The Top of the Hill Is in Sight
Don’t say this out loud, because we don’t want to jinx it, but it looks like we might be starting to, maybe, sort of, in a subtle way, approach the outer edge of the zone that’s right before the stage that leads eventually, circuitously, to the end of the tunnel. Notice I didn’t say anything about seeing a light? And also notice that I didn’t describe this status in any definitive or affirmative way? Hey – I’m an engineer, after all. They train us to manage expectations.
So, at the backs of our minds somewhere, behind the piles of toilet paper and the new recipes for sourdough bread, we’re toying with the idea that someday before the turn of the next century we might be emerging from our houses and apartments and barns or wherever we have been sequestered for the past 632 weeks. Not all at once. Certainly not. If you think there will be a day on the calendar where all of a sudden everything will go back to normal, I’m afraid your biscuit isn’t quite done in the middle. No, our release back into the wild will be slow and controlled and fraught with danger. We know that we’ll never, ever, ever be touching other human beings again, but we might actually get to see some.
The question here is: can we make some hay out of this possibility of sunshine? As proactive professional women, we’re always looking for chances to get ahead, to make life better. Are there any opportunities here?
When I was running cross-country, I had a coach who liked to run us through “check out” drills. He theorized that the average runner would experience a slight moment of relief right when she would get to the top of a hill. This slight pause, however small, would give a competitor a chance to capitalize on the situation and make up ground by doing the opposite and accelerating. We spent endless hours running to the tops of hills and accelerating right as we got over the crest.
I give my old coach a lot of credit – the technique worked every time. If I had runners in front of me or near me, I usually could pick off at least a couple of people as we all reached the top of a hill.
There is no doubt the world will be breathing a sigh of relief in staggered phases as countries reach conditions where some parts of society can be restarted. Similarly, your co-workers, clients, and competition will be happily settling back into their (child free!) offices and jobsites. A short “honeymoon” period of a few weeks is to be expected while people see each other again and luxuriate in the routines they didn’t know they loved.
This is the top of the hill. It doesn’t matter that we’re not physically there yet. If you can see it, or even envision it, you need to be thinking about checking out.
So what does that mean for you? It can mean a lot of different things, depending on your position.
If you are an employee, particularly an entry-level person, you need to do some investigating and observing to figure out what avenues you might have for advancement. Your employer most probably has been tap dancing on an unfamiliar dance floor for the past six weeks, trying to figure out how to keep work going, keep paying employees, and keep clients happy. What have been the biggest needs? Not your biggest needs – your employer’s. What has been the biggest stumbling block internally? Has it been communication? Have you had trouble getting feedback from clients who are also navigating seas inhabited by heretofore unknown monsters? What can you do to help with this? Remember, your goal is not to figure out how to make your life better. Your goal is to figure out how you can be a valuable employee at a time when your employer likely is tearing out her hair. Volunteer to do something you’ve never done before. Offer to brainstorm about ways to solve problems. As my dad used to say to us when something needed to be done around the house, make yourself useful.
A very smart lady once told me that you don’t understand someone’s character when life is good. You get a sense for who someone really is when things are bad. She was absolutely right, and the same philosophy applies to employees. Don’t be the person whining about how the project you were excited about just got postponed and now you’re going to have to work on something boring. Be the person who volunteers to call clients and ask what your company can do for them in this tough time. Be the star who formulates a revolutionary new way to facilitate in-house communication and actually has the nerve to submit it to her boss.
The same can be said for people who own their own businesses. This is the time to call clients and offer help…or a shoulder to commiserate on (socially distant, of course)…or just some time to listen to how completely screwed up their project has become during the pandemic. Put yourself in front of people and let them know that your problems aren’t getting in the way of being an indispensable resource. Check out.
I hope a number of you are getting excited as you read this. We’ve had a lot of darkness for quite some time, and this might be a little bit of light in your life. On the other hand, it’s critical that we acknowledge that another sector of our group might be reading this with the exact opposite reaction. “Seriously? Are you kidding me? I am barely surviving right now, and you want me to be ambitious and proactive? I just did three conference calls with a toddler on my lap, and I have to feed five people in the next hour AND I’M EXHAUSTED. Do you really want me to do more?”
Actually, I don’t. Let’s be honest – everyone has lived through this nightmare in different circumstances. If you have been working at home while homeschooling your kids and taking groceries to at-risk relatives, you’re a hero. Take a nap when this is done and think about your colleagues who are checking out as you drift off to sleep. If you are exhausted from riding the subway with a mask on while trying to stay distant from idiots on your way to your jobsite every day, you need to appreciate the fact that you made it through this without getting sick and without killing anyone. Applaud your friends who live in wide open spaces who are going to strategize on how to use this situation to take a step forward. Despite the fact that some of us want to optimize every possible opportunity and participate in everything all the time, that’s not real life. You are human. It’s time to take a break. Don’t check out.
If you are sheltering in place with a bunch of little ones (or even medium ones), you have had the honor and sacred responsibility of keeping them safe during a disaster. And you did it. That’s as good as crushing a micropile design, trust me. You might not see it that way from your perspective on the ground now, but 20 years in the future you’ll appreciate what you did. (And you’ll be sure to tell your kids how easy they have it as parents). In the meantime, you can cheer on your fellow female professionals who will be making progress for all of us.
So think about checking out, if circumstances apply. If they don’t, please support those who can. Sometimes we have to pass up opportunities, but we can be happy knowing that our sisters are out there, making phenomenal strides in our places.
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.
Happy 2019! Is it fabulous so far? Don’t let the weather color your answer – it is January, after all, and January must be true to itself. As a landscaper friend of mine once told me, “How do you expect all those beautiful things to emerge in the spring if they don’t die back in the cold of winter?”
In the spirit of the sharp, clear cold winter days, let’s cut right to the chase. I have been a bit absent here. No, actually, I have been a lot absent here. In truth, 2018 squashed me like a smooth drum roller. There is no other way to explain what happened last year, and the only chance of making the situation better is to be honest about it. I was Squashed with a capital S. I played chicken with 2018, and it won. It laughed in my face and spat on my crumpled, broken body. If I weren’t so terribly Irish and stubborn, I would be sitting on a frozen riverbank right now, trying to decide if frostbite really was a bad thing.
The source of the squashing was not one thing, so it was not easy to identify the problem, formulate a solution, and put a plan into action. I tried repeatedly to retaliate with engineering ninja skills (evaluate, formulate, execute), but there were just too many aggressors. Heavy Workload was the engine on a train that included Exhausting Travel, Bottomless Charity Causes, Family Drama, and a long line of other heavy cars that ran me over as I was tied to the tracks.
Have you seen this old cartoon? https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1hac6w My brothers and I used to watch this after school when they showed ancient cartoons in reruns. Yes, this was me in 2018. I got the dog plasma. I spent the last few months of the year scratching for fleas and barking at cars. It wasn’t pretty.
As the year drew to a close, I mentioned to one of my close friends that I was about to lose my mind. (About to? Who was I kidding? I exaggerated my real level of sanity because I didn’t want her to have me committed). But this was the point where my little saga took a turn for the better.
What do people usually do when you tell them that you’re overwhelmed? You know the answer to this. It’s giving me hives just thinking about it. The standard answer is, “You just need to learn to say no.” Just like that. Oversimplification, table for one? Sweeping Generalization, come on in! Seriously – how many times a week do you hear this? People of all intelligence levels say it, as well as friends and family of all intimacy degrees.
How ludicrous is this statement? (You can’t hear me, but I just shouted that). To tell a person that the solution to her complex problems is just to “learn to say no” is to imply that she is stupid and that her problems are simple. Think about it – the person who is overwhelmed is miserable. Let’s assume she is moderately intelligent and of at least average emotional maturity. If “just saying no” were the answer, WOULDN’T SHE BE DOING THAT?! Of course she would. But she’s not, because the situation is NOT that simple.
In truth, most people’s lives are complex and contain multi-layered problems. The “solutions” to those problems often have far-reaching and sometimes hard to predict ramifications. When you tell someone that she should just say no (or give her some other simple answer), you are implying that she isn’t very bright and hasn’t really tried to figure out solutions. It’s insulting, so just stop it if you have indulged in this behavior.
Your friend whose brother constantly parks himself on her couch and asks her for money? She’s exhausted from supporting him and bailing him out of constant scrapes and bad business decisions. She’s worn out and broke, and he just showed up again. So you say, “Hon, you just need to learn to tell him no.”
What you don’t know is that her brother has three kids and their mother is just as irresponsible as your friend’s brother. The only chance these kids have to receive food and warm clothes is from their aunt. She loves them dearly and would never let them go without, so she keeps giving their dad money. In addition, she can’t stand the idea of such young kids being disillusioned by their dad, so she tries hard to gloss over his mistakes. She feels like someone needs to try to give them something of a childhood.
So….now where are you on that “just say no” platitude? It wasn’t as cut and dried as you thought, was it?
People like to think they can just reach in and solve your problems, and they’re doing you a big favor by doing so. I’m told all the time “You just need to hire some people” because I have such a heavy workload. Really? What kind of people? What exactly do I do all day – do you know? Are there people out there who can do exactly that? Is it more economical for me to train new people or to suck it up for a short time until some projects taper off? Do you see my face in the mirror in the morning? If not, then you don’t know the answers to those questions.
Back to my saga….when I said that I was overwhelmed and teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion, my friend just listened for a while. Not listening as in, “I feel your pain,” or “I’m validating your feelings,” (ugh) but actually listening to the situation as if it were a problem at work. A few weeks later, she had planned to come over and hang out one evening, and I got this text: “We’ll need a whiteboard or a big notebook. I’ve been thinking about your situation, and I have some ideas.”
I will not lie – I cried. Yes, we have established here that I cry at the drop of a puppy, but the happiness was real. THIS IS THE KIND OF FRIEND WE ALL NEED TO BE.
When she arrived, we talked about all of the train cars that were barreling across me, and she was sympathetic. But she didn’t blithely “solve” things in one sentence, and she didn’t just listen. What she did was to suggest a way to sort through all of the stressors and see if any of them could be reduced by targeting the most critical stressful elements.
The most important part of this story is the fact that my friend’s approach acknowledged that there was no simple solution for my chaos. She didn’t suggest that the answer was easy and that I was just making life hard for myself. Her approach implied that she supported my right to make my own choices in life, but that sometimes those choices come with problems. And she reinforced her status as a real friend by offering to help instead of questioning my choices.
I suggest that in 2019 we all follow my friend’s lead. We need to support other women and be good friends. But we need to do this in a way that acknowledges and supports their choices and situations. Life is neither simple nor easy. Don’t assume the reason the woman next to you is overwhelmed is because she is spending too much time making perfect meals for her family when they would be happy with peanut butter. Maybe she is caring for her mother, who has dementia, at the same time she is trying to figure out why a slope is failing in a critical military complex. Can she solve any of that by just saying no? Absolutely not. Is there an easy solution for her issues? Nope. Can you be a good friend/colleague/fellow skirt by asking her about it and offering to sort through to find some way to achieve minor improvements? You bet your pea-picking heart, you can.
Here’s to an un-squashed and vertical 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Was Frank Singing About Balance?
Are you familiar with the 50/50 theory? This concept might be considered part of today’s earthy crunchy “mindfulness” movement, a nebulous buzz word-y school of thought that encompasses everything from recycling to snacking. However, the 50/50 theory seems to have some actual merit, so I’m kicking it out of the 2-inch thick mindfulness puddle and giving it credit for some real depth.
According to the 50/50 plan, 50% of a person’s time should be spent being, and 50% should be spent doing. Okay, yes – this calls for a clarification. Aren’t we “being” all of the time? Doesn’t the entire day require “doing?”
Simply put, being means experiencing life and doing indicates proactively engaging in a pursuit. For example, spending the morning preparing food for 40 and setting up a pregame tailgate would be considered doing. Enjoying the football game and a few cocktails would be labeled being. Another example would be a professional conference. Participating in a discussion reviewing upcoming changes to a federal guideline would be doing – enjoying cocktail hour with your professional posse would qualify as being.
The originators of this philosophy might have a stricter interpretation of being than given in this example. Meditation and reflection could be interpreted as the only true form of “being.” But spending 50% of our time meditating would be unrealistic for most of us, so I’m not going to address this concept in such extreme terms.
So why is this pertinent, and does it have any merit? After thinking about it for a few weeks, I finally decided that this idea might be brilliant. In fact, it might be a rather simple start to figuring out how to balance the many complications that we all deal with in life.
My initial reaction to the plan was absolute resistance. Only 50% doing? Are you kidding me? There is no part of my personality that doesn’t say, “Let’s get this done!” My zodiac sign is Aries, for heaven’s sake – there is very little about a charging ram that involves just sitting back and experiencing life. And my to-do list is 4.6 miles long. Who has time to just be?
On the other hand, I kept thinking about that football game example. I do love to plan all week with my BFF for our tailgate menu, and I can’t imagine not making gallons of bourbon punch and figuring out the best way to serve potato salad without giving half the crowd salmonella. But the experience would be incomplete if I didn’t spend the three hours after the tailgate watching the game and chatting with family, friends, and random opposing fans. Sure, at some point during the game I usually offer to use the rest of my college athletic eligibility and play offensive line (because NO ONE IS BLOCKING), but I don’t really mean it. That three hours of non-participation feeds my soul, and the fact that I’m NOT actively in charge of the outcome of the game is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
We women spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance the long list of work/family/shoe shopping demands on our schedules. There are bridge foundations to design, shoring systems to inspect, bids to complete, and groundwater conditions to evaluate. There are also appointments for the kids at the pediatrician and the dentist, dinner to cook, groceries to buy, and the house to clean. (Hahahahaha – just kidding on that last one. But we’ll pretend). None of these things smack of “being.” And none of them are exactly optional. For some reason those clients insist on having their projects completed this year, and the kids want to eat EVERY DAY.
But what about the rest of the list? What about that extra white paper you promised to finish for a professional association committee? What about the Pan-Asian cooking class you signed up for to make your dinner offerings more interesting? What about the American Girl reading group you enrolled your daughter in (that’s 75 minutes away from home) because you were afraid Girl Scouts and soccer weren’t enough and because some of the other girls in her class were going?
Many of our “required” activities are prompted by our fear that we’re not enough. We’re working, so we must be shortchanging our kids, so we must make up for it by enriching their poor abandoned lives. We have families, so our careers must be suffering, so we must make up for it by engaging in more professional activities to prove that we’re still relevant. (What about the shoes? Why does no one ever worry about the poor shoes that are being neglected because of work and family demands?) Let’s call it what it is, the G word. Guilt. Most of us are so accustomed to carting guilt around that we would have phantom guilt, much like phantom pain with a severed limb, if it weren’t there.
The 50/50 plan says that increasing our efforts doesn’t necessarily put us ahead. It says that we’re losing something in all of that overcompensating. Maybe our daughters would benefit more from sitting on the couch with us gabbing about where we would go if we had a ticket to fly anywhere in the world rather than spending an hour and a half in a car to go to a book club meeting about a book that she’ll forget in 6 months because she doesn’t really like the other girls in the club and she’s tired from all that driving around. Maybe our professional brains would be sharper if we sat in the park for an hour at lunch and contemplated squirrel behavior over a cup of soup. Maybe we would appreciate our partners more if we spent the drive home thinking of all the reasons we love them rather than making a bunch of client calls. We need to get ahead, but what is ahead?
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the last 15 minutes of a Hallmark Channel movie where the heroine figures out that she needs to “follow her heart.” In the grand scheme of things, life is a lot more complicated than that. (But isn’t it nice to spend a couple of hours watching a world where life is that simple? I heart the Hallmark Channel). Yes, you might miss out on an opportunity for advancement at work, but that advancement at this point in time might not be the thing that is optimal for your soul. We do want our kids to be well-rounded and have lots of opportunities, but having too many opportunities might be as detrimental as having not enough. All of these decisions involve consequences – it might be our perception of the consequences that is slightly off base.
Each one of us have to evaluate what constitutes a proper life balance. The 50/50 plan might be a way for us to take a little pressure off ourselves and spend some of life actually enjoying it rather than just getting through it. Your interpretation of what constitutes being will be entirely up to you. I’m going to try to rein in my inner ram and spend a little less time charging ahead and a little more time thinking about all the shoes I’ve loved before.
Hey – Your Ambition is Showing
By Ann Schmelzer, Guest Contributor
(Editor’s Note: Ann is a top-level manager for a major international manufacturer. Someday we will all be working for her, and that’s not a bad thing. Although she is not in the deep foundations industry, she spends all day every day with men, most of them engineers. It’s no wonder her right brain takes over on the weekends, doing things like starting one of the most successful food and beverage festivals in the Midwest and coaching
raging hormones girls’ soccer).
The other day I sent Peggy a screen capture of an article I was reading that made me think of her. What I subsequently learned is: Be careful what you text your friends who have a blog that is topically relevant… I’m kidding.
The article I sent was Reese Witherspoon’s recent essay in Glamour on ambition (Glamour October 2017). The screen capture itself highlighted a study that single female Harvard MBA students downplayed their career ambitions in front of male classmates for fear of possibly hurting their marriage prospects. I’m not trying to share business that isn’t mine (we’ll get to my business later), but Peggy had a dating experience in which her full life and busy schedule were questioned by an unnamed gentleman in the following way— “But don’t you want to be happy?” Dear God… what year is it? Hence, why I sent Peggy the screen capture, and hopefully a much-justified chuckle.
Reese writes an eloquent essay on the topic of ambition. The fact that she had to is somewhat saddening to me; but, at least we’re talking about it. At one point she states “Run away from a man who can’t handle your ambition. Run. So many men think ambition is awesome and sexy!” I agree Reese, but a lot of men don’t wear “I find drive emasculating” on a T-shirt to the first date. You learn that the person in question says one thing and actually wants another over time—sometimes a little time, sometimes a lot of time.
In my case, I learned it slowly– death-by-a-thousand-papercuts-style over the course of four years. In my early twenties I dated a guy who, at the time, I was very much taken with and it seemed that the feeling was mutual. He talked a great game; I mean a great game. When we talked about my career ambitions there wasn’t a whiff of hesitation in his voice. He seemed to be genuinely into my ambition.
Things eventually crashed and burned during a period of time when his career was floundering. I, by contrast, was in the middle of two masters’ degrees and a career that wasn’t floundering. I’ll spare you, dear readers of Underpinnings, all the gory details but, in hindsight, the thing that made me the angriest was that I found out he had been cheating on me with the Sunday school teacher from his family’s church. The. Sunday. School. Teacher. The cheating alone was a bitter enough pill to swallow, but the chosen partner was really the icing on the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m guessing she didn’t know I existed. (If she did, the irony there is on an almost incomprehensible level). Upon Monday morning quarterbacking the whole situation, it is my assumption that his need for that relationship was to shield his ego from the uncomfortable mirror I held up to his own lack of progress. Perhaps that’s me shielding my own ego from the fact that my relationship crumbled because I couldn’t pull off the perfect balancing act of non-threatening and go-getter.
The thing is that I had never hid who I was and, in the beginning, it was the greatest thing ever. By the end, the look on his face all but said “wow, you’re really like this all the time”… and not in a good way. Did he think I was lying in the early days? If I had been, wouldn’t that have been worse for everyone? These are questions not worth pondering.
So, I was the MBA-educated girl who did not tamp down her ambition. If I had, perhaps I could have nursed that relationship along for a bit but, in the end, I’m sure it would have come to a similar demise. Regardless, there are lots of different ways to interpret the Harvard study. Maybe the women being interviewed thought “What’s the harm in softening the wording here? I can still go get it done; that’s my business”; or, “These questions rarely go well for me so here is my canned response”; or, “Remember when you beat that boy in the math bowl in middle school and got uninvited to the dance on Friday?”. There are a lot of possibilities but, in the end, what a difficult commentary on the state of gender equality.
Judith Warner, who is a senior fellow at The Center for American Progress writes “Although women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988, they have earned at least a third of law degrees since 1980, were fully a third of medical school students by 1990, and, since 2002, have outnumbered men in earning undergraduate business degrees since 2002. They have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that should have followed. In a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. Their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards, as TV pundits, and in Congress—is just 15 percent. In fact, it’s now estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country.” With statistics like that, who can blame the women of Harvard?
Later in the article Reese comes back to “All we can do to create change is work hard. That’s my advice: Just do what you do well. If you’re a producer, you’ve got to produce. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to write. If you’re in corporate America, keep working hard to bust through the glass ceiling. If you want our voices to be represented in government—and I think we’re all getting behind that idea now—encourage women to run and help them with their campaigns. If you are one of those people who has that little voice in the back of her mind saying, “Maybe I could do [fill in the blank],” don’t tell it to be quiet. Give it a little room to grow, and try to find an environment it can grow in.” I couldn’t say it better myself.
How to Avoid Killing Your Colleagues
It’s Thursday afternoon at 3:50 PM. You’ve managed to end a phone call with a very talkative client who just happens to spend $3 trillion dollars with your firm every year. If you can make it out the door in the next 15 minutes, you’ll blow through the parkway before traffic gets bad, swing by the sitter to pick up the little kids, make it to the dry cleaner before they close, and have dinner on the table by 6:30, assuming the older kids didn’t eat the dinner ingredients when they got home from high school this afternoon. (Seriously – I can’t even count how many times I said over the years “You know where Kroger is. I suggest you get there and back VERY fast and replace what you just ate so the rest of us can have dinner. Who cooks ground beef as an after school snack?!”) If anyone delays you by even 10 minutes, you’ll sit in traffic for an eternity, have to pay a late fee at the sitter, the dry cleaners will be closed so you’ll have to wear your suit with the Gogurt stain on it for your big presentation tomorrow, and no one will eat dinner. Maybe ever. Are you getting tense just reading this? Did you check your watch? Drink some wine.
Back in our horror film scenario, just as you start to slip out your door, a familiar refrain can be heard from the next office door. “Leaving already? Wow. I never knew this was a bank.” Yes, it’s Carl. Carl is the engineer in the next office who has made it his life’s ambition to provide the public with a living history exhibit of a 1955 stereotypical male, cartoon-style. He sits down at his desk at 7:55 AM, he goes to lunch from noon to 1:00 PM at the same artery-clogging spot every day, he leaves at 5:05 PM, and he observes every little fragment of standard company protocol. He only knows that his kids wore diapers because he doesn’t trust his wife’s financial skills and checks over her purchases every week. He gets his oil changed every 3,000 miles because the manufacturer says to, and he enjoys halting construction projects so he can tell everyone involved that he’s “the engineer, and the engineer has the final word.” Carl is lucky no one has killed him.
Carl’s words burrow under your skin, even though this is the 3,712th time you have heard them. Seriously? Is he kidding? You haven’t slept in three years. You put in 60 hours last week, and a big chunk of it was when Carl was sleeping like a baby in his old man pajamas. You have an agreement with your boss. She said it was okay to leave now. She says your work is great. So why can’t you just shut the #$@% up, Carl?!
Actually, you mumble something about you wish it was a bank ha ha, and you sprint out the door. But Carl has ruined your afternoon. Again. And why? Does he really think you don’t belong here? Is he implying that your work is suffering because of your non-traditional hours? Is it suffering? Maybe the boss is just being nice. Maybe she’s been trying to find a way to tell you that you’re falling way behind. Maybe you never should have become an engineer. Maybe your kids and your husband think you’re a failure, too. Who were you kidding to think you could do all this?
(For the men in our audience, yes, this is how it really sounds in a woman’s head. It’s like a constant Hitchcock movie, in terms of tension).
On a calmer, saner note, let’s take a look at Carl. First, he’s an engineer, so chances are his personality really needs order and rules and consistency. Yours does, too, but there are ranges within every group. Carl happens to be at the psychotic end of the spectrum. In addition, who actually says something out loud to their co-worker about when she’s leaving, even if they’re speculating about it mentally? Is that Carl’s job? No. So that means that Carl is a meddlesome, arrogant, passive-aggressive control freak who constantly tries to compare others to himself so he can feel superior. In southern Indiana, they call that nibby. It’s not a good thing. So Carl is not such a great person, regardless of whether he’s a guy or a woman. Sexism is just one of the many negative attributes of his crappy personality.
Let’s go back to you. Do you have an agreement with your boss saying you can work this flexible schedule? Does she appear to be pleased with your work? Are you getting it done? Are you being sure to point out to your boss when you do things well so that it won’t get lost in the day-to-day fray? If the answers to these questions are yes, then what’s the problem?
Well, you say, the problem is that I’m sick of hearing Carl say these things, and I want him to leave me alone. As ideal as that may sound, life is truly just one long stretch of seventh grade. Carl has a personality problem, and it’s probably not going to change. And you’re going to work with a lot of other people who will have other personality problems, and they won’t change either. None of this has anything to do with your choices/position as a woman or as an engineer. This has everything to do with life being like seventh grade. The real lesson in life is learning to deal with the other seventh graders and developing enough confidence to believe in yourself.
It’s true, Carl is dreadfully annoying, as are the concrete guys who say every day, “Are you just getting up? I’ve been up since fill-in-the-blank.” These people have an insecurity and need to have a way to feel like they’re better than you. Just ignore Carl. No, he won’t go away. But you have lots of options to give it right back to him, if you choose to expend the energy. (If you do, be sure you are doing it for entertainment purposes only. You don’t need to lash out at Carl to prove your worth). You can say in your sweetest voice, “I KNOW! Isn’t it fabulous? I think I’ll go shopping!” Or you could send Carl e-mails every hour in the middle of the night, beginning each subsequent message with, “Well, I guess you’ve already gone to sleep. I’m glad someone gets to. Please try to respond whenever it is that you’ll be working again.” For a quieter offensive attack, you could just say, “Am I?” Is it?”
Carl’s sexism is just a symptom of his poor character, so don’t concentrate on the wrong disease. You won’t cure him with earnest talks about equality and opportunities.
For your part, you have to be very careful not to do the same thing Carl is doing. Maybe you think your job as a mom is very noble, and you comment to one of your friends that can you believe that new project manager gets to come in early on Fridays so he can leave at 2:00 PM to go backpacking every weekend? Here you are slaving away 23 hours a day, and this kid gets a flexible schedule so he can go play. No. You chose to have kids, just like he chooses to go backpacking. You can’t go getting outraged about others criticizing your choices and then attack someone else’s choices. It’s good for everyone or it’s good for no one. This isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale, and you aren’t being forced to breed. So tell that backpacker to send you some great photos of the Red River Gorge, and you’ll have your kids draw adorable sketches of mountains for him. Everyone will appreciate the variety of choice that is the spice of life, and you’ll all be in a better mood to get your work done. Except Carl. He’ll be too busy documenting for the boss how much time you and the backpacker spent talking, and he’ll make her a spreadsheet of lost productivity. Give your boss some of your wine – I guarantee you she needs it.