More is Better
By Guest Contributor Lori Simpson
(Editors’ Note: Lori is our hero. You can read her brilliance here. If you are lucky enough to meet her in person, pay attention).
The “Member Voices” article in the May 2019 ASCE Civil Engineering magazine hit home for me. Hannah Workman, a student at Fairmont State University in West Virginia wrote about sexism in engineering. No, this is not what you are thinking—she was referring to a different kind of sexism: the kind that we women perpetrate on each other. Her angle was about senior female engineers who show favoritism or give a preference to male engineers over female engineers. After giving some examples, she concluded that it is a territorial issue: senior female engineers were probably the only one at their firm and had to fight just to obtain that spot. They would see other women as competition.
I am a senior female engineer. I have been in the industry since 1986 and have often been the only woman in the room (or jobsite). This still happens, so I know many of you can relate. There are many reasons why having limited diversity on a project may not result in a project’s best outcome – not enough diversity of thought or experiences can prevent some great ideas from coming out. But there is another effect that happens, and I am here to testify to my own shortcomings: I take pride in being the only woman in the room. There. I said it. It is a badge of honor that I have enjoyed wearing, and if I am being really honest with you, deep down I still do. Being the only woman in the room means you are tough. The problem is that you can only wear this badge if you are the only woman in the room. The side effect of this situation is that I did feel competitive with other women and did not do what I could to help other women achieve in their careers.
The good news is that I am working on reforming myself, with the help of many of my peers in the industry. Initiatives like DFI’s Women in Deep Foundations (WIDF), the SE3 Project, AIA’s Equity by Design, and my own company’s Women@Langan have opened my eyes and are providing me strategies for mentoring and advocating for women. When WIDF had its inaugural meeting, one of the women in the room asked, “How many of us come to the DFI conference and never say hello to other women?” Guilty. Even at a conference I felt competitive with the handful of other women there (glad to say – there is way more than a handful of women at DFI now). As I am confessing this, it seems so silly – it’s not like I’m competing for attention from the men at the conference. I was competing to be the Toughest Woman. But guess what? It turns out that it is way more fun when there are many of us. Now I revel in walking into a room and seeing LOTS of bad-ass women.
So I realized that I need to help make this happen, especially in my position as a senior female engineer in the industry. At first I thought that because I figured it out, others would too–that just being an example was sufficient. I saw a lot of smart, hard-working women around me and figured they would know what to do. But when you really start to talk, you realize that you need to tell your story. And while we have a lot of shared experiences, we learn from how we each dealt with them. So I tell the stories of being out in the field with no proper facilities, being the only woman on a construction site, not being listened to. I share how I got the flexibility I needed while raising my daughters, how I advocated for fair pay, and how I presented my qualifications to get the promotions that I sought. I talk about how I developed my confidence, my voice. It’s not bragging—it’s making sure we know we aren’t the only ones going through this.
I’ve also realized that I can use my hard-won position to advocate for change. I can give a hand to those women working up the ladder, both in my company and in others, because one of the spoils of being a Tough Woman for so many years is that now I’m part of the decision-making team.
So let’s keep the conversation going. If we don’t help each other out, we are perpetuating the isolation of women in our field. Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. I don’t want to end up in hell.
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.
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.
For All Our Galentines
This is a week of treats, and we all like something salty and sweet, don’t we? So here is our offering to you for your morning or afternoon snack – or your midnight munchie. Something salty and something sweet.
Salty: The Spread
This morning was the fourth time in the past few months that I was subjected to what I have come to call The Spread. Sitting in my airline seat with my belongings tucked beneath the seat in front of me, I suddenly felt pressure on my right leg. I looked over and… there it was. The man in the seat next to me had settled into a comfortable position that included his legs forming a 90 degree angle, aka The Spread. About 25% of his leg mass had drifted into my seat space and was encroaching on my useable area.
I did what I normally do when this happened today – I ever so slightly pushed back, giving the guy a subtle “Hey, you’re in my space” nudge. But, as so often occurs, he was oblivious. I spent the rest of the thankfully short flight with even less room than current airplane seat measurements allow. By the time I got off the plane, I was irritated and resentful. The whole situation was even more puzzling when the guy turned out to be a very considerate gentleman when it came time to unload bags from the overhead compartments and disembark the plane.
I realize that this issue is but a small slight in the general realm of sexism, and I should be happy that I was on a plane because I have a job where I am unconstrained by sexist bosses and I get to travel to work for enlightened clients. On the other hand, the plane scenario, and its commonality in other places, feels a bit to me like a metaphor for women’s places in the world and the current state of our progress. There seem to be a number of guys who still want to stress that this is their world and they’ll encroach and make us uncomfortable if they want.
Certainly some of you are yelling at me right now, “Just tell him to move!” And yes, this also illustrates that not all of us are comfortable with just calling a guy out directly for his rude or sexist behavior. My southern sensibilities discourage it. My feeling is that it’s not a big enough deal and it will make the rest of the trip uncomfortable. What I actually would like to do would be to say, “Look – if you have a fungus and you’re uncomfortable, go get some medicine, but get out of my space!” But my sensitivity to other’s feelings tells me that maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s doing and perhaps he would be really embarrassed if I called him out directly.
‘And maybe that’s the real lesson here. Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s doing. Of course, some percentage of the guys who Spread are completely aware of their actions, because there will always be jerks EVERYWHERE. But maybe some of these guys on planes and in stadiums are just like guys at work who interrupt us and push us out. Maybe their behavior was learned at an early age and they don’t realize its implications. So the proper response would be to clearly point out the issue, but without animosity. “Excuse me, would you mind moving your leg?” might be in the same league with “Could you work on not interrupting me during meetings?” If he responds badly, he’s a jerk being a jerk, not a good guy being clueless. And you can proceed accordingly. In fact, perhaps you can diplomatically educate the men in your life (husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, shoe salesmen) that to Spread is to be inconsiderate. Revolutionary behavior doesn’t always involve hostile confrontations, and sensitivity to other people being human often results in allies.
Sweet: Happy Valentine’s Week!
If you have been reading here for a while, you know that I am a perpetual optimist. On a crowded, noisy train I remind myself that some people never travel more than 5 miles from their homes. When my basement flooded, I said it was an opportunity to remodel. Other than the first week after football season is over, I can almost always find a way to summon a positive angle on a situation. It’s my survival mechanism.
As such, no one should be surprised that I love Valentine’s Day. Even absent a current Significant Other, I think it’s quite a fabulous holiday. The decorations are pretty, the movies on TV are sappy and hopeful, and every person has an opportunity to tell the people around her that she loves them.
Some among us are very cynical about the holiday, citing pressure on gifting, commercialism, and “It’s a made-up holiday”, as some of their reasons for being negative. (What holiday isn’t made up? Not even Jesus said, “Hey – make a really big deal about my birthday.”)
But I feel the opposite. I think this is a gift-wrapped chance to appreciate people, in case you’ve been too busy to do so. There is no law that says the person you are honoring is your sweetie. It could be your mom, your former teacher, your kids’ nanny – anyone! A positive sentiment is never a bad idea. And reminding yourself of all the good things in your life is a beneficial exercise whenever it may occur.
I have said something here before that bears repeating: Happiness is hard. Cynicism is easy. Negativity, skepticism, distrust, disbelief – all of these are conditions that some people would have you believe are the signs of intelligence. In fact, they are signs of fear. It is easier to be cranky and cynical and tell everyone that you didn’t ever expect to be treated equal to men in your job anyway, and all the men out there are malicious jerks. It’s hard to have hope. It’s brave to take the chance that your new boss really will support you in a male-dominated environment, and you’ll get to explore your career opportunities unfettered by the ignorance of others. Optimism and love are accompanied by the risk that your hopes will be dashed. But if the potential win is that you will realize your own goals and aspirations, or perhaps you’ll find happiness in another person, how can you afford to be negative and skeptical?
In the spirit of the season, I would like to say how much I care about all of my sisters in arms and everything you give me on a daily basis. I am constantly inspired and supported and encouraged by you, and you make my life a richer, more fulfilling existence.
I also appreciate all of the men who treat us as equals, fight for our progress, and don’t encroach on our figurative airline seats. I heart you guys, and I thank you for the daily dose of happiness you give me and others.
There will be crises and problems in our lives, but there also always will be goodness and love. I hope you can find some reason to be optimistic and grateful during the Valentine’s holiday. If you’re at a loss, message me and I’ll send you a list of shoe sales.
Part II – Us
Previously we addressed the unsuitable behavior of some men in the workplace, and we offered guidelines for those men who were either sincerely or disingenuously unable to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate actions. The other variable in the equation that adds up to a happy workplace is our behavior. Yes, us, the women who are the subjects of this stramash. We may be the victims, but that does not mean we don’t have certain responsibilities in moving toward a solution to the problem.
Wait, what? Somehow the wrong attitudes and actions of other people create responsibilities for us? But we didn’t do anything. Why should we have to work to take care of a problem caused by someone else?
We have a responsibility here because this isn’t Candyland. This is real life, and we live in a world that has been evolving for about 4.54 billion years, give or take 10 to 50 million years. Every ice age, every extinction, every social change, every shift in hemlines has been a product of interdependent factors in a complex environment. You can sit on your princess throne and say that men should just change and life should just be fair. Good luck with that.
For our part, it will only help our cause if we are proactive and do everything in our power to stop the bad guys and enlighten the good guys. Sure, you could just sit around and be mad, waiting for social change to sweep across professional society like a special effect in a science fiction movie. Your desired results will take much, much longer that way, and you will be disconnected from the end result. Instead, we can all take some basic steps to help create an environment that is fair and beneficial to all of us.
1. Repeat after me, “Not all men are bad.” (Okay, you get a pass on this if some guy just broke up with you on a Post-It and you’re out drinking with your girlfriends). It’s funny, because even most guys I know will say, “Men are pigs.” The implication is that men are led around by their baser instincts and, therefore, will always be low quality humans who make bad decisions. But that’s just not true. Even from a statistical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that 49% of 7 billion people would ALL have sub-par character. And assuming that all men are bad is a negative attitude that will ill prepare you for helping your co-workers and bosses and clients evolve into more enlightened colleagues. Saying that all men are bad is a defeatist attitude that will not move us forward even an inch (or a centimeter for our Canadian and European readers).
2. We have to be aware of our own behavior and how it affects the perception of the men around us. I will admit that I sometimes have difficulties with this. I am a toucher – if you’ve met me, I’ve probably hugged you. I routinely grasp the nearest person’s arm to make a point, and I’ll squeeze a colleague around the shoulders to offer congratulations. I have learned that this sometimes generates confusion with my male colleagues. Yes, I’m proud of you for getting that journal article published, but no, I don’t intend to sleep with you as an attaboy. Unfortunately, many men will admit that they are less than adept at reading subtle signs and differentiating between behavior types in various situations. Simply put, some guys think you must want to sleep with them because you squeezed their arms. They are not pigs, they’re just…clueless. It has taken me awhile, but I have learned that I need to be more restrained in many situations to avoid confusion. It doesn’t mean I have to be cold and unfriendly, I just have to pay more attention to men’s reactions and err on the safe side until I feel like I know someone well. This doesn’t mean I’m being unduly burdened, it just means I’m being a responsible adult.
It goes without saying that flirting on the job will broadcast the idea that you might be receptive to inappropriate actions. Certainly, no means no. But you can avoid the pothole more easily if you don’t steer the car in that direction.
3. We have to speak up every time. Sometimes we endure an ugly situation and we emerge unscathed. The temptation is to let well enough alone and move on. Say your boss got physical with you, you gave him what-for, and now he’s acting respectful and giving you a wide berth. You consider just chalking it up to a bad memory and never speaking of it again. But what about the next woman? Maybe she’s not as brave as you are. Maybe she has four kids at home and she’s petrified she’ll lose her job. So the boss just moves on to harassing her. When she finally gets up the nerve to blow the whistle, the supporting evidence you have that would have helped her establish a pattern of behavior isn’t there. Management doubts her claim, because they usually do at first, and when you finally come forward, HR says, “If this really happened, why didn’t you complain?” When you say that the issue was solved, people inevitably look at the other woman and say, “Why didn’t you just do what she did?” Everyone becomes distracted from the fact that what the guy has been doing is WRONG. We need to address bad behavior every time.
It should be noted that at some point in time your justifiable whistle blowing most likely will result in an accusation that you’re just a whiner. You’re too sensitive. You caused the problem. Or, my favorite, you’re just hard to work with. Almost every woman in our field over the age of 30 has been told this at some point because she made public some guy’s bad behavior. I wish I could say don’t worry about it, it won’t happen. But it will, so you have to tell yourself in advance that you’re doing the right thing, and you’re a delightful person. No one can make you feel bad about yourself if you don’t let them.
4. We must always use our power for good. On the opposite side of justifiable whistle blowing is using sexual harassment as a tool to get back at a man with whom you have a personal dispute. Just like sexual harassment, false accusations are wrong. Ruining a man’s reputation because you don’t like him is wrong. Claiming sexual wrongdoing when a workplace romance goes horribly awry is wrong.
I once worked with a woman who actively pursued one of the engineers with the company, even seducing him at his desk after hours. When the short-lived affair went south, she got angry with the engineer and went to the boss to say that she was offended that Playboy magazines were kept in the men’s restroom by this engineer. She felt sexually harassed by this. Obviously, her campaign was personal, and I didn’t back her up when the boss asked me if I also felt compromised. She was furious with me, but I told her that her claim would make it difficult the next time a real problem happened.
This list is not comprehensive, because the best defense is a great offense. But probably our biggest responsibility in our very complicated campaign to rid the workplace of sexual inequalities is our need to support our sisters. This does not mean you have to agree with every opinion of every woman you know, and we don’t all have to be friends. But when another woman needs support, whether it be help reporting a problem or a sympathetic ear to try to figure out how to deal with a difficult boss, you owe it to YOURSELF to give her whatever she needs. The military doesn’t teach the infantry to stick together just to promote good social skills. Don’t ever leave anyone behind and you won’t get left behind.
Where’s the Smash Cake?
A little over a year ago we decided to do something crazy, and Underpinnings was hatched. We have built up a fabulous community, and we hear every day from one of our “skirts in dirt” how much they enjoy reading others’ stories and how much it helps them to know they’re not alone in the universe.
We deal with heavy subjects on a weekly basis, and we hope that we have helped make some progress in the world. But celebrations are not the time for serious conversations and heavy discussions. So we want to have some fun.
The flip side of the trouble involved with being a woman in a male-dominated field is the pure entertainment value. Most of us have been in some ludicrous/ridiculous/hilarious situation that stemmed from the fact that we were the only skirt at work. And not only is laughing good, but it’s important to recognize the positive side of our unique situations.
Underpinnings is celebrating our first anniversary with a contest. Yes – a contest! Below you will find a funny story from each of us. We are asking you to submit your favorite funny story from your life as a pink dot in a field of blue. The winner will receive a fabulous basket full of inspiring, weird, funny, sparkly gifts worthy of the effort we all make.
Entries are due by midnight, December 15th. A winner will be announced on Wednesday, December 20th. You may ask us to remain anonymous, if you would like, but we hope everyone feels like this is a safe space. Don’t worry about whether or not you write well – that’s not the point. We’ll clean up any little issues if necessary before we broadcast your hilarity to the world. E-mail your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t wait to read them. In the meantime, here are some examples.
My story has less to do with being a woman and more to do with just being me and sometimes overthinking things a bit too much. Recently, I was headed down to the Washington D.C. office of my company for the first time. I successfully navigated Amtrak from Wilmington to Union station in D.C. as I have often done before, bought a Metro card and located the appropriate line, and got off to walk several blocks to the office. I had worn comfy slip-on sneakers for travel and planned to change into heels when I arrived. I also planned to slip into a bathroom to apply lipstick and make myself presentable. When I entered the building I found it was the type to have a doorperson where you sign in as a guest and they swipe their keycard in the elevator and press the floor number for you. I felt it would have been quite awkward to avail myself of the bench in the lobby to change shoes and freshen up, so I mentally adjusted my plan to find the bathroom first when I arrived on the floor.
Having spent the last 15 years of my career in offices in suburban PA, I had forgotten that city offices often have separate locked bathrooms with a key available as needed to the office tenants on each floor. I stepped off the elevator, found the restroom, and got the stark reminder. So I scanned around for other options and found the next best thing- a door leading to the stairwell.
In the stairwell I completed my shoe change and used my cell phone as a mirror to fix my makeup. Satisfied, I gathered my briefcase and purse and turned to exit. That’s when the cold reality hit- the door handle wouldn’t move. I was locked in! Noooooo! What were my options? Continue down many flights of stairs back to the lobby, but what if it ended in an emergency exit or something? Climb up or down to see if all the floors were locked? Likely futile, and then I would have to get back on the elevator again which probably wouldn’t let me select the floor I needed. So, I had to bite the bullet and call the office to have someone rescue me. The office manager answered and failed to suppress her astonishment that I was locked in the stairwell. She came to my aid and reassured me that no one in the office was a stickler for dress code. I happened to glance down at her feet- she was wearing rain galoshes.
I spent about ten years doing construction-phase engineering for several hundred transmission structure foundations. Often the jobsites were in very remote locations that were only accessible via old logging roads or park service paths or yellow brick roads to magical wardrobes in vanishing train stations. Even more often the construction crews resembled the Pirates of the Caribbean crew with corresponding charm and social skills.
One particular project was on a steep peak east of Morehead, Kentucky, three hours from my house. Concrete was an hour away and placement typically involved getting the truck situated in some non-OSHA-approved arrangement. Construction started at the beginning of December during a year in which Kentucky had experienced more than its annual snowfall total by December 5th. None of the concrete truck drivers wanted to come to the site, so dispatch often “lost” the order for the day. Days were long and made even longer by the fact that my husband (at the time) had decided it was more dangerous for me to stay in a motel in eastern Kentucky than to spend six hours on the road every day in addition to 10 hours on the site.
The crew on this site was nice and minimally endowed with cartoon-worthy facial features. Not a single guy wore an eye patch. Three of them were under 25 and quite taken with having a “girl” on the site. One gentleman in particular appeared to be smitten with me, an amusing fact considering that I usually was covered in mud and bleeding from some random tie wire/rebar injury.
The third week of the project the amorous worker became more aggressively charming. I made frequent references to my husband, to no avail. He was never touchy or obnoxious, he just flirted a lot and let me know how much he admired my intelligence, my boots, (yes, boots), my understanding of different kinds of mud, and my ability to drive in the snow. Our last concrete pour was scheduled for that Friday, so I figured we would finish up and that would be that.
The last day of the job, more snow blew in. By noon, we had several inches on the ground and visibility was low. My admirer was unusually distant, but I figured he was just trying to get his work done amidst the bad weather. Oddly enough, the superintendent on the job was not rushing at all and kept backing the concrete plant off. “It’s Friday!” I kept saying. “If we don’t pour soon the drivers will all have their 40 in and we’ll get no concrete.” Nothing. The afternoon crept on and the only person seeming to be experiencing any anxiety was my “boyfriend.”
Finally, about 3:00, with snow driving in my face, I turned around when I heard an odd noise. There on one knee was the amorous crew member. He had taken the pine tree air freshener from his truck and folded it into the shape of a rose, and he was holding it out to me and serenading me with a country song about soul mates. (The image is still emblazoned in my brain). Stunned, I said, “Oh, sweetie, that’s lovely. But I’m married. And more importantly, we have to get concrete in the ground.” He stood up, gave me the “rose,” and said, “Well, you know where to find me.” Still stunned, I turned around to find the superintendent there watching. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, so I just asked why we still hadn’t poured concrete. He got a big grin on his face and said, “That boy has been mooning at you for three weeks. He thought if concrete was late today you would have to stay overnight and he could make his case. I told him I would play along as long as I could, but we’re starting to get some cave-ins, so I gave him a deadline. I’m all about true love, but I’m not digging these holes again.”
We finished pouring concrete and I went home. But pine tree air fresheners still make me smile.
Thanks Are Not Relative
Here at Underpinnings, we strive to figure out how to level the playing field for women in the deep foundations industry and in other male-dominated fields. We try to listen to the women in our professional and personal communities so that we can understand the many facets of the obstacles women face in our positions. We work to address the situations we call problems.
But down the street from us, there are women who haven’t eaten today. In other countries, women are not allowed to go to school. We protest catcalls at the same time women are being raped in the name of military superiority. While we complain about juggling the busy schedules of our spouses and kids, women in war zones are watching their families die. Yes, we have problems, but we have first-world problems.
It might seem logical to feel guilty and ashamed for complaining when we live in such fortunate circumstances. On the contrary, we should be thankful. We should view our success and progress as the front end of the movement. Instead of settling for the flawed conditions in which we work, rationalizing that it could be so much worse, we should continue to move forward. We women are a unit, and the more ground we cover, the farther forward we pull the whole group. By improving our “station,” we increase the power of our outrage over the plight of women elsewhere in the world. The more we push the idea that it’s not okay to demean or limit women anywhere, the better the chances are that we can prevent it from happening everywhere.
This week we are thankful that we have the right to have a meaningful discussion about our place in the world. We are grateful for our opportunities. And we appreciate the power we have to make things better in the future.
We also are thankful for our Underpinnings community. Next week, we will have our one-year anniversary, and we’re going to celebrate with something new and fun. No, it’s not wrong to be happy and have fun when others are not. You can rest assured they would be happy if they had the chance. We can’t let any of those chances slip away, because our happiness and our hope are the sparks that fire our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Underpinnings Team!
Are You Uncomfortable?
(Warning: This post contains a slang word that may be offensive to some. It should be offensive to all).
Last week I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair, being assaulted by a stranger’s cell phone conversation overflow, and mourning yet another precious few hours of my life that were forever lost while waiting for a flight at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. I have spent enough time being distracted and bored in that place that I am convinced the ghost of my youthful enthusiasm roams the concourses when I’m not there.
Two airport workers, both men, took seats next to me on an apparent break. They chatted and laughed, calling out to other workers they knew as they walked past. One employee in particular strolled over to spend a good 10 minutes describing how badly the work was going where he was assigned. He moaned and groaned about delays and %^$#ups, repeatedly saying that he was sure the trouble could be traced back to the woman who was in charge of scheduling for the project. Finally finished complaining, he went to walk away and the first two guys tried to give him some words of encouragement. He shook them off and said, “Oh, it’s only going to get worse. You ever worked with a beaver before?”
I was shocked – only that he had the nerve to make such a statement in front of so many airline customers. Surely he would fear someone lodging a complaint?
On the other hand, his statement itself didn’t surprise me at all. It was not the first time, nor the fortieth time, I have heard some variation on a remark like this. And although “sensitivity training” has become commonplace in many workplaces, I can’t say that the frequency I hear such comments on construction sites and in engineering offices has decreased. The offenders now just preface their remarks with, “Well, I’ll get in trouble with the sensitivity training people if I say this, but….”
This is reality. Most women in our field can say they have experienced some degree of this type of behavior, if not worse. Many women in our field also can give lengthy recitations of less blatant, but similarly intended, slights, insults, and otherwise ugly occurrences. Thankfully, the landscape appears to be somewhat friendly for many women now, particularly younger women. No doubt corporate culture has evolved to an awareness of gender issues that has reduced the amount of discrimination, be it overt or subtle, that some women experience on a daily basis. But serious issues still persist, or we would not have this blog, and you would not be reading it. In order to eliminate those problems, we must be willing to be uncomfortable.
Several months ago, I was having dinner with a colleague, a seasoned professional. Someone else mentioned Underpinnings, and he said he was all for promoting women in our field. He then went on to say he had attended a dinner intended to introduce women to other professionals in their workplace. He said it was fine until two of the women started talking about dresses. Dresses! He was appalled. How could these women expect to be taken seriously if they acted like, well, women?
Normally, my Southern-bred manners would have required me to just gloss over this comment and change the subject. (Do not make dinner unpleasant under any circumstances). But I felt there was an important point to make with an influential person. So I asked him, “What’s wrong with talking about dresses? Do we have to pretend we’re not who we are in order to be accepted as engineers?” The question took him aback. He didn’t really have an answer. I could only hope that he would continue to ponder the issue after he left, coming to a more enlightened position on the matter.
The point is that ignorance and hostility will persist if we are not willing to make ourselves uncomfortable to effect change. This example was a mild one, but perhaps more in keeping with common occurrences many professional women experience. The more hostile conditions and situations require more aggressive action. If we as individuals are not willing to create a stir, or make someone else unhappy, or be labeled as a troublemaker, the offensive activities will continue. Cheerleading and commiseration only go so far. Acknowledging those who support us is great, but ignoring those who don’t won’t make them go away.
Certainly, the conditions for women in our field are better now than they were 25 years ago, and outstanding compared to what existed 50 years ago. But the man in the airport is proof that we’re not in Candyland yet. And if you think that his blatant misogyny and your issues with getting promoted in your office aren’t connected, you are putting your head in the sand.
Those of us in the Over 40 crowd can say that we have had to fight a lot of ugly battles to get where we are today. And those of you in the Under 40 crowd have a better set of circumstances as a result. I can say honestly that I once was locked in a job trailer with a large aggressive jobsite superintendent who had decided it was time I put out. I was told in a progress meeting in front of 30 men that I wasn’t going to decide what concrete was good or bad, “…just because you swish your ass in front of everyone.” And a former boss decided that sleeping with him was part of my project duties. Each of these situations caused me to have to take a stand and risk being labeled as a trouble maker. But each instance was wrong, and I hope my discomfort caused change that allowed some other women to go about their business without similar problems.
During a number of other times in my career, I chose to act as though there were no problems. I thought if I acknowledged the issues, it would give the opposition, or even my boss or my clients, a reason that a woman should not be in my position. I believed that if I concentrated on getting along with those who appeared to support me that I could eventually win everyone over to my side. But human nature is not so malleable, and men who are aggressively opposed to women having responsibility are not going to be persuaded by good manners and a plate of cookies. Sometimes you have to call out the injustice. Sometimes you have to declare war on the hate. It’s not pleasant, but real changes in cultural myopathy rarely are accompanied by teddy bears and candy canes. A committee meeting is not going to stop that knuckle-dragging evolutionary hiccup from referring to his female co-worker as a beaver. Revolutions don’t start when everyone is happy.
I truly appreciate all of the men who support us, and I’m grateful for the strides that have been made to create a professional environment that is more welcoming to women today. I also hope that those same women who are benefitting from struggles in the past are willing to go to bat for themselves and others who are in situations in the present that are still far from perfect. If you won’t speak up and say you don’t like ham sandwiches, don’t complain to your friends that lunch is never any good.