The Ins and Outs of Field Work
I have almost 20 years of (non-continuous) field experience. This does not include my childhood, part of which was spent climbing trees to find the perfect quiet place to read. My first official geotechnical engineering field experience was a three month stint the summer when I was 19, during an internship just after my freshman year in college. It was a learning experience in numerous ways.
I was excited to be on a construction site and learn everything there was to learn. I honestly didn’t give much thought to being a woman on site. Throughout grade school and high school, I hadn’t ever felt that I had been treated differently academically. I was in the mix of the guys and gals at the top of the class, and did well in math and science. I took my share of AP courses and earned college credits at Villanova in a program for 12th graders. When I entered Penn State as a freshman, I felt at home in the sea of 40,000 undergrads that bled blue and white. PSU has an excellent program for women entering the college of engineering called the Women in Engineering Program Orientation (WEPO). You head to Happy Valley three days before classes start in the fall, move your belongings into your dorm room, and then check into a downtown State College hotel for several nights. There were ice breakers, team building activities, campus scavenger hunts, and we were assigned 3rd and 4th year mentors. When the semester officially began, I lived in a co-ed dorm that had a special interest house, Freshmen in Science and Engineering (FISE) House. I was surrounded by young adults of similar intelligence and with at least a modicum of seriousness about their education. My classes seemed to be divided evenly by gender, and the groups that I did projects and studied with were diverse. I had both female and male professors.
After two semesters of study and although I was an aerospace engineering major at the time, I took a summer internship with a geotechnical engineering firm. I spent almost the whole summer on the same project site installing foundations for a shopping mall, and it involved rotating day and night shifts. I was treated extremely well by the specialty foundation contractor. The men were polite and kind and spent time explaining what they were doing and why. They certainly didn’t have to. My job was to log the elements as they were installed and to ensure the presence of continuous rock with no voids along the length of the foundation. But they would spend extra time showing me the rig and explaining what they were doing when they had to fish out a drill string that had uncoupled, etc. The men were very concerned with my safety on site and lectured me on making sure the drivers of the concrete trucks could see me at all times while they were pouring the pilecaps and I was collecting concrete samples and performing slump tests.
I clearly remember one scorching hot day when I was stationed by the rig with my clipboard. We were advancing the bond zone and tediously grinding away on a 10 ft run of limestone. The foreman was telling the colorful story of a gruesome injury that the current operator sustained years before (he had since made a full recovery). The foreman, let’s call him Mack, was describing the scene and suddenly I felt extremely nauseous and thought I would pass out; likely a combination of the heat and the graphic details of the story. Mack took one look at my face and called for a break, led me to the shade, and yelled for someone to bring water. Not one person made fun of me (at least to my face) and I didn’t feel humiliated as I initially thought I would.
Now, as there were multiple crews and rigs working simultaneously on this site, there were several other inspectors from the geotechnical firm working on the project at the same time, all young guys. I noticed that they did not enjoy the same treatment that I was getting. I am not sure if this was partially due to their attitudes- they would often act like they knew and understood everything while I was continuously asking questions and taking notes. But also I think that the male inspectors saw this (rightfully) as unfair treatment, and although they didn’t necessarily want the treatment I was getting, they were somewhat resentful of it. Sensing this, I became concerned and made sure they saw me wrestling with my own wheelbarrow full of concrete for testing like they did, and refused the offers of assistance that came from the union laborers.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I did face some challenging situations on that project. One day I was in one of the job trailers checking that my progress plans matched with the general contractors’. I moved the plans to the side and beneath them were several open pornographic magazines. Now I am no expert, and I didn’t read them cover to cover, but they seemed to be rather hardcore. Free-thinking college girl that I was, I dismissed this incident and was thankful that no one had seen me discover the paraphernalia, although they must have realized that I would see it at some point during the summer.
Toward the middle of the summer some of the operations moved inside the existing shopping mall that was being reinforced to add a second story. One morning during the change from night shift to day shift, I walked into one of the stores where the column foundations were being reinforced. Installation hadn’t started yet for the day, and there was a small crowd of laborers gathered around something. I walked closer to investigate and stumbled upon the disturbing scene of a full sized styrofoam mannequin being violated using pieces of reinforcing bar in her mouth and other areas. When the guys saw me, they stopped immediately and some looked extremely embarrassed. Others laughed and waited to see my reaction. Although I could feel color filling my cheeks and my eyes brimming with hot tears that I wished would go away, I forced a smile and tried to act cool and casual and as if I were not even remotely offended. I didn’t tell anyone from my office about this awkward and inappropriate incident.
Near the end of the summer it was my turn for the night shift rotation. One night in the middle of the shift there was an issue that caused us to stop work and quit around 3 am. One of the laborers who I was friendly with invited me to get coffee. Afterward we ended up in his car making out. Not the best judgement call but it was outside of working hours, he was hot, I was single, and hell…why not? I didn’t feel pressured and we were just having a good time.
The night shift following this encounter with Laborer #1, I was approached by Laborer #2, who had no doubt heard of our rendezvous. He said he wanted to show me something during the next break. Naturally, this is the sort of thing that raises warning flags and little alarm bells in your head. I impatiently ignored them, curiosity winning over my Spidey senses and I followed him as he led me to a dark area of the mall.
He tried to grab me and kiss me but I pushed him away. He looked surprised and then angry. He made a few degrading remarks about me and then left. Neither laborer spoke to me for the remainder of the summer. This didn’t affect the job that I had to do, but it made things rather uncomfortable and I can only imagine the rumors that were swirling.
Looking back on these last couple of incidents, I know I should have told my supervisors about them. I was embarrassed to do so, and didn’t want to create the impression that I couldn’t hold my own or that I was too delicate to do field work. I also didn’t want to be a tattletale or get anyone in trouble. I hated the idea that by speaking up I might reinforce the stereotype that a construction site is no place for a woman and that it is too distracting and too much trouble to have women in the field. But as a supervisor myself now, I want to ensure that the women and men working for me are treated with respect and professionalism whether they are in the office, on a project site, attending a conference, or anywhere in between. It is up to everyone in the industry to create a high standard for appropriate and respectful behavior and not dismiss certain places or situations as those where “these things” inevitably happen.
For those of us in the foundation industry, there is no shortage of advice on how to be a woman in a male-dominated field in 2016. (Truly, there is no shortage of advice on how to be any type of woman in 2016). We have “experts” explaining to us the psychology of business and how male-female relationships fit into that world. We also have lots and lots of women and men giving us detailed and confident guidance, even though they never have experienced what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, and the situation is only a theoretical problem on paper to them. So how do we navigate these waters? Is there a template we can follow? Basic rules of thumb? Perhaps an adult coloring book with situationally appropriate responses and behaviors clearly illustrated in line drawings?
I spent my second co-op semester with an internationally-respected environmental engineering firm. Approximately one hour into the first day, one of the engineers introduced herself to me and told me that she intended to take me under her wing and make sure that I enjoyed an internship that would be beneficial to my long-term career. Approximately 90 minutes into the first day, she informed me that the most important action I could take to set the tone for my tenure with the firm would be to tell the guys in the office that they wouldn’t be (blank)ing me, even though they wanted to. Excuse me? I was 19. My very polite, very southern, very Catholic world to date did not include any such in-your-face communication with, well, anyone. In addition, the logical, engineer-like part of my brain kept whispering, “How do you know they want to? What if they don’t like flat-chested brunettes with oddly green eyes?”
This engineer subsequently dragged me to jobsites, meetings, and conferences, all the while urging me to hit every guy with a full-court press of aggressive animosity. We crawled in sewers with municipal crews and drank beer with them at lunch (!), then she berated me for not biting their heads off when they offered to carry our equipment to our truck. She told off a sweet older man who told us he was proud to be working with “two gals.” She stood on a construction site and gestured to her private parts, telling the guys, “I know this is what you want, but you’re not getting it.” She told me every day that I needed to toughen up and follow her example.
I was confused and miserable. I wasn’t a shrinking violet, and I have never had trouble speaking my mind. But this just wasn’t how I was comfortable dealing with people. In my mind, others should be treated with respect until they demonstrate that it’s not warranted. I like people; most people, in fact. This engineer’s approach assumed that every man in my professional world was an adversary. And she beat me up with the idea that I would only succeed as an engineer, particularly in the construction world, if I followed her lead.
With no one to consult and no role model to observe, I had to make a decision. I could take her advice and act in a way that was completely in conflict with my personality, or I could forge my own route and risk sabotaging my career if she was right.
My rock-headed, leap-before-I-look personal drive eventually won out. If she was correct and the engineering world was going to be so contentious, I didn’t want any part of it anyway. I knew I didn’t want to exist inside a cubicle, so whatever I decided had to take into account the potentially rough and tumble world on construction sites. I decided I would take my chances and deal with it in my own fashion. She was furious and told me I was undermining women as a whole. I told her that her hateful approach might actually threaten continuation of the human race. We never spoke again. (My boss later told me they knew what she was doing but they trusted me to “figure it out.” Ugh).
I plowed ahead over the years, confronting everything from subtle sexism in meetings to physical assault in a locked construction trailer. I made a lot of mistakes. But I never felt like I wasn’t being myself.
Several months ago I heard a woman in a meeting say that she was uncomfortable at her firm because she was the only woman on her floor at the office. I waited to hear about harassment or shunning, but her solo existence was the whole of her story. My first reaction was to scoff. “Are you kidding me? No one has touched you or ignored your work or made snide comments about you and you’re uncomfortable? Seriously?!” But I realized a short time later that she, like me, has her own criteria for what makes a situation tolerable and how she handles it. Mentally I apologized, even though she never knew of my negative reaction. I’ll support her if she ever needs help figuring out how to move to a firm with more women or encourage her present firm to recruit more women. Whatever works for her.
We all need to figure out how to navigate our male-dominated paths in a vehicle of our choice. There is no blueprint, no specifications, no ASTM standard for how to behave, to react, to assimilate. We all have different resistance factors, (sorry – you knew there would have to be a geotechnical reference in here SOMEWHERE), and the minefields we’re navigating are landscapes unique to each of us. The best we can do is look around to find other women who are like us, and observe how they act. I have one friend who has a personality similar to mine, and I consult her often when I run into a testosterone wall. Another of my friends is much less tolerant than I am of human foibles, and I rarely look to her as an example or for guidance. I love and respect her, but her way isn’t my way.
As sparse little pink dots in the dirty (literally), rough sea of blue that is the foundation construction world, we have to maintain our connectivity to reinforce our presence. The more opinions and experiences that we exchange, the better chance we have that every woman will find someone else’s voice that resonates with her. And the more sounding boards we all have, the less chance there is that some of us will give up this wild, wonderful adventure.
Once Upon a Time…
…there were two little girls who weren’t afraid to get dirty. Peggy and Helen made mud pies and ran through creeks and blazed new trails through the scariest of vacant lots. As they grew up, they figured out they could make things in the dirt they loved so much. Tiny forts turned into fishing docks and party decks. The little girls wanted more, so they went to engineering school to learn how to turn their simple magic into true construction voodoo.
Most mud has worms, and the girls’ adventure opened a can of them. The worms weren’t squishy or slimy, but rather sneaky and tricky. For every marvelous discovery in how to make things stand up in the mud, someone appeared who told Peggy and Helen that good girls don’t play in the dirt. For every victory in building something to help people cross over really soft mud, a nasty boy appeared to tell the girls that mud-covered girls were sexy but not smart. And for every giant dam the girls constructed to make a lake for their neighbors to swim in, someone appeared to explain to them that girls don’t know how to do that.
Peggy and Helen were mad and frustrated, but they weren’t about to stop playing in the mud. They knew there were other girls out there who were getting dirty on purpose, and they just had to find them. If they all talked about how to handle the worms, maybe they could figure out a plan. And maybe they could just go on being who they wanted to be.
So the girls wrote a note on a piece of paper and made it into a kite. They flew the kite high and wide, and every time they reeled it back in, another girl had added to the note. Pretty soon, the kite was covered with all sorts of opinions on how all sorts of girls could handle worms in their own ways. Peggy and Helen read the notes, flew the kite, and figured out how to get rid of worms so they could go back to playing in the mud. Girls everywhere read the notes, and most of the worms got put back in the can. And life was as it should be – dirty and happy.