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.