What’s on Your List?
Last month I was on a jobsite, talking to a guy about the sad fact that most TV shows and movies had stopped production because of the pandemic. We reminisced about some of the big movies that were released last year, and then he said it. “I was so disappointed in the last Star Wars movie.” Ugh.
If you’ve been in this space for more than 13 seconds, you know that I loved that movie. So, I knew I was being masochistic, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Why didn’t you like it?” I should have spared myself the agony.
He proceeded to tell me that he resented the fact that “they threw in some people just for diversity’s sake,” and that the main character, Rey, was “just too….well, she should’ve been more like Natalie Portman when she was in the Star Wars movies. Pretty, not trying to act like a guy.” He went on to say it should have been more like the movies from the 70s and 80s. Give me bonus points – I didn’t punch him, and I gave him a polite smile. If you know me, you would have recognized the smile as the kind I give Kentucky fans when I’m thinking of running them over while they’re walking in front of my car.
Here’s the really sad fact about this conversation: I had heard the same opinion from two other guys. One was someone I knew, and one was a movie critic.
Can we discuss the absurdity of complaining about diversity when the original movies that were supposedly the ideal specimens for these guys were peopled heavily with, well…not people. Giant hairy Wookies, cute cuddly Ewoks, not to mention entire bars full of things I can’t even name. Admiral Ackbar had flippers and whiskers, for heaven’s sake. But throw in a few people of color and whoa! We’ve just gone crazy and gotten unrealistic.
Criticism of Rey stems from the fact that she battles her inner demons and saves the world like the man typically does in most movies. I don’t mean just Star Wars movies. I mean all movies. Even though Princess Leia had power in the original movies, she had a pure moral center, and her brother got all of the angsty hero screen time. She was a good girl and she wore a dress.
The truly revealing aspect of the criticism I heard was that the three guys who made the negative statements all had similar characteristics. All three are mid to late 30s, white, and of middle class backgrounds. I believe these similarities explain a lot about their viewpoints.
Most people equate safety and security with how conditions were when they were young. People routinely believe that the world is a scarier place now than “before,” but the truth is that it’s scary now because they’re now old enough to be aware of all of the dangers in the world. And they’re now in charge of at least part of how safe the world is – their families, their belongings, whatever. Most people subconsciously see change as unstable. Ironically, the only thing that is constant in the world is change, so people fix a certain point in time as their benchmark and see everything from that point forward as different and possibly dangerous or unstable. Star Wars of their youth reflected how the world was at the time.
Add to this perspective the fact that men, particularly men who have grown up white in the United States, have had the benefit of knowing that their wants, needs, and cultural accoutrements constitute the mainstream. They see the concerns and interests of women as secondary. As a boss of mine once said, “Can you imagine if women were in charge? All the newspapers would print would be stories about dresses and babies.” We all know that cultural characteristics of minorities in this country also are treated as ethnic items with narrow audiences. As such, Bob from Columbus would see a shiny red Corvette as something that everyone should want, but he would view a tricked out El Dorado with rims and ground effects lighting as something tacky that “those people” would have to cruise around the projects.
So the guys with the Star Wars criticism were viewing the elements of the movie as not just change in Star Wars land, but changes in their own world. And those changes might be scary. What if the interests and needs of men, mainly white men, were no longer considered above everyone else? What might happen to the world???
I say this in a rather harsh manner, but I actually have a lot of friends and loved ones who are men, including a lot of white men. (If we’re talking about my family, really really white men. Almost translucent). They are good people and not necessarily racist or sexist or horrible trash. At least not knowingly. I think this worry about change reflects the same worry most people have when faced with a different world than the one where they were comfortable, where they knew their place. These guys just happen to be sitting in the catbird seat, and they see it slipping away.
I am sympathetic to the guys who don’t realize that their preference for “the right way” is actually just a preference for comfort and control. We all want that, right? On the other hand, I started thinking about what the world would be like if the preferences of men did not dictate the ways of society, and the world could be like it is when I’m comfortable and happy. WAIT A MINUTE – THIS COULD BE GOOD. There are some things that I just get completely sick of that are the province of men, and some that are mostly popular because of white men. Could we get rid of them if we all get equality? Okay, not get rid of them, but push them into the region of small cultural niches where many of my likes currently reside? The thought was delightful. I started a list.
I had a lot of fun making my list, and I’ll share it with you. Keep in mind – this is MY list. Don’t contact me and tell me that you actually like #6, and you’re a woman. Or don’t call to tell me that men of color like most of the things on the list. This is my fantasy list in my fantasy world where Manolo Blahniks get more attention than golf clubs. In my world, there would be less fascination with marching around the world killing other people and more interest in dance-offs. You might envision a world in which there weren’t “restaurants” with burgers made of fillers on every block and instead people could get arroz con pollo on every street corner. You might wish that movies weren’t made where obnoxious, out of shape guys get the gorgeous girls and instead the curvy girl with blue-black skin and Bantu knots has her choice of all the hot guys. I suggest you make your own list. Mine made me really happy.
So I’ll share it with you. Here are all of the things I would strike down to niche status just because I don’t like them, and I get sick of them dominating our world. That’s how society should be, right? Whoever is in charge gets all the marbles? Add whatever you like.
- War movies
- Khakis with pleats
- The air guitar skills of anyone over the age of 16
- Polo shirts
- Mullets (No, they’re not gone. I worked with a guy sporting a 1985 classic last week).
- Books about Civil War battles (and Civil war weapons and that weird ironclad Civil War submarine)
- Golf pants
- Four wheelers
- Speed boats
- The Three Stooges
- The University of Kentucky
- Excessive lawn maintenance
- White socks with dark sandals
- Homebuilders who wear khaki Bermuda shorts and never get dirty and just talk on their cell phones all day and knock off early (okay, very specific, but like locusts)
- Grilling out as an art form (It’s a flame and some meat. You’re not a genius).
- Preaching about vehicle maintenance
(Note: This list was made in fun. If you think I hate men or I’m anti-white men, you don’t know me, and you didn’t get it. I’m running for President in 2024 on a platform of increased funding for good quality riding boots and an emphasis on floral education).
love it! this was so “on point”! coming from minority background, i have seen “white men” being very confused when…
He sounds like he’s on the right track – we trust you to keep him there!
My son told me he likes Rey because “she reminds me of you, mom!”, so there is hope for the…
Well done! So snappy and upbeat. I’m proud to know a few awesome geotechs in the video!
Love it! I’m hearing lots of great feedback!
Anger We Know, Pain We Don’t
A few years ago, a friend talked me into online dating. I successfully had resisted getting sucked into this activity for a long time, not because I disapprove or think it doesn’t work, but because it is in direct opposition to what I need and want from a relationship. I hate being close-minded, though, so I caved.
The next month would have been comical if I didn’t have so little free time. There was the guy who admitted he had no friends and spent most of his time hating his ex. There was the guy who thought it would be “chill” to “hang” with me with his buddies because I knew the difference between a first down and a safety. There was also the guy who proposed on the second date and texted me for over eight months despite the fact that I never responded to a single message after telling him that I wasn’t the face inside a heart outline on the Hallmark card of his life.
I stopped responding to any of the would-be suitors, (particularly the guy who collected spiders), but was too busy to go through the arduous process of shutting down the account. One exhausting day, I was cleaning out the collection of e-mails I had gotten over the last week or so from the dating site, and one message caught my eye. The guy in the photo had a captain’s hat perched on his head at an angle. Sure enough, his profile identified him as living in a run-down area on the other side of the river where a motley collection of not-even-close-to-yachts were docked. His message read, “Hey – what are you doing tonight? Are you up to something or are you just sitting around bored with nothing to do? I can fix that.”
I was incensed. Not just repelled by someone to whom I wasn’t attracted, but furious in a way that was way out of proportion to a stupid little dating request. I’m not in the habit of looking down on people, even when it’s someone who is beyond not my type. And it wasn’t the first time a guy I didn’t particularly care about asked me out, because I’m old and I’ve met a lot of guys over the years.
My anger was deep and volatile, and it manifested itself into an outrage that even I wasn’t expecting. It wasn’t just the fact that I’ve never been bored in my life, and his invitation suggested I was uninteresting and couldn’t come up with something to do. My visceral and sustained reaction came from the fact that he assumed that because I was a woman, I needed him to get something done, even if that something was just having fun. My poor little life was incomplete and boring, but he, (a man), could fix that just because he was a man.
I was angry at this man for the same reason I’ve bristled every time an old guy on a jobsite was just sure that I wasn’t maintaining my vehicle properly just because I was female. “I’ll bet you don’t remember the last time you got your oil changed.” It should have been funny. Instead, the top of my head blew off, and I had to walk away. Every time.
I was angry at this man for the same reason I still can’t look at a certain neighbor who came into my front yard one day and tried to tell me how I should take care of drainage on my property. “I know you’re an engineer, but…” This man knows nothing about drainage, but in his mind he knows more than me because he’s a man. I couldn’t possibly handle my property if he weren’t there to give me his wisdom because I’m a woman and I live alone.
As much as I make light of this at cocktail parties and laugh at outrageous stories, I hate the feeling of being dismissed. I hate being underestimated. I hate knowing that a large sector of the population automatically thinks the list of things I can’t do is extensive and that my fluffy little brain is too flighty and delicate to understand the importance of tire pressure and transmission fluid.
I’ve thought a lot about my anger during the past few weeks. As much progress as women have made in the past 20 years, the guys in the jaunty captains’ hats are still out there. But as infuriating as it is to feel dismissed, no one has ever looked at me negatively because they thought I was dangerous. No one has ever decided that my presence could be detrimental to the moral and economic fiber of a community. I may have been asked in the past what man was going to guarantee my mortgage, but no one has ever eliminated me from consideration for living somewhere because I was undesirable.
There is a difference between being dismissed and being pushed out. Black Americans know all too well what it feels like to be pushed out. Despite my own anger, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be actively distrusted and treated as a hazard, a danger to “good people.” My life has never been in danger just because of how I look. I may be frustrated, but there is little chance I will be physically harmed just for showing up. I know what it is to be overlooked and underestimated, but I don’t know the heartbreak of being hated every day for how I was born. Black men are killed because small-minded people believe that their sad little lives will be more secure if they can direct their anger and frustrations at a physical target who history has shown society won’t defend. Tragically, black women are burdened with racist hatred AND every woman’s handicap of being dismissed. As exhausted as I often become when dealing with sexism, I do not know how black women get out of bed every day with such enormous weight on their shoulders. If I am furious, their anger must be enormous.
When I was running cross country in high school, one of my teammates and I were out training on the road one day. She happened to be black. A pickup truck suddenly screeched to a stop in front of us, and we were pelted with rocks and rotten fruit. The truck sped away as the driver screamed ugly names at us and the passenger unfurled a Confederate flag with the KKK logo in the middle.
I was livid, and my dad was even angrier when I got home that night. “You two need to run in the exact same place tomorrow to show them that their racism won’t win,” he said. We did. The Klan members didn’t show up again, and we celebrated what we thought of as a victory.
What I didn’t consider at the time was the fact that my friend might not have gotten off so easily if she hadn’t been with a white girl. That rebellious inclination to get right back out there might have been possible because there was a much lower chance that something serious would happen to me. The difference between a serious attack and some drama during our run was my white privilege. The difference between me deciding to go “make a stand” and being a person who has known to be careful her whole life for fear of actually being injured was my white privilege. I knew I had an advantage then, because my parents were anti-racists, even when such a thing was scarce. But it has taken a lot of mileage for me to truly understand the head start I was given in life just by being white. It’s not fair, and it’s an advantage no one should have.
Here at Underpinnings, the pursuit of equal treatment for women is just one branch of our overall quest for equal treatment for everyone. To seek equality just in terms of gender would be ludicrous for a person who truly believes in a fair and just society. As with any project, the first step is to determine the most imminent danger and address it accordingly. People being demeaned, degraded, and marginalized is an important problem. People being killed is a critical problem. I’m trying to do everything I can to take action where the problem is critical and do more internal evaluation where the situation is more subtle. I will never be black, so I will never fully understand the experience of being the subject of hate just because my skin is dark. But I do know what it feels like to be dismissed and overlooked just because of the way I was born, and I don’t like it. I don’t want anyone to feel this way or worse, and I think now is not the time to be divided by our supposed weaknesses but to be united by them. This is an ugly, complicated, messy problem, but that just means we have to work harder to fix it.
We Need a Little Happy
Oh. My. Heavens. Is the world trying to put us in a bad mood? Have you had a few dark weeks lately? Apparently the coronavirus is going to kill us all, and even if it doesn’t the news media is going to scare us into canceling all events and not leaving our homes for weeks. (As tempting as that seems…) And the elections are just a bit much. Every time you turn on the news or click on a story, people are yelling. They’re yelling at each other, they’re yelling at crowds, they’re yelling at us. Could someone please tell the candidates that every event is not a pep rally? Seriously – I will vote for the first person who simply speaks in his/her inside voice for two straight days.
(Update: This post was written and scheduled before the public health crisis grew to its current proportions. The mandates to stay home are warranted, and no parade or basketball tournament is worth losing the life of someone you love).
So, as you’re sitting on that tiny plane next to a coughing man who’s wearing a Straight Outta Wuhan T-shirt and the inflight video is a replay of the Democratic debates, I thought perhaps we all could use some happiness. I promise not to yell.
In the geo-related business, we all have an everyday awareness of geologic time. Geologic time is that great ruler by which we express how insignificant many things are. If geologic time were a day, people would have existed only in the last second – you’ve heard this sort of analogy, right? We talk to clients about the fact that this “new” sinkhole has been developing for millions of years. We tell our kids things like, “You think I’m old? Let me go out to my truck and get you some samples of Devonian shale. Now that’s old!” We are nerds, and it puts things into perspective when we think about how long the materials we’re exploring have been around.
I would like to use a similar relationship to tell you all why we should be celebrating today. Bear with me.
People(ish) appeared on this planet about 5 million years ago, give or take a few million years. Homo sapiens evolved over 50,000 years ago. According to the most recent calculations of people who do that sort of thing, our current population is approximately 7% of all the people who have ever lived. So about 94 billion people lived before us. If 51% of those people were women, that means almost 48 billion women came before us. Using some completely sketchy and non-anthropological assumptions, we’re going to estimate that at least 90% of those women lived in a patriarchal society, because women are smaller than men and brute force ruled the day. So 43.2 billion women lived before us in male-dominated environments. I think you would be safe to say that of the 3.8 billion women living on Earth today, at least 30% of them still live in completely oppressive conditions. So in summary, (which is likely several decimal places off), the women in today’s progressive cultures represent only about 6% of all the women who have ever lived.
We spend a lot of time talking about the problems that still face us in our male-dominated workplaces, but, seriously – 6%!!! Of all of the women who have ever lived, 94% of them had it a LOT worse than we do. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t vote. They could be raped or beaten, and it didn’t have legal consequences. If they were raped before they got married, their futures were ruined through no fault of their own. They were traded for power and disregarded. They had no legal worth.
But we do!!! We can vote. We have jobs that we want. We can own our own houses. If we are attacked or even sexually harassed, we are able to press charges and seek damages and justice. We can decide not to have children and we won’t be at risk for being tossed out into the streets as worthless. We can have credit cards and stock portfolios and bank accounts, and no man has to oversee all of this.
Can we take a minute to celebrate this? Yes, things might be much better in the future, but they were much much worse for a good portion of a past that is much longer than our short memories. And WE get to be here for it. Our grandmothers couldn’t open their own credit cards, but we’re allowed to charge enough shoes to max out our credit limits. And we don’t have to have anyone else around to monitor our spending habits. Our great grandmothers could lose their houses if their husbands died, but we can live out our days lounging on our fabulous wrought iron furniture in our fabulous parterre gardens next to our fabulous country houses bought from our earnings from our fabulous jobs.
We need some happiness right now, so I want to initiate a little campaign to honor what we have. I am proposing that we all do the following (choose all that apply):
1- Charge something (because you can). It doesn’t have to be from the spring line of Manolo Blahnik, although we’ll all bow down to you if it is. You can buy $3 lip balm to give to your preteen daughter. Or you can buy a copy of Garden and Gun magazine to enjoy with your morning coffee.
2- Sit for 10 minutes and study the platforms of the presidential candidates, because you get to VOTE! You may end up doing a write-in for Sarah Jessica Parker so that we get Universal Footwear, but you can still honor the fact that you get to be part of the process.
3- Take a photo of part of your house or apartment or condo to commemorate the fact that it is legal for you to rent or own property.
4- Take a photo of your office or save a business card to memorialize the fact that you were able to have the job you wanted. You might hate your current boss, and there’s a possibility that you’re going to poison all of your co-workers during the next lunch-and-learn, but there’s no law that says a woman can’t be a insert your job here. There’s also no law that says that you can’t leave this job and get another one. In fact, you can change your profession completely if you want.
For each of these items, I want you to do them in honor of a female ancestor or ancestors who didn’t have these rights. We all have these ancestors. My great-grandmother Evelyn, my great-grandmother Margaret, my great-aunt Freda…the list goes on. I have it better than all of them, and I don’t appreciate it enough.
A moment of silence and a smile will be enough to commemorate these moments. If you’re into social media, put up a post with #notonestepback*. (Feel free to tag me on Instagram – @peggyhagertyduffy. You can also tag me or Helen on Facebook). That’s the order Joseph Stalin gave his troops in 1942 when the Russians were being invaded by German soldiers. We need to hold the same hard line. Now is the time to be happy about what we have, because there are plenty of dark forces trying to bring the world down. We’re stronger than that. We’re going to honor what it took to get here, and we’re not going back.
*Note – For you diehard history people, use of this slogan does not mean we’re going to execute retreating troops. No one will be shot. We just liked the decisive spirit of the order.
A few weeks ago, I came across this blog post (click to follow the link) and my response was a resounding “Yes!” Yes to the idea that we should be happy with accomplishments first for ourselves. Yes to less looking to others for affirmation. In my mind, the post was all about stopping ourselves from constantly asking, “Was that good enough? Did I do what I was supposed to do? Was that enough to prove my worth?”
So, I wrote a post about this for Underpinnings, and I sent it to Helen for her expert editorial review. She responded with, “Can we talk about this?” I speak fluent Helen, so I said, “So, you hated it.” This led to an animated discussion that revealed that I had not done a good job expressing myself. I hadn’t really said what I wanted to say, and I realized that some of my poor communication stemmed from the fact that I had not fully worked out how I felt about this issue. Was I objecting to praise? No, not really. I did feel like that often praise for women in our field has a bit of a well-that’s-great-no-one-expected-you-to-do-well-because-you’re-a-girl feel to it. But that wasn’t really the crux of it. Of course I believe in praise – just ask my stepdaughter. She used to say, “I know, I appreciate it, but you always think we can do anything well.” So why did this pitch for looking for your own praise first resonate with me so strongly?
As I was trying to figure this out (in order to write a post that actually made sense), I got a phone call saying that a young relative very close to me had tried to commit suicide. A phone call like this never makes sense. How could it? How could a young teenager have experienced enough to decide that nothing here would make it worthwhile to stick around? This is an individual with friends and hobbies who is consistently at the top of her class. How does this compute? It doesn’t. And sadly, as I bawled to my always-supportive friends, many told me that they knew of other young women in the same age bracket right now who were battling depression and anxiety. No coronavirus can be held accountable for this epidemic, and the casualties are certainly much higher. How did we get here?
My original rumination on the nature of our need for praise seems to have some place in this discussion. Until a hundred years or so ago, the everyday tasks and responsibilities of most women did not involve opportunities for praise. Beyond accolades for a well-cooked dinner (if they were lucky) or congratulations on birthing a strong child (without dying in the process), women were relegated to the world of servitude, and servants don’t get praise. A good servant is someone who follows the rules and doesn’t get reprimanded. Actually, for most of the world’s population, men included, daily life was too full of tasks necessary just to survive to get much praise. “Nice job keeping us alive through the winter,” probably wasn’t a compliment doled out too frequently, even if it was valid.
As the business of staying alive through modern conveniences allowed people to engage in pursuits where praise might be more appropriate on a regular basis, women still were stuck in a narrow aisle of domestic pursuits. But the modern conveniences gave them the opportunity to excel, not just survive. The many “women’s magazines” that arose during the twentieth century attested to the fact that women were striving for some sort of achievement. Here’s a fabulous Jell-O mold – did I do that well? Look how clean my kids’ clothes are – am I a great mom? Here’s a cocktail I invented for my husband for the end of his workday – am I smart? Even though women were making advances in equality, they did it within the framework of proving their worth. They had to. Because the law had said for hundreds of years that they didn’t have any worth. So they were going to prove themselves within the categories they were allowed to inhabit. The women striving for achievement outside the sanctioned areas were considered to be dangerous influences and reckless rebels.
The problem with the structure of affirmation was that the implications of many preceding years was built into the approvals. You can be commended for having well-behaved children who wear perfectly ironed clothes because it means you’re staying in your lane. The stronger the praise given, the more other women would want to strive for the same goals. So the system reinforced the original scheme of oppression while seemingly giving women more opportunities to succeed.
And we bought into it. In our enthusiasm for being betterstrongerfaster, we devoured the magazines and videos telling us how to be prettier, how to get thinner, how to do better in school, how to have a more fabulously decorated house. We got competitive within the lane we had been given without realizing we were reinforcing the outside lines.
In the past 40 years, more and more women have decided that the lanes are too narrow. We have widened our selection of acceptable careers and we have tried to normalize workplaces that are equal. We’ve even been able to change the accepted standards of beauty that were unrealistic and discriminatory towards all women except four or five anomalous girls who were blessed with freakishly fantastic genes. But we have not been able to shake our drive to prove ourselves. We’re still looking for an atta girl, a confirmation that we did a good job and we deserve to be….wherever we are. Why? Men obviously don’t do this. Have you visited the Men’s Interest magazine section in your local bookstore? The headlines imply, “You’re already crushing it – here’s a way to have an even better time while you’re conquering the world.”
I’m afraid we have successfully changed the professional landscape for women everywhere without addressing the entrenched social expectations and behavioral patterns that have been drilled into females for thousands of years. I refuse to believe that the current rash of depressed teenagers is solely a product of social media. That’s an answer that’s too easy. Yes, social media creates a whole mess of complications when dealing with the normal horror show that is adolescence for most people. But we have to address the foundation we are providing for kids, particularly girls, who are living in a world that is vastly different for their gender than it was 100 years ago. How do we break out of this infinite loop of quest for achievement and praise to define worth? How do we let girls know that success does not come from being a blue-ribbon rule follower, because many of the rules are sexist crap? How do we turn all of our progress over the past century into real opportunity rather than just a wider array of roles in which we wear ourselves out saying, “Was that good? Am I good enough?” It’s 2020 – our girls should not be chained to the same debilitating expectations that have limited the women before us.
Inspiration is a Great Gift Idea
I count the last part of 2019 as a time in which we received a bounty of gifts to renew our hope in making the workplace equal for men and women. I’m not talking about anything related to #MeToo or TimesUp. These gifts were outstanding women setting fabulous examples for the rest of us. Did you notice? If not, allow me to elaborate.
In mid-November, I got into my car one day and turned on the radio. If I had known the impeachment hearings were being broadcast live, I probably would have switched to the classical music station. I hate to admit that, because I’m constantly torn, feeling like I have a responsibility as a citizen to know what’s going on. But – ugh. Just ugh. The unending bickering between self-absorbed people who are only interested in keeping their own jobs is just exhausting. If these narcissistic politicians who dominate the microphones actually cared about the country, the situation would be completely different, but here we are.
So, I flipped on the radio and was immediately met with the carefully modulated tones of Marie Yovanovitch. The former Ambassador to Ukraine and longtime Foreign Service member was in the middle of her opening remarks, and I was mesmerized. She articulately described her long work history, a resume that included multiple incidents where she had to flee a location under gunfire. Her words and demeanor made it clear that she was a consummate professional and that she did what she did because she believes in our country. Her commitment to protecting and advancing the U.S. through sound foreign policy was obvious.
As members of Congress began to question Dr. Yovanovitch, the subject of her dismissal from her diplomatic position by the President of the U.S. arose. Multiple persons brought up the fact that the President said negative things about her to representatives of other countries, and he had put out ugly tweets about her during the hearings. She went to respond to this subject – the subject of the abrupt end of her sterling career – and I heard her voice start to waver. As she became obviously emotional, I instantly yelled, “Nonononono!” at the radio. You CAN’T get emotional when you’re confronted if you’re a woman. We all know that, don’t we? They’ll use it against you, whomever they happen to be. Don’t show that you care. Never show weakness.
But Dr. Yovanovitch went on in the same manner, and the effects were simply, unexpectedly wonderful. Most of the hearing participants already were blatantly hesitant to say anything negative to someone with such an admirable background. Her display of emotion just brought it home. Instead of going in for the kill, the questioners appeared to realize just how tragic the situation was and how much Dr. Yovanovitch had given for the country they were supposedly trying to save with their hearings and fighting and grandstanding. Her emotion was absolutely appropriate and served to prove the depth of the commitment she had already described.
I learned something in that moment. Yes, we still have to be careful about making sure ignorant men in the workplace don’t perceive us as “emotional.” But we can’t let that keep us from expressing true emotions, particularly when they are well-placed and help people to understand our positions and beliefs. Through her example, Dr. Yovanovitch proved something to the women of this country – you don’t have to hide your emotions and pretend like you don’t care to be taken seriously.
A few days after Marie Yovanovitch testified, I again unwittingly turned on the radio during the impeachment hearings. This time, former National Security Council member Fiona Hill gripped my attention from her first sentence. She was in the process of clarifying that, in case anyone was still misunderstanding, Ukraine did not interfere with the 2016 election, Russia did. She didn’t hedge her statements or keep them general enough to cover potential gray areas. In effect, she said, “Look, you idiots. Russia interfered in our election in 2016 and they are on track to do it again in 2020. This is not in question, and if you don’t get your heads out of your asses you’ll pay the price.” It was FABULOUS. She did not care if someone thought she sounded “too masculine” or if she might be perceived as a bitch. She had plenty of experience to know what she was doing, and she had the data to back up her beliefs. She was doing her job. Let me repeat that – she was doing her job. The strength of her convictions and her own knowledge were sufficient weapons to let her do what she needed to do without worrying about what anyone thought about her delivery or her qualifications. As someone I know said, “That woman is a badass.”
As the questioning continued, Dr. Hill did something that gave me a chill. She addressed a situation in which she was wrong. She stated that she was wrong, and she explained why she had drawn erroneous conclusions. She didn’t over-apologize, and she didn’t take the entire blame for everything that had ever happened to the world. She explained and moved on. I was in awe.
Again, I learned something. At some point you have to forget about “leaning in” and “seizing your power” and “being sensitive to others’ preconceptions.” Sometimes you have to just do your job. If you’re doing it right, and your eye is on the task at hand, all of the rest of the socio-political crap will be unimportant. And if you make a mistake, own it, explain it, and move on. Don’t give your detractors more ammunition by making too much of your mistakes.
The last ray of inspiration came in a dark movie theater in December watching “The Rise of Skywalker.” I should mention that I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, and I related to the fact that Princess Leia worked hard every day amidst nothing but a sea of men. No eyebrows were raised in 1977 when she was the only real recognizable female character in a string of three epic movies that included casts of hundreds. What was remarkable then was that the princess was written as a character with power. People listened to her. Even though the men came to rescue her on a couple of occasions, the rescues were necessary because she was in the thick of the battles. She wasn’t carted off as a prize; she was captured and tortured for information because SHE KNEW IMPORTANT THINGS. In the late 70s and early 80s, there weren’t very many female leads that fit this bill, so she was my hero.
On December 19, 2019, I got to watch the latest installment of the series. Like everyone else, I was burdened with the knowledge that Carrie Fisher died before the movie was made. Unlike the early films, the most recent movies have been full of strong female characters, including generals and mercenaries and a woman who could be argued is the new hero of the saga (Rey), so it could be thought that Princess Leia wasn’t so important anymore. But she started all this, and her place in the story felt personal. It has been widely publicized that the movie producers were able to use old footage of Carrie Fisher to keep her character in the movie, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that I felt something of a triumph when she came onscreen to give orders or to advise Rey. As the movie unfolded, I’ll admit that I was a bit choked up and mentally said to Princess Leia, “We did it. Look how different everything is now. And it wouldn’t be if you and I and a bunch of other hard-headed women hadn’t worn ourselves out making sure all these other women could be here.” Although I did nothing to defeat the First Order, I still felt a small victory. Little girls watching the movie now don’t have to think that a male-only work world is normal.
Now 2020 has started, and I feel like we have some positive momentum. I’m looking for more sources of inspiration and hope and progress, and I hope you are, too. Let us know if you have seen a ray of light that we’ve missed. We all need the sunshine to thrive.
(Note: If you did not hear or see any of the testimony of Dr. Yovanovitch or Dr. Hill, I recommend you watch some of the coverage. Both women were rock stars. And I strongly recommend that you watch Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, if you haven’t already. Skip Episodes 1-3 of the series, as they are overcomplicated, convoluted messes that do not contribute to the narrative).
A Victory for All
Did you watch? Did you cheer? Did you cry every time they showed a commercial with a young girl with a hopeful expression?
I realize that not all of our Underpinnings community may have been interested in the recent victory by the United States team in the FIFA World Cup, but we all should be. In fact, the victory by the United States isn’t the only significant takeaway from this soccer tournament. (Sorry fans from the rest of the world – in my land, football involves helmets and tailgating and the use of hands). The attention paid to all the teams and the tournament in general is a victory.
Until recent years, women’s sports were only of universal interest when there was some item of appeal other than just the female athletes’ performances. Dorothy Hamill’s haircut, Florence Griffith-Joyner’s one-legged running suits, Misty May-Treanor’s uniform – all of these elements were used as additional allure to help get people to cheer for women’s sports. Today, Serena Williams still gets more press for giving Meghan Markle a baby shower than for her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. In most cases, television networks and venue owners and, let’s be honest, most ordinary citizens in the past didn’t believe that women’s sports were exciting or interesting because women weren’t considered to be elite athletes. Instead, the average bear looked at women in sports along the lines of “Isn’t that cute?” It was the same attitude by which most parents view their first graders’ pursuit of local championships. It’s cute that they’re trying, isn’t it? If you are over 30 and you think everyone you know took you seriously as an athlete, you’re sadly deluded. You and your teammates were serious, of course. Your family? Yes. Your school? Probably a lot of them did. The guy who owns the local hardware store? Insert chuckle here.
I give you this jaded, cynical perspective as someone who can attest to it from the front lines. I was on the volleyball team, the softball team, the cheerleading squad, and the tennis team in grade school, and the cross country and track teams in grade school, high school, and college. I played Little League baseball right after the Supreme Court decided that girls had to be allowed to play. I also was in a bunch of other activities, like newspaper, Pep Club, French Club, student government, ASCE, Tau Beta Pi, etc., so I could see the contrast between sports and other areas. (Yes, I “overscheduled” myself, but I had a deep, abject fear of being called lazy. I have no idea why, and it certainly was not the fault of my very supportive parents, but there you have it. My efforts often suffered from a quantity over quality issue).
This is not to say that I experienced full equity in every other activity, but I did hear the same statement made repeatedly about sports – “Okay, maybe women are equal to men mentally, but you have to admit that men are stronger and faster, so women will never be able to compete with men in sports.” This assumes that all sports depend solely on speed and strength. The foregone conclusion then was that women’s sports weren’t worth watching because we are inferior athletes. (It should be noted that strength is defined here solely as the ability to lift the heaviest weights. As is demonstrated by concrete, one definition of strength does not mean that the material is “strongest”).
Many guys I have known have treated sports almost as if they are the last bastions of men’s superiority to women. They reluctantly support our forays into “their” worlds – banking, medicine, construction – and fall back on what they think is a sure-fired argument, that being that women will never be equal to men in what they see as physical prowess. Once again, their perspective is too general and transparently desperate.
In high school, a coach for a rival cross-country team was generous with his excellent coaching advice, often giving pointers to those of us not on his team. We were a tight community and he was well-regarded, so no one objected. In addition, one of the girls on his team and I looked a lot alike, and our people routinely mistook us for each other, so I became friends with most of the girls on their team.
After one meet, I made a passing comment to this coach that I wished I could have finished the race as strongly as my doppelganger, a girl named Jenny. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “You know, she had a lot of trouble at the beginning of the year because she started looking like her mama. We worked on changing her strength training to adjust to her new body. It’s helped a lot. You ladies have to remember that you shouldn’t necessarily train the same way the boys do. You’re not less, you’re just different.” I was so taken aback that I stood there with my mouth open. Luckily, he was a good man and gave me some encouraging words before he moved on.
What Coach was saying was that the girl in question had just developed a bunch of curves and grown 3 inches. The same thing had happened to the defending State Champion the year before, and she finished 25th in State in her “new” body.
This was the first time anyone spoke to me about my physical characteristics as a female as if they were part of a different athletic machine instead of an inferior one. I had a lot of good coaches, but most of them existed within the limited framework society presented for women’s sports. We worked hard, we did what we could, but we didn’t get the same analysis and encouragement to push our limits like the guys did.
The world is a much better place for female athletes today, but many people still hold onto the same prejudices, regardless of what they say or how many daughters they have in soccer leagues. How many times have you heard a guy say, “Some of those women athletes don’t even look like women,” or “Some of those girls need to watch what they say in their interviews,” or “The women’s games are fun, but they’re not real (fill in sport here) like the men play.” These statements show that a lot of people still expect women to do what women are supposed to do – look pretty and behave. We can do whatever we want as long as we strive to achieve those things and don’t try to barge into the men’s domain of physical prowess.
This World Cup team, and many people (at least in the U.S. audience), have ignored that attitude. Commercials during the games have shown women inspiring girls to be…whatever they want. We’ve had fabulous highlight reels and packed watch parties. The festivities have not been afflicted by the condescending, patronizing air that in the past has plagued coverage of women’s sports. This is sports. Period. Somewhere Bubba is out fishing with his friends and complaining that those “ugly manly women trying to play soccer shouldn’t be on TV,” but his opinion wouldn’t be a popular one at most watering holes this week.
And the effects reach beyond the field. During this World Cup, the issue came up that the U.S. Women have performed (repeatedly) better than the U.S. men, but they are paid a fraction of what the men are paid. The revelation caused quite an uproar, leading to yet another discussion of gender equity in yet another arena. (Equal pay! Equal pay!) Even if you aren’t into sports, you owe this team a thank you for bringing the case for equity to a very visible, very popular format. Don’t rail about how “more important” professions should have been given attention before this, and people in sports don’t do “real work.” Say thank you for the shot in the arm and for putting the spotlight on pay equity to an audience of millions.
The important lesson from the success of the World Cup team as it pertains to our struggles as women goes back to the words of my rival coach. People can say that men are faster or stronger or don’t have to worry about breastfeeding their newborns while overseeing installation of a slurry cutoff wall. That just means we’re different. Not less, just different. The world is a better place when everyone recognizes this.
Are These Our Only Two Choices?
No doubt you have taken part in at least one discussion, if not endless discourse, on the cultural rift we have today between our Millennial generation and the rest of the world in the working environment. Trust me when I say I understand why this division exists, because I have analyzed and investigated and listened until I can’t stand to hear the phrase “work-life balance” one more time. I get it, and I understand it. Whether or not I agree with many of the current recommendations for coping with it is a minefield for another time.
Pertinent to our exploration of perfection here at Underpinnings is a thread that runs through most examinations of why Millennials act the way they do – the idea that we, the parent generation, are at fault. As a friend of mine so aptly put it, “We always swore up and down that our kids wouldn’t have to work as hard as we have. Well, they don’t. At all.”
Before this turns into an ugly digital brawl over whether or not Millennials are worthless slackers or hapless victims, (do you love the fact that those are the only two choices?), I would divert your attention to the same hypothesis, but for a different issue. Are we, the parents of the next generation of brilliant women, promoting perfection at the expense of personal growth and societal improvement? And are we doing it to spare ourselves from pain?
Many of us in the GenX and Baby Boomer categories have fought some bloody battles to get where we are and to smooth the way for women behind us on the moving sidewalk of life. We remember when a woman would have very little recourse if a man on a construction site said something vulgar or, worse, didn’t pay any attention to her engineering recommendations. We’ve had our asses grabbed and our chests groped, and we have been on the receiving end of drunken kisses from superiors at professional events.
So things are better now, right? And that’s a good thing, right? But are we, ourselves, sabotaging more progress by reinforcing the notion of perfection in our daughters, our protégées, and our co-workers?
The connection between the quest for perfection and problems with sexism have played around the edges of my brain for a long time. There was something there that was truly bothering me, and I knew it was a very basic, very ugly problem. It took a lot of runs and hours on the Treadclimber to jar the pattern out of my observations. When I finally felt like I had made the connection I was sensing, it came down to two issues: stereotypes and sex.
Yes, we cheer on young women now in a variety of previously male-dominated fields. If you are the top of your class and you get promoted to district manager at 25 and you receive an award for Young Contractor of the Year, the world will give you a medal and call you legitimate. But if you are a female and you’re not in the top 10% of your class, chances are you will not get a rousing round of encouragement to “go for it.” Why? Because we all know that even in 2018, a woman has to excel to be considered average in a man’s world. A woman who does not excel will not be considered average, she’ll be viewed as dead weight. So, as often occurs, her loving family discourages her from moving forward in a career environment that they know will be difficult. Our message: If you’re not brilliant, you’re a failure. Even worse – if you’re not brilliant, you need to settle for being just a wife and mother. (As if being a wife and mother is easy or unimportant or settling). Why are there only two extremes? Because parents and mentors don’t want their loved ones to be hurt. So we drive drive drive the young ladies to get perfect grades and be class president and captain of the lacrosse team. And when our daughters get average grades and express interest in “unimportant” things like teaching or fashion or interior design, we write them off. (Where would we be without teachers???) Or when they get average grades and still want to be engineers, we discourage them. It will be too hard, we think. Being who they are isn’t enough to break the glass ceiling, so being who they are isn’t enough. We then relegate their career importance to whatever children they may someday have.
I work with a lot of men who aren’t very smart. (Insert jokes here). Many of them are successful because they work hard, they’re creative, and they come up with unique solutions to problems. There’s no reason to think that a female engineering student with middling grades couldn’t achieve in the same manner. But we know she’ll be underappreciated at the start, and we don’t want her to get discouraged. So we recommend different routes. We imply that anything less than perfection isn’t good enough to join our sisterhood.
The other side of this issue involves our personal, not professional, expectations of our younger generation. One could (try to) make the argument that some parents press their children of both sexes to be top notch academically and give up when they aren’t. But no argument can be made that we view our daughters and sons equally when evaluating their personal decisions.
Take pregnancy. Obviously, all parents and mentors want their young people to become parents when it is appropriate and feasible financially. (Spoiler – it’s never financially feasible to be a parent). But if a boy gets his girlfriend (or Friday night hookup) pregnant, chances are his family will be upset, but mainly concerned about how he’ll be able to support the child and how it will affect his future. If a girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend, her family is worried about the same things, but they are also ashamed. They are disappointed in her. As much as you can try to say that the concern is just about her future, 9 times out of 10 the parents and friends are disappointed in her moral choices. She let someone touch her. If the boy was a Friday night hookup instead of a boyfriend, the shame is tenfold. You can try to say all day long that all of the crying is about practicality and futures and finances, but you cannot deny the fact that many parents will look at their daughters differently in these situations. She had sex. Everyone will know. So they push their daughters to be perfect. Don’t dress improperly. Don’t flirt. You don’t need to pay attention to boys, you need to study. Isn’t it great that my daughter isn’t interested in boys?
A sad component of this problem is our own selfish worries about what others will think. “They’ll think I’m a bad parent.” “People will know my daughter decided to have sex and they’ll think less of me.” Needless to say, such concerns are shallow and only reinforce sexist societal attitudes.
Along with shame from pregnancy comes fear of our young women being seen as sexual beings at all. Our sons get lucky with a hot girl at work? At least one person will say, “Atta boy.” You find out your daughter had sex with a construction worker on one of her sites? Instead of, “Well, that wasn’t brilliant, but making mistakes means learning,” we say, “Who knows about it? Oh no. You’ll be ruined.” (No one EVER says, “Atta girl.”) In many cases, she will be ruined. Because we, the older generation, are freaking out about the fact that an adult woman in a free society made a choice. Again, you can say all day long that we are just trying to protect her, but perpetuating double-standards isn’t protection. It’s fear. We are limiting our daughters’ freedom because we are afraid they’ll get hurt, and that hurt will hurt us.
Our over-protection is just another version of trophies-for-everyone, no-grades-until-fourth-grade, and gifts-for-every-party-guest. Our generation and the generation before us got where we are by dealing with the ugly side of sexism in the workplace and in society. If we want progress to continue, we have to allow the current generation to participate. Let your young protégée take that job with that nasty old superintendent, and let her figure out how to show him who’s boss. She’ll probably make some mistakes, and she might even end up quitting the job, but at least she got out there. Support your daughter when she admits that she hates school and she’s always dreamed of being a magician on a cruise ship and VIEW HER CAREER AS VALID. Treat your niece like the shining star she still is when she comes home from Coachella pregnant. She is a smart, strong, ball-buster, and she’ll figure out a way to get her PhD in agronomy with a toddler on her hip. We have to stop telling our girls that their only two choices are perfection and mediocrity. And we need to respect them as the fierce individuals that they are instead of trying to cram them into some ideal that helps us sleep at night.
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.
Part I – Them
The recent Harvey Weinstein revelations, #metoo movement, and Time’s Up campaign have had a number of consequences, most of them quite fabulous. Let’s start by saying that I have ZERO problem with the fact that a bunch of actresses finally brought attention to a problem a lot of us have faced for years. Some women I know have complained that women in “fluffy” jobs are celebrating victory when women all over the world have been suffering with this scourge for millennia. Seriously? Do we care who caused the tide to turn? I don’t. If little green female leprechauns happen to be the ones to breach the dam of harassment because they complained about the male leprechauns grabbing their lucky charms, I don’t care. Kudos to Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon and the others for speaking for all of us. I’d thank them in person with a vat of chocolate chip cookies if I could.
Not surprisingly, the scandals have led to a lot of men claiming to not understand the rules. Some of these guys are sincere and concerned that they have been doing things inadvertently that might make women uncomfortable. Some of the men are irritated that they don’t get to do whatever they want and complain that the new rules are “just too hard to figure out.” As usual, they try to put the shadow of blame on us by characterizing our complaints as vague and arbitrary. They attempt to cast us as insensitive by insinuating that we’re no longer receptive to “nice” gestures. Other guys feign ignorance and innocence and claim the nuances are just too difficult for the average guy to comprehend. And still others are just hateful sexists who don’t care whether they make us uncomfortable and use the controversy to fuel their misogyny.
My favorite comments are from guys who very obviously understand what is suitable and what isn’t but claim that “There are just too many gray areas.” Really? I think in most cases the gray areas are products of willful confusion. For every guy who truly is trying to understand where the boundaries in his professional relationships should be, there are two guys who profess not to know whether or not they should be putting their hands on the thighs of young female employees. “What? That’s a problem? I can’t believe you’re faulting me for showing a gesture of comfort to my young, inexperienced subordinate.” Right.
For these poor, well-meaning, caring individuals, I offer the following test. Cut it out and hand it out as necessary when this question arises. When a guy is really confused about whether or not to do/say something to one of his female colleagues or employees, tell him to ask himself the following questions:
1. Would you tell your wife about it?
2. Would it be okay if another guy did/said it to your daughter?
3. Would you publish it in your church bulletin or company newsletter?
If the answer to any of these questions is No, then DON’T DO IT. If you’re not sure, then DON’T DO IT. See how easy that was?
If a guy starts to come up with clarification questions or comments (i.e. “Do you mean would I describe it in detail?” “Does it matter how old my daughter is?”), you know he doesn’t really want to know the true answer. Those are the guys who aren’t really asking to understand – they’re asking to try to prove why their historic pattern of behavior was okay.
On the other hand, there are a lot of very nice, caring guys out there who actually are concerned and well-meaning when they put a hand on your shoulder to ask if you’re okay. They tell you that you look fabulous today because it always puts a smile on your face. And they help you with your coat and give you a hand to get up from your chair because they weren’t raised by wolves. We have to appreciate the good intentions and manners lest we drive them away forever.
Actually, communication is a tool that men easily could use in these situations, but they don’t. If a man is not sure if it bothers his young female protégée when he takes her hand to help her out of the car, he can ask her. Direct communication is a revolutionary concept, but is rarely used, particularly by people in the engineering profession. (We’re not known for our social prowess). We women have to be receptive to such questions and answer honestly. If it looks like your boss is trying to be a good guy, help him out.
The concept that actually is difficult to grasp for men in supervisory positions is that a subordinate woman might feel she has to comply with whatever her boss does or she’ll lose her job. This feeling may not be evident to the boss…at all. But a 22-year-old brand new female employee is still a novice in the world, and her perception of the power structure at work might lead her to believe that her job would be in jeopardy if she expressed how she felt about her interactions with her boss. As such, the boss should ALWAYS err on the side of caution. Is it really necessary to pat a young engineer on the back when he tells her she did a good job? Must he tell the young project manager that she looks great in that outfit? It’s not essential to the job and the supervisor doesn’t know the employee well, the answer is no. If it’s going to create all of this mental angst and confusion (for both the supervisor and the employee), why do it?
As a caveat, it should be stated that there are many, many male and female professionals who have longstanding friendships with members of the opposite sex, (contrary to what you learned in When Harry Met Sally). Theoretically, if you have a good friend who is not your superior or subordinate, the lines of communication are open, and a guy can ask a woman, “Can I put my hand there or does that offend you?” If she can’t give him an honest answer, they aren’t really friends.
The problem of sexual harassment is not simple, and no one set of rules can answer every conceivable question. But the cat is out of the bag, the worms are out of the can, the grout has busted out of the pipe. We need to have a real dialogue with those great, quality guys we work with every day, to help them understand how to move from unsuitable cultural customs to behaviors that benefit all of us. For the rest of the guys, the ones who “just don’t understand,” we’ll make flash cards.
Diluting Workforce Quality for the Better…Or Not
How did you get where you are? No, I’m not referring to your route to work this morning or whether you took a plane or a train to get to the conference you’re attending or how you managed to sneak out of the office to go shoe shopping. (But bravo to you, and find me some of those cute Jeffrey Campbell mules, would you?) How did you achieve your position? Was it years and years of 80-hour weeks and steady promotions? Did you take advantage of an equal opportunity hiring program? Or did you poison your previous supervisor? Don’t worry – there are no right answers here.
A friend of mine who works for a large company recently told me that her engineering manager decided the company needs more female engineers. She then was told that a recent hire of that very gender would be joining her group and would report directly to my friend. Hooray, right? Do that girl power cheer right there at your desk (or in front of the Manolo Blahnik display). This could be considered particularly good news given that my friend is quite the glass ceiling breaking pioneer herself. But, alas, her expression as she relayed the news didn’t hint at any joy. In fact, she was downright moribund.
After I persuaded her that tomorrow was another day and those Yankees can’t hurt us anymore*, she explained that the new hire was less than sterling. In fact, she was difficult to work with, defensive, unresourceful, and prickly. These characteristics had revealed themselves in short order as soon as the new employee had started work. In fact, administrative personnel even had complained about her. And now my friend was tasked with molding this young professional into a productive and valuable team member. Have you ever tried to mold brick? My friend was understandably torn between wanting to advocate more women in technical positions and envisioning numerous scenarios in which a freak act of nature demolished the company building and her new hire was the only unfortunate casualty.
This situation highlights the always pertinent question of whether equal opportunity programs are a help or a hindrance. It is an intensely complicated issue, and the answer varies significantly based on the year and the location.
Many years ago, highly qualified (and pleasant) women and minorities didn’t have the opportunity to even apply for many jobs, particularly positions in technical fields. There was no question of unqualified applicants slipping through the system because most women and minorities couldn’t even get close to the system. Applying for a job was almost a humorous proposition.
A prime example is a very prominent geo-structural engineer who applied for a position at a consulting firm in the early 1970s when she graduated from engineering school. She reported to the firm’s office and chatted with the principal engineer for a short time about the company and what type of work the firm did. As lunch approached, he apologized profusely and said a job emergency had come up and that his secretary would be taking her to lunch. The young engineer happily went to lunch, not knowing whether such an occurrence was normal or not. When she returned to the office, the boss found her, apologized again, and said it was time to talk about her desired position. He then led off by asking how many words a minute she typed. “Excuse me?” she said, confused. “I don’t really know.” He was appalled that she didn’t know and asked how she possibly could expect to get a job without being able to present her credentials. She timidly inquired how typing would figure into an engineering job, which brought the boss up short. “You’re here for an engineering job??? But you’re a…I mean…Are you serious?” Rest assured our outstanding young engineer left that interview and went on to do quite fabulous things. She still doesn’t know how many words a minute she types.
In such an environment, it was necessary to pave the way to allow women and minorities a chance at, well, a chance. I can say from personal experience that the interviewing environment is not so harsh today, and it wasn’t even that awful 15 years ago.
So the initial barrier has been broken. Does that mean we still need help? Are equal opportunity programs, both formal and informal, necessary? Or are we now setting ourselves backwards by forcing unqualified applicants into the pool in the name of equal numbers? Even worse, are we creating doubt about even the qualified candidates by diluting the quality of the overall disadvantaged workforce? The answer is nowhere near easy.
Of course you could say that there are plenty of sub-par and unpleasant representatives of the white male workforce, so why should we be any different? Maybe we shouldn’t be. In fact, that’s the general idea. If the percentage of women and men in any profession correlates to the general percentage of each gender in society, both groups should have some rude, insecure idiots in most fields. But do we want to force our idiots into some roles just to balance the ranks? Or do we want to reinforce our progress by concentrating on maintaining the quality of our gender in professional positions? As I said in the beginning, there are no right answers.
It is possible that the young lady my friend will be beating managing is brittle and defensive because she has grown up in a sexist, repressed environment. She hailed from a small rural community, so maybe her original ebullient personality was dimmed by a barrage of oppression and denied opportunities. Maybe she’ll turn into a shining star of an employee once she finds security and acceptance among her peers. I’m a perpetual optimist, so I like to think this might happen to an upbeat soundtrack followed by a cygnet-to-swan montage showing her transformation into a new engineering star. This is the theory behind equal opportunity programs.
There is a stronger possibility that my friend has been saddled with her own personal albatross, and this young woman’s troubles are simply the product of really bad genes and bitter parents. Although a great job opportunity can sometimes turn a person around, it is more likely that we will soon be making an advent calendar-ish wall hanging to creatively mark the days until her inevitable termination.
The question of equal opportunity probably is one that must be determined for each specific circumstance, defying convenient sweeping conclusions. Should we throw a party someday when we can say that there are as many female idiots in engineering and construction as male idiots? (Minorities, I’m not going to speak for you, but you’re in the same boat). I’m usually first in line to plan any party, but I don’t know that I’ll be ordering the centerpieces for this one.
*In order to understand many of the references in my Underpinnings pieces, you really should be familiar with football terminology and the classics, starting with Gone with the Wind. Move on to Love Actually, The Mummy, When Harry Met Sally, and The Devil Wears Prada after that. This is the bare minimum, but I can provide a full curriculum upon request.