little town.
Finally, with help from my GPS on the phone and borrowed Garmin, I reached the site. There was a crew on site already waiting to start our safety meeting. I saw the truck but no human beings. The farmer at the site had his cattle for grazing out in the open and strong barb wire fence to avoid losing them. I drove up to the manmade fence gate, got out of my car and tried to open it. If you know what I am talking about, these are not like any other fence gate, where you have a latch or have a handle. Mostly, it is a loop of barb wire that is attached to a moving post. You drag this moving post to the stationary post and then throw the barb wire loop onto the stationary post. This loop goes over the stationary post almost 1/3rd of the length of the post itself. Finally, I got it open and drove in. Now, the next thing is to close it so the cows don’t get out.
If you have seen me, you know how tiny I am. This type of fence gate usually needs a good amount of muscle on you to close. I struggled for a few minutes then realized this is definitely not my cup of tea. I walked down to the area where the crew was and shared my dilemma. These guys were somewhat young and huge compared to me. They were surprised to see a female from a different country and someone as tiny as I am. One of them agreed to go over to close the gate.
Without any further delay, we started our safety meeting. First question they asked me was “How old are you?” I was taken aback and not sure what to say. Of course, it made me feel very young and I contemplated if I should really disclose my age to the strangers. I smiled at them and went on with our meeting. I figured out that our roles were independent on this site and they might be done with their task before me. So, before we get to our tasks, I asked them politely to somehow keep the gate open so that I don’t have to battle with it again.
I started getting everything I needed out of the trunk. One of the guys came up to me and said, “So, where do you stand? Boyfriend, engaged, separated or divorced”. I am mortified to answer this question. I am thinking, “Who are you? Should I answer his question?” Then to be polite, I told him, “I am married.” The guy asked, “Happily married?” I was even more confused, but I said yes with a smile! Then the guys asked, “Do you have any sisters?” I burst out laughing. Then I told him that I do have a sister and she is happily married too. The guy gave me a flirty smile and told me I can join him for a drink if I am in mood for after work. I thanked him for the invitation and went on with my work.
They finished their task and sometime when I am not paying attention, left the site. If you have worked in the wind industry, you know sites are not right next to each other. Sites may be few miles apart. I finished my task, packed up everything that was scattered around the test area and started driving towards the entrance. As I was getting close to the fence gate, I realized that the gate was closed.
I started thinking about how to close the gate once I drive out of the site. What do I have in my car that can help me close it? Also, I wondered if I could call someone from the crew to come back and close the gate for me. After our first interaction, I think maybe it’s a good idea. So, I called the guys to know their whereabouts. They were about 20 minutes away which means it will be 20 minutes to drive in to free me and drive back to where they were. I needed another option.
During all this time, what I didn’t notice is that the cattle were gathering around my car to see what was happening. This is not good. If I left the gate even slightly open, that meant they could get out. In the midst of all this, it’s starts to snow and believe me I LOVE snow. However, not this time. I battled with the fence gate and barb wire loop for more than 10 minutes. I got the post close to the opening but I couldn’t pull it enough to throw the barb wire loop on the post. Then, I realized my arms were too short and I had no strength at all. I saw a house a mile or so down the road. I thought about walking up to the house to get some help, but then what if the cattle got out? Not a good idea.
Now, I needed a Plan B. Plan B is to stop any vehicle driving by and ask for help. So, I drove out and parked my car few inches from the gate and stood at the edge of the grassy entrance. I was wearing my fluorescent safety vest and I am positive that everyone could notice me from a mile away. In these parts of the town, people just don’t drive cars that often. You mostly see farmers’ tractors driving 5 miles per hour. Time went by and I don’t know how long I stood there before I saw a tractor down the road. So I was all excited and start jumping up and down, waving at the tractor. The tractor started getting closer and closer and suddenly turned right and faded away. Then time went by and I saw a medium sized car down the road and of course, I got excited again. I was praying for the car not to turn right. The car started getting closer and closer and the driver happened to zoom past without noticing me at all. But I still kept waving at him and realized I need to find another way.
Now I started thinking about Plan C. A few minutes went by and then I heard an engine roaring in the background. I turned around and there was a truck coming my way down the road. What a sight to the eyes. I realized there were a few survey flags in my car. I got them from the trunk and started waving at the truck. The truck slowed down as it got closer and stopped! Hip Hip hooray! I felt the weight off my shoulder. So the guy rolled down the window and looked at me with a blank stare. I noticed them all decked up in camouflaged clothing coming back from their hunting trip. He and his friend/partner in the truck were not sure how to react to the situation. Then I started explaining them how it was so difficult to close the gate and if they would help me close it. The driver got out of the truck and closed the gate for me. I thanked him 5 times before he got back in the truck and drove away. But there was no exchange of pleasantries on his part.
Even today, when I see hunters or people in camouflaged clothing, a smile creeps up on my face and I thank them in my mind for stopping to help a stranger.
My Favorite Things
Early summer brings many of my favorite things. I get to visit the local nursery and spend way too much money on every annual flower that catches my eye. Lunches, dinners, cocktails, brunches, and even afternoon coffee take place outside on patios, piazzas, decks, and sidewalks. And sundresses and espadrilles are parts of a daily uniform.
But one of my absolute favorite early summer occurrences is the annual emergence of young, eager new male construction workers on all my jobsites. Wait – did I just say male workers? Is this going to be the start of a new, lecherous, politically incorrect phase in the life of Underpinnings? As interesting as that sounds (and lucrative), alas, the truth is much simpler and more wholesome.
Every year, young men everywhere graduate from high school and follow their fathers and uncles and grandfathers and mothers along a natural path into a wide variety of construction trades. These guys usually, if not always, are amazing examples of self-confidence and enthusiasm. They volunteer for every task. They say, “I can do that” with unabashed ease. They take pride in outlifting and outdigging and outworking everyone around them. And they eat everything in sight, constantly talking about and thinking about food.
(There might be some girls who enter the construction field when they graduate from high school, but I haven’t run into them on my jobsites. And I would bet that those few that are out there, somewhere, don’t have the ten-feet-tall-and-bulletproof attitude of their male counterparts).
Of course they have their obstacles. The older guys hide their tools. The jaded, experienced workers scoff at their swagger and interject a thousand cynical retorts for every ambitious proclamation. And the young guys’ inexperience and hubris often trips them up as they try to climb to the top in 20 seconds.
Regardless of their faults, I love these guys. I am in awe of their complete lack of angst. They don’t worry about letting anyone down. They don’t agonize about whether or not they can handle their jobs. They don’t overanalyze every co-worker’s words to determine if anyone is secretly disappointed in their performances or upset with them. And I think it goes without saying that any sane person would envy the ability to down three sausage egg biscuits and be hungry 30 minutes later.
Conversely, I have noticed that most women, when entering a new position or moving up into a new role, proceed at a much more cautious pace. We worry that we’re not smart enough or efficient enough or resourceful enough to do our jobs. The normally low buzz of panic and self-doubt that is the background music in our brains swells to a roar of incessant trepidation. Instead of being thrilled to have a new opportunity, we’re scared. We don’t need obstacles to crop up; we imagine them and spend all of our time dodging their looming specters in our brains.
The role of biology might have a partial role in this gender difference, particularly for women who are in male-dominated fields. We have the responsibility to nurture and protect our offspring, so we have to be a little less damn-the-torpedoes in our approach to life. We also have to be careful in a world where we’re typically smaller and weaker than the opposite sex.
My older brother would say that this natural caution is not natural at all, because he believes that there is no nature in the nature versus nurture debate, only nurture. His theory is that men and women would behave exactly the same if they were treated identically from birth. I don’t agree with him, but many people do. I believe that biology is part of the equation, but social development contributes as well. And maybe that’s where we can advance. A little bit of evolution in how we raise our daughters could produce a little less angst and a little more “I can do that!” We can do so many great things when we think about our jobs in terms of opportunity rather than potential failure.
My best friend (we’ll call her Environmental Girl, or EG for short) is a great example of how far a woman can go when she doesn’t hold herself back. A number of years ago, her company successfully bid on an environmental remediation project at an abandoned army airfield on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean populated only by endangered birds. (The blue footed booby frequently holds raves on the airstrip). The project would last several months, and the crew would travel to the island and stay there for the duration. No TV or radio, and hot coffee only when there was enough generator time available. EG said, “I want to go!”
This might seem bold, but it was particularly fearless given that her youngest daughter would be only 5 months old when the project would start. What??????
Many, many people said she was crazy. Her mother told her she was going straight to hell and she would need any profit from the job to pay for her infant daughter’s inevitable astronomical therapy costs when she got older. Female colleagues expressed shock and ran home to embrace their kids. But besides the fact that EG’s husband was a completely capable caregiver, as were her other 142 kids who all lived at home, the project only spanned a short time period. And it was a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! So she said yes, and she went. Damn more than the torpedoes – damn the whole fleet.
The experience was phenomenal, and EG learned things about herself she never would have otherwise. I am pleased to report that the endangered infant has grown into a daring chip off the adventurous old block, and she might be inclined to take on a project in the middle of the Pacific or take a position as chief of staff for the president of an international company and never doubt herself. When we doubt ourselves and hesitate to take chances and always put ourselves last, we teach our daughters to do the same. When we go after what we want and trust ourselves to be enough, we increase the chances that they will succeed.
Not every situation warrants a fearless attitude. Caution has its place. But self-confidence shouldn’t be an unknown quantity to women in the work world. We shouldn’t spend our time worrying about what we might do wrong, we should envision how high we can fly. Repeat after me – I can do that!