A few weeks ago, I came across this blog post (click to follow the link) and my response was a resounding “Yes!” Yes to the idea that we should be happy with accomplishments first for ourselves. Yes to less looking to others for affirmation. In my mind, the post was all about stopping ourselves from constantly asking, “Was that good enough? Did I do what I was supposed to do? Was that enough to prove my worth?”
So, I wrote a post about this for Underpinnings, and I sent it to Helen for her expert editorial review. She responded with, “Can we talk about this?” I speak fluent Helen, so I said, “So, you hated it.” This led to an animated discussion that revealed that I had not done a good job expressing myself. I hadn’t really said what I wanted to say, and I realized that some of my poor communication stemmed from the fact that I had not fully worked out how I felt about this issue. Was I objecting to praise? No, not really. I did feel like that often praise for women in our field has a bit of a well-that’s-great-no-one-expected-you-to-do-well-because-you’re-a-girl feel to it. But that wasn’t really the crux of it. Of course I believe in praise – just ask my stepdaughter. She used to say, “I know, I appreciate it, but you always think we can do anything well.” So why did this pitch for looking for your own praise first resonate with me so strongly?
As I was trying to figure this out (in order to write a post that actually made sense), I got a phone call saying that a young relative very close to me had tried to commit suicide. A phone call like this never makes sense. How could it? How could a young teenager have experienced enough to decide that nothing here would make it worthwhile to stick around? This is an individual with friends and hobbies who is consistently at the top of her class. How does this compute? It doesn’t. And sadly, as I bawled to my always-supportive friends, many told me that they knew of other young women in the same age bracket right now who were battling depression and anxiety. No coronavirus can be held accountable for this epidemic, and the casualties are certainly much higher. How did we get here?
My original rumination on the nature of our need for praise seems to have some place in this discussion. Until a hundred years or so ago, the everyday tasks and responsibilities of most women did not involve opportunities for praise. Beyond accolades for a well-cooked dinner (if they were lucky) or congratulations on birthing a strong child (without dying in the process), women were relegated to the world of servitude, and servants don’t get praise. A good servant is someone who follows the rules and doesn’t get reprimanded. Actually, for most of the world’s population, men included, daily life was too full of tasks necessary just to survive to get much praise. “Nice job keeping us alive through the winter,” probably wasn’t a compliment doled out too frequently, even if it was valid.
As the business of staying alive through modern conveniences allowed people to engage in pursuits where praise might be more appropriate on a regular basis, women still were stuck in a narrow aisle of domestic pursuits. But the modern conveniences gave them the opportunity to excel, not just survive. The many “women’s magazines” that arose during the twentieth century attested to the fact that women were striving for some sort of achievement. Here’s a fabulous Jell-O mold – did I do that well? Look how clean my kids’ clothes are – am I a great mom? Here’s a cocktail I invented for my husband for the end of his workday – am I smart? Even though women were making advances in equality, they did it within the framework of proving their worth. They had to. Because the law had said for hundreds of years that they didn’t have any worth. So they were going to prove themselves within the categories they were allowed to inhabit. The women striving for achievement outside the sanctioned areas were considered to be dangerous influences and reckless rebels.
The problem with the structure of affirmation was that the implications of many preceding years was built into the approvals. You can be commended for having well-behaved children who wear perfectly ironed clothes because it means you’re staying in your lane. The stronger the praise given, the more other women would want to strive for the same goals. So the system reinforced the original scheme of oppression while seemingly giving women more opportunities to succeed.
And we bought into it. In our enthusiasm for being betterstrongerfaster, we devoured the magazines and videos telling us how to be prettier, how to get thinner, how to do better in school, how to have a more fabulously decorated house. We got competitive within the lane we had been given without realizing we were reinforcing the outside lines.
In the past 40 years, more and more women have decided that the lanes are too narrow. We have widened our selection of acceptable careers and we have tried to normalize workplaces that are equal. We’ve even been able to change the accepted standards of beauty that were unrealistic and discriminatory towards all women except four or five anomalous girls who were blessed with freakishly fantastic genes. But we have not been able to shake our drive to prove ourselves. We’re still looking for an atta girl, a confirmation that we did a good job and we deserve to be….wherever we are. Why? Men obviously don’t do this. Have you visited the Men’s Interest magazine section in your local bookstore? The headlines imply, “You’re already crushing it – here’s a way to have an even better time while you’re conquering the world.”
I’m afraid we have successfully changed the professional landscape for women everywhere without addressing the entrenched social expectations and behavioral patterns that have been drilled into females for thousands of years. I refuse to believe that the current rash of depressed teenagers is solely a product of social media. That’s an answer that’s too easy. Yes, social media creates a whole mess of complications when dealing with the normal horror show that is adolescence for most people. But we have to address the foundation we are providing for kids, particularly girls, who are living in a world that is vastly different for their gender than it was 100 years ago. How do we break out of this infinite loop of quest for achievement and praise to define worth? How do we let girls know that success does not come from being a blue-ribbon rule follower, because many of the rules are sexist crap? How do we turn all of our progress over the past century into real opportunity rather than just a wider array of roles in which we wear ourselves out saying, “Was that good? Am I good enough?” It’s 2020 – our girls should not be chained to the same debilitating expectations that have limited the women before us.
Inspiration is a Great Gift Idea
I count the last part of 2019 as a time in which we received a bounty of gifts to renew our hope in making the workplace equal for men and women. I’m not talking about anything related to #MeToo or TimesUp. These gifts were outstanding women setting fabulous examples for the rest of us. Did you notice? If not, allow me to elaborate.
In mid-November, I got into my car one day and turned on the radio. If I had known the impeachment hearings were being broadcast live, I probably would have switched to the classical music station. I hate to admit that, because I’m constantly torn, feeling like I have a responsibility as a citizen to know what’s going on. But – ugh. Just ugh. The unending bickering between self-absorbed people who are only interested in keeping their own jobs is just exhausting. If these narcissistic politicians who dominate the microphones actually cared about the country, the situation would be completely different, but here we are.
So, I flipped on the radio and was immediately met with the carefully modulated tones of Marie Yovanovitch. The former Ambassador to Ukraine and longtime Foreign Service member was in the middle of her opening remarks, and I was mesmerized. She articulately described her long work history, a resume that included multiple incidents where she had to flee a location under gunfire. Her words and demeanor made it clear that she was a consummate professional and that she did what she did because she believes in our country. Her commitment to protecting and advancing the U.S. through sound foreign policy was obvious.
As members of Congress began to question Dr. Yovanovitch, the subject of her dismissal from her diplomatic position by the President of the U.S. arose. Multiple persons brought up the fact that the President said negative things about her to representatives of other countries, and he had put out ugly tweets about her during the hearings. She went to respond to this subject – the subject of the abrupt end of her sterling career – and I heard her voice start to waver. As she became obviously emotional, I instantly yelled, “Nonononono!” at the radio. You CAN’T get emotional when you’re confronted if you’re a woman. We all know that, don’t we? They’ll use it against you, whomever they happen to be. Don’t show that you care. Never show weakness.
But Dr. Yovanovitch went on in the same manner, and the effects were simply, unexpectedly wonderful. Most of the hearing participants already were blatantly hesitant to say anything negative to someone with such an admirable background. Her display of emotion just brought it home. Instead of going in for the kill, the questioners appeared to realize just how tragic the situation was and how much Dr. Yovanovitch had given for the country they were supposedly trying to save with their hearings and fighting and grandstanding. Her emotion was absolutely appropriate and served to prove the depth of the commitment she had already described.
I learned something in that moment. Yes, we still have to be careful about making sure ignorant men in the workplace don’t perceive us as “emotional.” But we can’t let that keep us from expressing true emotions, particularly when they are well-placed and help people to understand our positions and beliefs. Through her example, Dr. Yovanovitch proved something to the women of this country – you don’t have to hide your emotions and pretend like you don’t care to be taken seriously.
A few days after Marie Yovanovitch testified, I again unwittingly turned on the radio during the impeachment hearings. This time, former National Security Council member Fiona Hill gripped my attention from her first sentence. She was in the process of clarifying that, in case anyone was still misunderstanding, Ukraine did not interfere with the 2016 election, Russia did. She didn’t hedge her statements or keep them general enough to cover potential gray areas. In effect, she said, “Look, you idiots. Russia interfered in our election in 2016 and they are on track to do it again in 2020. This is not in question, and if you don’t get your heads out of your asses you’ll pay the price.” It was FABULOUS. She did not care if someone thought she sounded “too masculine” or if she might be perceived as a bitch. She had plenty of experience to know what she was doing, and she had the data to back up her beliefs. She was doing her job. Let me repeat that – she was doing her job. The strength of her convictions and her own knowledge were sufficient weapons to let her do what she needed to do without worrying about what anyone thought about her delivery or her qualifications. As someone I know said, “That woman is a badass.”
As the questioning continued, Dr. Hill did something that gave me a chill. She addressed a situation in which she was wrong. She stated that she was wrong, and she explained why she had drawn erroneous conclusions. She didn’t over-apologize, and she didn’t take the entire blame for everything that had ever happened to the world. She explained and moved on. I was in awe.
Again, I learned something. At some point you have to forget about “leaning in” and “seizing your power” and “being sensitive to others’ preconceptions.” Sometimes you have to just do your job. If you’re doing it right, and your eye is on the task at hand, all of the rest of the socio-political crap will be unimportant. And if you make a mistake, own it, explain it, and move on. Don’t give your detractors more ammunition by making too much of your mistakes.
The last ray of inspiration came in a dark movie theater in December watching “The Rise of Skywalker.” I should mention that I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, and I related to the fact that Princess Leia worked hard every day amidst nothing but a sea of men. No eyebrows were raised in 1977 when she was the only real recognizable female character in a string of three epic movies that included casts of hundreds. What was remarkable then was that the princess was written as a character with power. People listened to her. Even though the men came to rescue her on a couple of occasions, the rescues were necessary because she was in the thick of the battles. She wasn’t carted off as a prize; she was captured and tortured for information because SHE KNEW IMPORTANT THINGS. In the late 70s and early 80s, there weren’t very many female leads that fit this bill, so she was my hero.
On December 19, 2019, I got to watch the latest installment of the series. Like everyone else, I was burdened with the knowledge that Carrie Fisher died before the movie was made. Unlike the early films, the most recent movies have been full of strong female characters, including generals and mercenaries and a woman who could be argued is the new hero of the saga (Rey), so it could be thought that Princess Leia wasn’t so important anymore. But she started all this, and her place in the story felt personal. It has been widely publicized that the movie producers were able to use old footage of Carrie Fisher to keep her character in the movie, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that I felt something of a triumph when she came onscreen to give orders or to advise Rey. As the movie unfolded, I’ll admit that I was a bit choked up and mentally said to Princess Leia, “We did it. Look how different everything is now. And it wouldn’t be if you and I and a bunch of other hard-headed women hadn’t worn ourselves out making sure all these other women could be here.” Although I did nothing to defeat the First Order, I still felt a small victory. Little girls watching the movie now don’t have to think that a male-only work world is normal.
Now 2020 has started, and I feel like we have some positive momentum. I’m looking for more sources of inspiration and hope and progress, and I hope you are, too. Let us know if you have seen a ray of light that we’ve missed. We all need the sunshine to thrive.
(Note: If you did not hear or see any of the testimony of Dr. Yovanovitch or Dr. Hill, I recommend you watch some of the coverage. Both women were rock stars. And I strongly recommend that you watch Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, if you haven’t already. Skip Episodes 1-3 of the series, as they are overcomplicated, convoluted messes that do not contribute to the narrative).
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.
A Victory for All
Did you watch? Did you cheer? Did you cry every time they showed a commercial with a young girl with a hopeful expression?
I realize that not all of our Underpinnings community may have been interested in the recent victory by the United States team in the FIFA World Cup, but we all should be. In fact, the victory by the United States isn’t the only significant takeaway from this soccer tournament. (Sorry fans from the rest of the world – in my land, football involves helmets and tailgating and the use of hands). The attention paid to all the teams and the tournament in general is a victory.
Until recent years, women’s sports were only of universal interest when there was some item of appeal other than just the female athletes’ performances. Dorothy Hamill’s haircut, Florence Griffith-Joyner’s one-legged running suits, Misty May-Treanor’s uniform – all of these elements were used as additional allure to help get people to cheer for women’s sports. Today, Serena Williams still gets more press for giving Meghan Markle a baby shower than for her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. In most cases, television networks and venue owners and, let’s be honest, most ordinary citizens in the past didn’t believe that women’s sports were exciting or interesting because women weren’t considered to be elite athletes. Instead, the average bear looked at women in sports along the lines of “Isn’t that cute?” It was the same attitude by which most parents view their first graders’ pursuit of local championships. It’s cute that they’re trying, isn’t it? If you are over 30 and you think everyone you know took you seriously as an athlete, you’re sadly deluded. You and your teammates were serious, of course. Your family? Yes. Your school? Probably a lot of them did. The guy who owns the local hardware store? Insert chuckle here.
I give you this jaded, cynical perspective as someone who can attest to it from the front lines. I was on the volleyball team, the softball team, the cheerleading squad, and the tennis team in grade school, and the cross country and track teams in grade school, high school, and college. I played Little League baseball right after the Supreme Court decided that girls had to be allowed to play. I also was in a bunch of other activities, like newspaper, Pep Club, French Club, student government, ASCE, Tau Beta Pi, etc., so I could see the contrast between sports and other areas. (Yes, I “overscheduled” myself, but I had a deep, abject fear of being called lazy. I have no idea why, and it certainly was not the fault of my very supportive parents, but there you have it. My efforts often suffered from a quantity over quality issue).
This is not to say that I experienced full equity in every other activity, but I did hear the same statement made repeatedly about sports – “Okay, maybe women are equal to men mentally, but you have to admit that men are stronger and faster, so women will never be able to compete with men in sports.” This assumes that all sports depend solely on speed and strength. The foregone conclusion then was that women’s sports weren’t worth watching because we are inferior athletes. (It should be noted that strength is defined here solely as the ability to lift the heaviest weights. As is demonstrated by concrete, one definition of strength does not mean that the material is “strongest”).
Many guys I have known have treated sports almost as if they are the last bastions of men’s superiority to women. They reluctantly support our forays into “their” worlds – banking, medicine, construction – and fall back on what they think is a sure-fired argument, that being that women will never be equal to men in what they see as physical prowess. Once again, their perspective is too general and transparently desperate.
In high school, a coach for a rival cross-country team was generous with his excellent coaching advice, often giving pointers to those of us not on his team. We were a tight community and he was well-regarded, so no one objected. In addition, one of the girls on his team and I looked a lot alike, and our people routinely mistook us for each other, so I became friends with most of the girls on their team.
After one meet, I made a passing comment to this coach that I wished I could have finished the race as strongly as my doppelganger, a girl named Jenny. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “You know, she had a lot of trouble at the beginning of the year because she started looking like her mama. We worked on changing her strength training to adjust to her new body. It’s helped a lot. You ladies have to remember that you shouldn’t necessarily train the same way the boys do. You’re not less, you’re just different.” I was so taken aback that I stood there with my mouth open. Luckily, he was a good man and gave me some encouraging words before he moved on.
What Coach was saying was that the girl in question had just developed a bunch of curves and grown 3 inches. The same thing had happened to the defending State Champion the year before, and she finished 25th in State in her “new” body.
This was the first time anyone spoke to me about my physical characteristics as a female as if they were part of a different athletic machine instead of an inferior one. I had a lot of good coaches, but most of them existed within the limited framework society presented for women’s sports. We worked hard, we did what we could, but we didn’t get the same analysis and encouragement to push our limits like the guys did.
The world is a much better place for female athletes today, but many people still hold onto the same prejudices, regardless of what they say or how many daughters they have in soccer leagues. How many times have you heard a guy say, “Some of those women athletes don’t even look like women,” or “Some of those girls need to watch what they say in their interviews,” or “The women’s games are fun, but they’re not real (fill in sport here) like the men play.” These statements show that a lot of people still expect women to do what women are supposed to do – look pretty and behave. We can do whatever we want as long as we strive to achieve those things and don’t try to barge into the men’s domain of physical prowess.
This World Cup team, and many people (at least in the U.S. audience), have ignored that attitude. Commercials during the games have shown women inspiring girls to be…whatever they want. We’ve had fabulous highlight reels and packed watch parties. The festivities have not been afflicted by the condescending, patronizing air that in the past has plagued coverage of women’s sports. This is sports. Period. Somewhere Bubba is out fishing with his friends and complaining that those “ugly manly women trying to play soccer shouldn’t be on TV,” but his opinion wouldn’t be a popular one at most watering holes this week.
And the effects reach beyond the field. During this World Cup, the issue came up that the U.S. Women have performed (repeatedly) better than the U.S. men, but they are paid a fraction of what the men are paid. The revelation caused quite an uproar, leading to yet another discussion of gender equity in yet another arena. (Equal pay! Equal pay!) Even if you aren’t into sports, you owe this team a thank you for bringing the case for equity to a very visible, very popular format. Don’t rail about how “more important” professions should have been given attention before this, and people in sports don’t do “real work.” Say thank you for the shot in the arm and for putting the spotlight on pay equity to an audience of millions.
The important lesson from the success of the World Cup team as it pertains to our struggles as women goes back to the words of my rival coach. People can say that men are faster or stronger or don’t have to worry about breastfeeding their newborns while overseeing installation of a slurry cutoff wall. That just means we’re different. Not less, just different. The world is a better place when everyone recognizes this.
Are These Our Only Two Choices?
No doubt you have taken part in at least one discussion, if not endless discourse, on the cultural rift we have today between our Millennial generation and the rest of the world in the working environment. Trust me when I say I understand why this division exists, because I have analyzed and investigated and listened until I can’t stand to hear the phrase “work-life balance” one more time. I get it, and I understand it. Whether or not I agree with many of the current recommendations for coping with it is a minefield for another time.
Pertinent to our exploration of perfection here at Underpinnings is a thread that runs through most examinations of why Millennials act the way they do – the idea that we, the parent generation, are at fault. As a friend of mine so aptly put it, “We always swore up and down that our kids wouldn’t have to work as hard as we have. Well, they don’t. At all.”
Before this turns into an ugly digital brawl over whether or not Millennials are worthless slackers or hapless victims, (do you love the fact that those are the only two choices?), I would divert your attention to the same hypothesis, but for a different issue. Are we, the parents of the next generation of brilliant women, promoting perfection at the expense of personal growth and societal improvement? And are we doing it to spare ourselves from pain?
Many of us in the GenX and Baby Boomer categories have fought some bloody battles to get where we are and to smooth the way for women behind us on the moving sidewalk of life. We remember when a woman would have very little recourse if a man on a construction site said something vulgar or, worse, didn’t pay any attention to her engineering recommendations. We’ve had our asses grabbed and our chests groped, and we have been on the receiving end of drunken kisses from superiors at professional events.
So things are better now, right? And that’s a good thing, right? But are we, ourselves, sabotaging more progress by reinforcing the notion of perfection in our daughters, our protégées, and our co-workers?
The connection between the quest for perfection and problems with sexism have played around the edges of my brain for a long time. There was something there that was truly bothering me, and I knew it was a very basic, very ugly problem. It took a lot of runs and hours on the Treadclimber to jar the pattern out of my observations. When I finally felt like I had made the connection I was sensing, it came down to two issues: stereotypes and sex.
Yes, we cheer on young women now in a variety of previously male-dominated fields. If you are the top of your class and you get promoted to district manager at 25 and you receive an award for Young Contractor of the Year, the world will give you a medal and call you legitimate. But if you are a female and you’re not in the top 10% of your class, chances are you will not get a rousing round of encouragement to “go for it.” Why? Because we all know that even in 2018, a woman has to excel to be considered average in a man’s world. A woman who does not excel will not be considered average, she’ll be viewed as dead weight. So, as often occurs, her loving family discourages her from moving forward in a career environment that they know will be difficult. Our message: If you’re not brilliant, you’re a failure. Even worse – if you’re not brilliant, you need to settle for being just a wife and mother. (As if being a wife and mother is easy or unimportant or settling). Why are there only two extremes? Because parents and mentors don’t want their loved ones to be hurt. So we drive drive drive the young ladies to get perfect grades and be class president and captain of the lacrosse team. And when our daughters get average grades and express interest in “unimportant” things like teaching or fashion or interior design, we write them off. (Where would we be without teachers???) Or when they get average grades and still want to be engineers, we discourage them. It will be too hard, we think. Being who they are isn’t enough to break the glass ceiling, so being who they are isn’t enough. We then relegate their career importance to whatever children they may someday have.
I work with a lot of men who aren’t very smart. (Insert jokes here). Many of them are successful because they work hard, they’re creative, and they come up with unique solutions to problems. There’s no reason to think that a female engineering student with middling grades couldn’t achieve in the same manner. But we know she’ll be underappreciated at the start, and we don’t want her to get discouraged. So we recommend different routes. We imply that anything less than perfection isn’t good enough to join our sisterhood.
The other side of this issue involves our personal, not professional, expectations of our younger generation. One could (try to) make the argument that some parents press their children of both sexes to be top notch academically and give up when they aren’t. But no argument can be made that we view our daughters and sons equally when evaluating their personal decisions.
Take pregnancy. Obviously, all parents and mentors want their young people to become parents when it is appropriate and feasible financially. (Spoiler – it’s never financially feasible to be a parent). But if a boy gets his girlfriend (or Friday night hookup) pregnant, chances are his family will be upset, but mainly concerned about how he’ll be able to support the child and how it will affect his future. If a girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend, her family is worried about the same things, but they are also ashamed. They are disappointed in her. As much as you can try to say that the concern is just about her future, 9 times out of 10 the parents and friends are disappointed in her moral choices. She let someone touch her. If the boy was a Friday night hookup instead of a boyfriend, the shame is tenfold. You can try to say all day long that all of the crying is about practicality and futures and finances, but you cannot deny the fact that many parents will look at their daughters differently in these situations. She had sex. Everyone will know. So they push their daughters to be perfect. Don’t dress improperly. Don’t flirt. You don’t need to pay attention to boys, you need to study. Isn’t it great that my daughter isn’t interested in boys?
A sad component of this problem is our own selfish worries about what others will think. “They’ll think I’m a bad parent.” “People will know my daughter decided to have sex and they’ll think less of me.” Needless to say, such concerns are shallow and only reinforce sexist societal attitudes.
Along with shame from pregnancy comes fear of our young women being seen as sexual beings at all. Our sons get lucky with a hot girl at work? At least one person will say, “Atta boy.” You find out your daughter had sex with a construction worker on one of her sites? Instead of, “Well, that wasn’t brilliant, but making mistakes means learning,” we say, “Who knows about it? Oh no. You’ll be ruined.” (No one EVER says, “Atta girl.”) In many cases, she will be ruined. Because we, the older generation, are freaking out about the fact that an adult woman in a free society made a choice. Again, you can say all day long that we are just trying to protect her, but perpetuating double-standards isn’t protection. It’s fear. We are limiting our daughters’ freedom because we are afraid they’ll get hurt, and that hurt will hurt us.
Our over-protection is just another version of trophies-for-everyone, no-grades-until-fourth-grade, and gifts-for-every-party-guest. Our generation and the generation before us got where we are by dealing with the ugly side of sexism in the workplace and in society. If we want progress to continue, we have to allow the current generation to participate. Let your young protégée take that job with that nasty old superintendent, and let her figure out how to show him who’s boss. She’ll probably make some mistakes, and she might even end up quitting the job, but at least she got out there. Support your daughter when she admits that she hates school and she’s always dreamed of being a magician on a cruise ship and VIEW HER CAREER AS VALID. Treat your niece like the shining star she still is when she comes home from Coachella pregnant. She is a smart, strong, ball-buster, and she’ll figure out a way to get her PhD in agronomy with a toddler on her hip. We have to stop telling our girls that their only two choices are perfection and mediocrity. And we need to respect them as the fierce individuals that they are instead of trying to cram them into some ideal that helps us sleep at night.
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 Can Do It…Even Better Now
If you follow our little blog and read the comments from our readers, you might have seen a rather pointed comment on our introduction of our contest winner, Lori Simpson, back in December. After we listed all of Lori’s lengthy accomplishments, I suggested that this was all very impressive because Lori was only 25. The implication, of course, was that it would be more desirable if Lori were 25 than her actual age, which is not my business to disclose. (I wasn’t raised by wolves). One of our readers expressed her dismay at the joke and suggested that we stop acting like younger is better and start showing some respect for the accomplishments and benefits of age.
Okay, just between us chickens, my initial reaction was not one that appreciated her insights. In fact, I think the mumbling alone in my office went something like, “Oh sure – you’re probably, what? 35? If that? I’ll bet you don’t spend a good portion of your time trying to keep your rear end from hanging down to the backs of your knees. You probably don’t even know what Retinol is. You have maybe one wrinkle? And you probably told all your friends about how horrible it is. Just wait until your face looks like a topo map and then talk to me about how great age is. You’ll just love it when you look like Mrs. Claus and all the guys just want you to bake them cookies.” There might have been some uglier rambling, but I’ll spare you that.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about her comments. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. I hate it when that happens. My attitude about my own age in fact does nothing more than contribute to accepted social negativity. As long as I focus on the drawbacks of maturity and fail to celebrate the benefits, I’m just making the problem worse.
So I need to embrace the beauty of maturity and wisdom and stop acting like younger is better. This is nothing we all haven’t read in a thousand magazines. Extol the mystique and allure of my accumulated years and celebrate the fact that I have a lot more career experience and knowledge than the average bear. Appreciate that I am in a position now to help my clients and contribute professionally with a unique perspective based on a long history of project execution and successes.
Fabulous. So I conceded my error (even though our beloved reader never knew of my solo rant) and issued a retraction in the form of a Solution Feature that embraced the value of age.
But the issue kept bugging me. There was something missing from this newly accepted perspective. Even though I was not drinking wine at a café in Paris, adorned with an artfully arranged scarf and chatting with the most recent in a string of fabulous lovers, I could see myself better in the framework of an accomplished woman of 50. (There, it’s out there. It only took 45 minutes for me to type that number). But the career side didn’t fit. So I had to sort through it to understand why.
Many times I’ve been with my dad at a site, and an owner or a contractor or another engineer has listened to him and not me. I can’t count how many times he’s said to me, “You just don’t have enough gray hair.” To which I usually replied, “I have a salon to make sure that never happens.” It’s been our running joke for years. When I tried to figure out what piece of the maturity puzzle was missing, I realized that this was it.
Women only began working in our industry in visible numbers in recent years. It’s reasonable to say that women only really began entering our field in significant numbers in the mid-1980s. If a woman graduated from college in 1985, she would be about 55 years old now. What does this mean? This means that most of the guys on jobsites and at design firms have no experience in dealing with a “gray-haired” woman in our industry. They don’t associate a gray-haired woman in our position with a paragon of wisdom, because they have no frame of reference.
So doesn’t that just mean that we’re creating a new identity and men in our field will start to recognize it? If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, in our business, we have trouble with our roles to begin with. Many guys don’t acknowledge us at all. Being older won’t have any effect on their apathy. Other men pay attention to us only because we’re female. (“You smell better than the concrete crew.” So do some horses, but the gist of the compliment was understood). We hope and pray that our expertise will widen their appreciation of our abilities beyond just physical appearance and they’ll eventually regard us as worthwhile professionals. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. For those guys, age cancels out any reason to pay attention to us. We’re old and unattractive to them. For another subset of guys, an older woman creates nothing but a worry or a hazard on a jobsite. “Don’t break a hip!” “Wouldn’t you be happier somewhere you can get your knitting needles out and work?”
We don’t have that magical role of a wise sage to attain, because it doesn’t exist in the female form in our industry. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant femmes d’un certain age in our field. But they are so few as to not be known by the masses.
What that means for us is that Joe B. Superintendent might ask me if I’m at a site to visit my grandson, or if I’m someone’s secretary delivering shop drawings. He might hold my elbow when I step over piles of rebar because he’s afraid I’ll break a bone and end up in a nursing home forever. He might ignore me thinking I have nothing useful to share.
This sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? On the contrary, much like everything else we have dealt with in our roles as women in a male-dominated profession, this is just another opportunity to blaze a trail. In fact, this gives us the chance to define what the image of an experienced, mature female engineer or contractor will be in the deep foundations business. I’m thinking we can do a lot with this. My contribution might be along the lines of Indiana Jones meets Dorothy Parker meets Reese Witherspoon. We are not conventional women and we won’t leave conventional marks. And all the boys on the jobsites will recognize that they will have no idea what to expect when they see a female “gray hair,” but we’ll have important things to contribute. I’m not suggesting this will be easy, but it gives us something more positive to reach for in our dotage when we start getting negative or apathetic reactions instead of the respect we deserve. I hope you’ll write this script with me.
(It’s important to note that I say gray hair symbolically and metaphorically. I honor every woman’s choice, but I’m southern. We don’t do that salt and pepper nonsense, and you will not convince me that it’s more authentic or honest or whatever other fairy tale you want to sell me. Hair colorists need jobs, and I won’t let them down. But I’ll project that “gray hair” aura with pride).
The Casualties Are Higher When It’s Personal
It didn’t take the #metoo movement for most of us to be familiar with being undervalued or disrespected or ignored at work or in school. Even our youngest millennials who work in progressive companies with open-minded colleagues have run into ugliness at some point. The trouble may have come from a backwards guy on a jobsite spouting obscene suggestions while he ignored your engineering evaluation of the problem with his soil nail wall. You may have lost a promotion to a guy with less experience but who the boss felt more comfortable sending out to construction sites. Or the issue may have been more subtle; a manager who professed to care about your career but who kept assigning difficult projects to others in order to “give you less stress.”
As we wade through these swine-infested waters, the implication is that all of our problems are work issues. The offenders are people from families that aren’t yours. The misogynists are other women’s husbands (bless their hearts). And when you leave the offensive situation at work, you get to go home to sympathetic people who love you and value you for everything wonderful that you are.
Yes, in the candy-canes-and-teddy-bears world in my head this is true. We all have supportive, understanding partners and close-knit, warm families. Diane Keaton will be playing your mom in the movie about how you took on the unequal power structure at your company and won, and Kelly Clarkson will do the soundtrack.
How often is this really true? Using the analytical side of our personalities, does it make statistical sense that all of us fabulous women in our field would have enlightened partners and families? Not a chance. We have to be realistic about the fact that our career choices likely will make waves for us personally as well as professionally. And it’s doubtful that there’s an HR office in your house to sort it out. So solving your inequality problems with people you are tied to legally and genetically probably will be much more complicated than taking care of your work issues. And much more painful.
I worked with a woman years ago whose father was an earthwork contractor. He had raised his two sons to work in the family business, and neither had ended up working with him. On the other hand, his daughter had spent her childhood begging to learn how to operate a backhoe, asking questions about grade stakes and stockpiles. He told her that girls had no place in construction. She tried for years, only to be rebuffed. Finally out of high school, she chose to go to engineering school, hoping for a “backdoor” into her father’s world. Sadly, he never accepted her. His disapproval and lack of pride in his daughter’s accomplishments led to bitterness and anger in her. When I met her she was in her late twenties, and her bitterness toward her father subconsciously controlled most of her actions. She slept with men of whom she knew he would disapprove; she slanted all of her evaluations on jobsites against the interests of the contractors; and she measured every career victory in terms of what her father was missing. It was tragic.
Could she have changed her father’s longstanding opinions if she had tried a different approach? Could she have proven to him through actions that his outdated beliefs were wrong? We’ll never know. They stopped speaking to each other years ago.
Many counselors and psychologists will tell you that insecurities are magnified a thousand fold with your “family of origin.” This sensitivity can make rectifying a bad situation seem insurmountable. The emotions involved can cloud reason and douse any flame of energy for being patient with ingrained prejudices and longstanding beliefs. With family, a woman must have a true desire to change her relatives’ beliefs and behaviors. And she must have patience above all. Because she is not just redefining another person’s beliefs, she is restructuring the family unit. Making progress may not always be possible, and it will be arduous when it does occur.
A relationship with a partner is a completely different issue. A partner is someone who has been chosen. The implication is that the chosen person loves you and wants what’s best for you, no matter what. Even if such a person would have outdated beliefs, they would be easy to convert to a more progressive mindset because they think you’re fabulous.
If only it were that simple. As Annie Schmelzer said so brilliantly in this post, most guys don’t go around with a T-shirt that says they’re insecure sexists who will try to undermine you the minute they feel threatened. Wait – threatened? If you love a man and he loves you, why should he ever feel threatened? If you really love each other (and you didn’t get together just because all of your other friends were getting married and it was “time”), you both want nothing more than the health and happiness of the other person. Anything less isn’t real love. But close-but-no-cigar love often comes disguised as real love. Unfortunately, the voids usually don’t appear until it’s too complicated to just walk away.
My mistakes in this area have been spectacular, the product of my leap-before-I-look personality and my perpetual optimism. (Really? That alcoholic who flirts with me every time I come out on site doesn’t respect me? But he said he likes me…) My longtime boyfriend in college was very supportive of my engineering career until I ran into a problem with a guy on my second co-op job in school. When I told my boyfriend that I had brought it up to my boss, he said, “Hey – I didn’t sign up for any feminist crusade.” A guy had just been extremely disrespectful to me, and all my boyfriend could think about was not being involved in a conflict. And I was too stupid to get out of the relationship at the time.
Even though I broke up with that guy later, my obliviousness continued. Probably the most painful experience I had was when I got married to a man who professed to think that my job was “cool” and that he was proud of me. I had always thought that the best part of marriage was sharing yourself with another person, not being afraid that the other person will judge you or use what you share against you. Both of you are supposed to always be on the other’s side. But what I found is that every time I did well at work, my husband would use something I had told him against me. If I solved a dispute on a construction site, he would remind me that I had stomach ulcers and was “weak.” If I gained a new client, he would work into conversation that I get my rights and my lefts mixed up often. If someone else complimented me on my work at a party, he would tell the crowd that I told him how nervous I was when I had to deal with a particular client. I didn’t recognize the pattern – or the motive – at first, but as time went on his comments became meaner and his acknowledgements of anything I did well fewer and far between. Needless to say, he loved some idea of me, but not the actual me. Not the me who wades through mud in deep sinkholes. Not the me who changes her own tires and doesn’t automatically ask a man to perform tough jobs. And being with someone who didn’t want me to be the best person I could, whether as a muddy engineer or in a more traditional role, wasn’t healthy.
As difficult as our professional problems with gender inequality may be, solving the same problems in our personal lives is far more complicated and burdensome. The emotions involved can distort our perceptions of what is best for us and distract us from the truth in our lives. There is no handbook, no company policy, no legal recourse for being narrow-minded in a personal relationship. But we have our sisterhood in this, too, and we owe it to other women to support them when they need us, whether the problem is personal or professional. People we love and who allege to love us should love us for who we are, not who they want us to be. And just like in our professional lives, we owe it to ourselves not to settle for less.
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.
Part I – Them
The recent Harvey Weinstein revelations, #metoo movement, and Time’s Up campaign have had a number of consequences, most of them quite fabulous. Let’s start by saying that I have ZERO problem with the fact that a bunch of actresses finally brought attention to a problem a lot of us have faced for years. Some women I know have complained that women in “fluffy” jobs are celebrating victory when women all over the world have been suffering with this scourge for millennia. Seriously? Do we care who caused the tide to turn? I don’t. If little green female leprechauns happen to be the ones to breach the dam of harassment because they complained about the male leprechauns grabbing their lucky charms, I don’t care. Kudos to Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon and the others for speaking for all of us. I’d thank them in person with a vat of chocolate chip cookies if I could.
Not surprisingly, the scandals have led to a lot of men claiming to not understand the rules. Some of these guys are sincere and concerned that they have been doing things inadvertently that might make women uncomfortable. Some of the men are irritated that they don’t get to do whatever they want and complain that the new rules are “just too hard to figure out.” As usual, they try to put the shadow of blame on us by characterizing our complaints as vague and arbitrary. They attempt to cast us as insensitive by insinuating that we’re no longer receptive to “nice” gestures. Other guys feign ignorance and innocence and claim the nuances are just too difficult for the average guy to comprehend. And still others are just hateful sexists who don’t care whether they make us uncomfortable and use the controversy to fuel their misogyny.
My favorite comments are from guys who very obviously understand what is suitable and what isn’t but claim that “There are just too many gray areas.” Really? I think in most cases the gray areas are products of willful confusion. For every guy who truly is trying to understand where the boundaries in his professional relationships should be, there are two guys who profess not to know whether or not they should be putting their hands on the thighs of young female employees. “What? That’s a problem? I can’t believe you’re faulting me for showing a gesture of comfort to my young, inexperienced subordinate.” Right.
For these poor, well-meaning, caring individuals, I offer the following test. Cut it out and hand it out as necessary when this question arises. When a guy is really confused about whether or not to do/say something to one of his female colleagues or employees, tell him to ask himself the following questions:
1. Would you tell your wife about it?
2. Would it be okay if another guy did/said it to your daughter?
3. Would you publish it in your church bulletin or company newsletter?
If the answer to any of these questions is No, then DON’T DO IT. If you’re not sure, then DON’T DO IT. See how easy that was?
If a guy starts to come up with clarification questions or comments (i.e. “Do you mean would I describe it in detail?” “Does it matter how old my daughter is?”), you know he doesn’t really want to know the true answer. Those are the guys who aren’t really asking to understand – they’re asking to try to prove why their historic pattern of behavior was okay.
On the other hand, there are a lot of very nice, caring guys out there who actually are concerned and well-meaning when they put a hand on your shoulder to ask if you’re okay. They tell you that you look fabulous today because it always puts a smile on your face. And they help you with your coat and give you a hand to get up from your chair because they weren’t raised by wolves. We have to appreciate the good intentions and manners lest we drive them away forever.
Actually, communication is a tool that men easily could use in these situations, but they don’t. If a man is not sure if it bothers his young female protégée when he takes her hand to help her out of the car, he can ask her. Direct communication is a revolutionary concept, but is rarely used, particularly by people in the engineering profession. (We’re not known for our social prowess). We women have to be receptive to such questions and answer honestly. If it looks like your boss is trying to be a good guy, help him out.
The concept that actually is difficult to grasp for men in supervisory positions is that a subordinate woman might feel she has to comply with whatever her boss does or she’ll lose her job. This feeling may not be evident to the boss…at all. But a 22-year-old brand new female employee is still a novice in the world, and her perception of the power structure at work might lead her to believe that her job would be in jeopardy if she expressed how she felt about her interactions with her boss. As such, the boss should ALWAYS err on the side of caution. Is it really necessary to pat a young engineer on the back when he tells her she did a good job? Must he tell the young project manager that she looks great in that outfit? It’s not essential to the job and the supervisor doesn’t know the employee well, the answer is no. If it’s going to create all of this mental angst and confusion (for both the supervisor and the employee), why do it?
As a caveat, it should be stated that there are many, many male and female professionals who have longstanding friendships with members of the opposite sex, (contrary to what you learned in When Harry Met Sally). Theoretically, if you have a good friend who is not your superior or subordinate, the lines of communication are open, and a guy can ask a woman, “Can I put my hand there or does that offend you?” If she can’t give him an honest answer, they aren’t really friends.
The problem of sexual harassment is not simple, and no one set of rules can answer every conceivable question. But the cat is out of the bag, the worms are out of the can, the grout has busted out of the pipe. We need to have a real dialogue with those great, quality guys we work with every day, to help them understand how to move from unsuitable cultural customs to behaviors that benefit all of us. For the rest of the guys, the ones who “just don’t understand,” we’ll make flash cards.