Fighting by Doing Nothing
So. Here we are. How should I write an introduction for a post in a time when our situation changes every day? And how do I know what you need when you read this? Do you want humor to take your mind off the horror of today and the uncertainty of tomorrow? Or do you want serious advice on how to handle this new environment?
Let’s start with the advice. I have none. One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that every person and every household are dealing with a completely different set of circumstances. You could be living in a house with six other people, including an infant and a toddler, but out West, situated far from others. Your fears of getting sick are low, but your problems with getting baby wipes and groceries are high. Or you could be living alone in a New York City apartment, scared to death of getting sick and having no available healthcare, but close to plenty of food in a nearby market. Or you might have few supply and health issues, but you just got laid off from your job. The issues and stresses in each of these situations are different and require unique solutions – no general advice will do.
I have lots of humor, which sometimes I need desperately, and sometimes seems horribly inappropriate. My friend just gave me toilet paper for my birthday, and I WAS GRATEFUL. My Depression-era grandparents no doubt are looking down and smiling smugly. “Don’t you wish you had spent more time listening to our stories about how to make spaghetti and meatballs out of nuts and grass from the back yard?!”
I could tell you warm and fuzzy things about all of us being in this together. But I’m sure you maxed out on inspirational sayings on Instagram some time last week. In all honesty, it would be something of a relief if someone weren’t in this with us. Then someone could rescue us, right?
Perhaps it would be helpful to acknowledge the specific frustrations of our little skirts-in-dirt corner of the world. Do we have our own set of issues? Of course we do.
If you are a woman in our field, you are not passive. You haven’t waded through low expectations and condescending looks to succeed as an engineer/contractor/etc. by sitting by and waiting for other people to make decisions and act. You’re a problem-solver by nature, and the barriers to our gender in the professional world mean that you are used to powering through ugly situations to make things happen. But the constant in all of these statements is action. And taking action is the one thing you can’t do right now.
Right now, the sky is blue, and spring is here (at least in the U.S.). There are no bombs dropping from the sky to threaten our homes. Soldiers aren’t marching down our streets. We are not underwater in a flood, and hurricane season isn’t here (yet). If you drive down the street, you see families out playing and talking, people running, and spring flowers sprouting up in yards. You would have to know what to look for to see that none of the kids are playing with other families, and people on the sidewalks give each other a wide berth. Parents are smiling but drinking heavily because they’re spending their days as unqualified home-school teachers who are hoping they don’t ruin (or kill) their kids.
So we’ve all been confined to our homes because there’s something awful and ugly out there and we have to make sure it doesn’t kill us. But we can’t go out and fight it. We can’t organize a supply chain to the front lines. We can’t take up arms and wipe it out. In short, we can’t do what we do well.
If you watch the HBO drama Game of Thrones, you probably saw the battle with the Night King’s army last spring. In the episode before the battle, the story examined each character as they waited for the army’s arrival. That was the entire episode. In my opinion, it was one of the best installments in the show’s long run. Every character waited and thought about what was to come and hoped that he or she was up to the challenge. It was terrifying. It really brought home the fear that we all feel when bracing ourselves for an attack we know is coming but with details and outcomes we can’t predict.
This quarantine that we’re all inhabiting reminds me of that episode, but without the battle. We can’t take up a dagger of dragon glass and try to resist the advancing hoards. Instead, we have to stay at home and wash our groceries. We can’t board a dragon and wipe out enemy troops. Our battle must be fought by NOT advancing and NOT collaborating and NOT trying to wipe out the enemy. It’s not an approach that most of us adopt very often, and we’re uncomfortable. We’re also tense and tired and scared.
I have likened the spread of the coronavirus to the problem you have when you spill glitter in your house or when someone breaks a glass in a crowded party. “Everyone stand still and don’t move!” You know that someone will get cut no matter how much you order them to stay put, and glitter always disperses as if by magic. We are trying to stand still, to keep from spreading glitter to every surface and person we will encounter for all eternity. If you have daughters, you know the futility of trying to contain the glitter. No matter how much you clean, you find it on the undersides of your car floor mats 6 months after your toddler spilled it in her toy room inside the house. Unfortunately, this is glitter that will kill your toddler’s aging grandparents. We can clean and clean, but then our only course of action is to STAY STILL. How on earth do we start doing that now after we’ve spent our entire lives trying to save the world through perpetual motion?
If nothing else, we have a solid community in our foundations world. We can call each other and lament our feelings of powerlessness. We can video chat with glasses of wine and hope that our home-schooling efforts aren’t producing a generation of bad spellers who can’t do math. We can reassure each other that this is just another challenge with unusual parameters. If there is something we do well, it’s handle unusual challenges.
Most importantly, we can re-calibrate our view of the world to fit our current reality. I think every person’s survival in this crisis and afterwards will depend on resetting our expectations. If we change our mindsets to look at this problem as a project instead of an inconvenient and scary departure from normal life, we are as qualified as any group of people to crush it. If nothing else, rearranging our perspective might at least give us some peace of mind. This is just another project challenge for another day. And hey – it doesn’t discriminate by gender. There’s a silver lining to get you started.
We Need a Little Happy
Oh. My. Heavens. Is the world trying to put us in a bad mood? Have you had a few dark weeks lately? Apparently the coronavirus is going to kill us all, and even if it doesn’t the news media is going to scare us into canceling all events and not leaving our homes for weeks. (As tempting as that seems…) And the elections are just a bit much. Every time you turn on the news or click on a story, people are yelling. They’re yelling at each other, they’re yelling at crowds, they’re yelling at us. Could someone please tell the candidates that every event is not a pep rally? Seriously – I will vote for the first person who simply speaks in his/her inside voice for two straight days.
(Update: This post was written and scheduled before the public health crisis grew to its current proportions. The mandates to stay home are warranted, and no parade or basketball tournament is worth losing the life of someone you love).
So, as you’re sitting on that tiny plane next to a coughing man who’s wearing a Straight Outta Wuhan T-shirt and the inflight video is a replay of the Democratic debates, I thought perhaps we all could use some happiness. I promise not to yell.
In the geo-related business, we all have an everyday awareness of geologic time. Geologic time is that great ruler by which we express how insignificant many things are. If geologic time were a day, people would have existed only in the last second – you’ve heard this sort of analogy, right? We talk to clients about the fact that this “new” sinkhole has been developing for millions of years. We tell our kids things like, “You think I’m old? Let me go out to my truck and get you some samples of Devonian shale. Now that’s old!” We are nerds, and it puts things into perspective when we think about how long the materials we’re exploring have been around.
I would like to use a similar relationship to tell you all why we should be celebrating today. Bear with me.
People(ish) appeared on this planet about 5 million years ago, give or take a few million years. Homo sapiens evolved over 50,000 years ago. According to the most recent calculations of people who do that sort of thing, our current population is approximately 7% of all the people who have ever lived. So about 94 billion people lived before us. If 51% of those people were women, that means almost 48 billion women came before us. Using some completely sketchy and non-anthropological assumptions, we’re going to estimate that at least 90% of those women lived in a patriarchal society, because women are smaller than men and brute force ruled the day. So 43.2 billion women lived before us in male-dominated environments. I think you would be safe to say that of the 3.8 billion women living on Earth today, at least 30% of them still live in completely oppressive conditions. So in summary, (which is likely several decimal places off), the women in today’s progressive cultures represent only about 6% of all the women who have ever lived.
We spend a lot of time talking about the problems that still face us in our male-dominated workplaces, but, seriously – 6%!!! Of all of the women who have ever lived, 94% of them had it a LOT worse than we do. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t vote. They could be raped or beaten, and it didn’t have legal consequences. If they were raped before they got married, their futures were ruined through no fault of their own. They were traded for power and disregarded. They had no legal worth.
But we do!!! We can vote. We have jobs that we want. We can own our own houses. If we are attacked or even sexually harassed, we are able to press charges and seek damages and justice. We can decide not to have children and we won’t be at risk for being tossed out into the streets as worthless. We can have credit cards and stock portfolios and bank accounts, and no man has to oversee all of this.
Can we take a minute to celebrate this? Yes, things might be much better in the future, but they were much much worse for a good portion of a past that is much longer than our short memories. And WE get to be here for it. Our grandmothers couldn’t open their own credit cards, but we’re allowed to charge enough shoes to max out our credit limits. And we don’t have to have anyone else around to monitor our spending habits. Our great grandmothers could lose their houses if their husbands died, but we can live out our days lounging on our fabulous wrought iron furniture in our fabulous parterre gardens next to our fabulous country houses bought from our earnings from our fabulous jobs.
We need some happiness right now, so I want to initiate a little campaign to honor what we have. I am proposing that we all do the following (choose all that apply):
1- Charge something (because you can). It doesn’t have to be from the spring line of Manolo Blahnik, although we’ll all bow down to you if it is. You can buy $3 lip balm to give to your preteen daughter. Or you can buy a copy of Garden and Gun magazine to enjoy with your morning coffee.
2- Sit for 10 minutes and study the platforms of the presidential candidates, because you get to VOTE! You may end up doing a write-in for Sarah Jessica Parker so that we get Universal Footwear, but you can still honor the fact that you get to be part of the process.
3- Take a photo of part of your house or apartment or condo to commemorate the fact that it is legal for you to rent or own property.
4- Take a photo of your office or save a business card to memorialize the fact that you were able to have the job you wanted. You might hate your current boss, and there’s a possibility that you’re going to poison all of your co-workers during the next lunch-and-learn, but there’s no law that says a woman can’t be a insert your job here. There’s also no law that says that you can’t leave this job and get another one. In fact, you can change your profession completely if you want.
For each of these items, I want you to do them in honor of a female ancestor or ancestors who didn’t have these rights. We all have these ancestors. My great-grandmother Evelyn, my great-grandmother Margaret, my great-aunt Freda…the list goes on. I have it better than all of them, and I don’t appreciate it enough.
A moment of silence and a smile will be enough to commemorate these moments. If you’re into social media, put up a post with #notonestepback*. (Feel free to tag me on Instagram – @peggyhagertyduffy. You can also tag me or Helen on Facebook). That’s the order Joseph Stalin gave his troops in 1942 when the Russians were being invaded by German soldiers. We need to hold the same hard line. Now is the time to be happy about what we have, because there are plenty of dark forces trying to bring the world down. We’re stronger than that. We’re going to honor what it took to get here, and we’re not going back.
*Note – For you diehard history people, use of this slogan does not mean we’re going to execute retreating troops. No one will be shot. We just liked the decisive spirit of the order.
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.
Happy 2019! Is it fabulous so far? Don’t let the weather color your answer – it is January, after all, and January must be true to itself. As a landscaper friend of mine once told me, “How do you expect all those beautiful things to emerge in the spring if they don’t die back in the cold of winter?”
In the spirit of the sharp, clear cold winter days, let’s cut right to the chase. I have been a bit absent here. No, actually, I have been a lot absent here. In truth, 2018 squashed me like a smooth drum roller. There is no other way to explain what happened last year, and the only chance of making the situation better is to be honest about it. I was Squashed with a capital S. I played chicken with 2018, and it won. It laughed in my face and spat on my crumpled, broken body. If I weren’t so terribly Irish and stubborn, I would be sitting on a frozen riverbank right now, trying to decide if frostbite really was a bad thing.
The source of the squashing was not one thing, so it was not easy to identify the problem, formulate a solution, and put a plan into action. I tried repeatedly to retaliate with engineering ninja skills (evaluate, formulate, execute), but there were just too many aggressors. Heavy Workload was the engine on a train that included Exhausting Travel, Bottomless Charity Causes, Family Drama, and a long line of other heavy cars that ran me over as I was tied to the tracks.
Have you seen this old cartoon? https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1hac6w My brothers and I used to watch this after school when they showed ancient cartoons in reruns. Yes, this was me in 2018. I got the dog plasma. I spent the last few months of the year scratching for fleas and barking at cars. It wasn’t pretty.
As the year drew to a close, I mentioned to one of my close friends that I was about to lose my mind. (About to? Who was I kidding? I exaggerated my real level of sanity because I didn’t want her to have me committed). But this was the point where my little saga took a turn for the better.
What do people usually do when you tell them that you’re overwhelmed? You know the answer to this. It’s giving me hives just thinking about it. The standard answer is, “You just need to learn to say no.” Just like that. Oversimplification, table for one? Sweeping Generalization, come on in! Seriously – how many times a week do you hear this? People of all intelligence levels say it, as well as friends and family of all intimacy degrees.
How ludicrous is this statement? (You can’t hear me, but I just shouted that). To tell a person that the solution to her complex problems is just to “learn to say no” is to imply that she is stupid and that her problems are simple. Think about it – the person who is overwhelmed is miserable. Let’s assume she is moderately intelligent and of at least average emotional maturity. If “just saying no” were the answer, WOULDN’T SHE BE DOING THAT?! Of course she would. But she’s not, because the situation is NOT that simple.
In truth, most people’s lives are complex and contain multi-layered problems. The “solutions” to those problems often have far-reaching and sometimes hard to predict ramifications. When you tell someone that she should just say no (or give her some other simple answer), you are implying that she isn’t very bright and hasn’t really tried to figure out solutions. It’s insulting, so just stop it if you have indulged in this behavior.
Your friend whose brother constantly parks himself on her couch and asks her for money? She’s exhausted from supporting him and bailing him out of constant scrapes and bad business decisions. She’s worn out and broke, and he just showed up again. So you say, “Hon, you just need to learn to tell him no.”
What you don’t know is that her brother has three kids and their mother is just as irresponsible as your friend’s brother. The only chance these kids have to receive food and warm clothes is from their aunt. She loves them dearly and would never let them go without, so she keeps giving their dad money. In addition, she can’t stand the idea of such young kids being disillusioned by their dad, so she tries hard to gloss over his mistakes. She feels like someone needs to try to give them something of a childhood.
So….now where are you on that “just say no” platitude? It wasn’t as cut and dried as you thought, was it?
People like to think they can just reach in and solve your problems, and they’re doing you a big favor by doing so. I’m told all the time “You just need to hire some people” because I have such a heavy workload. Really? What kind of people? What exactly do I do all day – do you know? Are there people out there who can do exactly that? Is it more economical for me to train new people or to suck it up for a short time until some projects taper off? Do you see my face in the mirror in the morning? If not, then you don’t know the answers to those questions.
Back to my saga….when I said that I was overwhelmed and teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion, my friend just listened for a while. Not listening as in, “I feel your pain,” or “I’m validating your feelings,” (ugh) but actually listening to the situation as if it were a problem at work. A few weeks later, she had planned to come over and hang out one evening, and I got this text: “We’ll need a whiteboard or a big notebook. I’ve been thinking about your situation, and I have some ideas.”
I will not lie – I cried. Yes, we have established here that I cry at the drop of a puppy, but the happiness was real. THIS IS THE KIND OF FRIEND WE ALL NEED TO BE.
When she arrived, we talked about all of the train cars that were barreling across me, and she was sympathetic. But she didn’t blithely “solve” things in one sentence, and she didn’t just listen. What she did was to suggest a way to sort through all of the stressors and see if any of them could be reduced by targeting the most critical stressful elements.
The most important part of this story is the fact that my friend’s approach acknowledged that there was no simple solution for my chaos. She didn’t suggest that the answer was easy and that I was just making life hard for myself. Her approach implied that she supported my right to make my own choices in life, but that sometimes those choices come with problems. And she reinforced her status as a real friend by offering to help instead of questioning my choices.
I suggest that in 2019 we all follow my friend’s lead. We need to support other women and be good friends. But we need to do this in a way that acknowledges and supports their choices and situations. Life is neither simple nor easy. Don’t assume the reason the woman next to you is overwhelmed is because she is spending too much time making perfect meals for her family when they would be happy with peanut butter. Maybe she is caring for her mother, who has dementia, at the same time she is trying to figure out why a slope is failing in a critical military complex. Can she solve any of that by just saying no? Absolutely not. Is there an easy solution for her issues? Nope. Can you be a good friend/colleague/fellow skirt by asking her about it and offering to sort through to find some way to achieve minor improvements? You bet your pea-picking heart, you can.
Here’s to an un-squashed and vertical 2019.
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 email@example.com. 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!
What Does That Even Mean?
Are you a feminist? What exactly does that mean? And is it important to you to identify yourself as such?
Megyn Kelly, former Fox News host and current NBC news personality, was widely derided in 2016 by her refusal to label herself as a feminist. She stated that the term had become divisive and had negative connotations. Many women took that position as a cop out and an avoidance of the true issue: that being branded a feminist would alienate many of the average Fox viewers. They said that she needed to stand up for women as a whole, even if it meant losing her job at Fox.
So what does the average bear think a feminist is? The simple answer (obviously) would be that a feminist is a person who believes that women are equal to men and should be accorded the same respect and opportunities. But, unfortunately, many years of history have colored individual perceptions. In addition, the actions and words of some in the heat of the battle on inequality have generated a decidedly negative vision of what a feminist represents and who she (or he) is.
Gloria Steinem no doubt was the trailblazer in the modern world of feminism, though not the original pioneer by a long shot. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the Lewis and Clark of the equality wilderness, raising issues and bucking the norm long before Ms. magazine challenged the accepted role of women in U.S. society. Julia Ward Howe, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth – these women functioned and rebelled in conditions we can’t even imagine. They made people face truths and answer questions that weren’t comfortable or conventional. Thanks to them, you’re sitting at your desk working on a tieback design or standing on a construction site yelling at people about clean bottoms.
Unfortunately, many of the men (and some of the women) of the times reacted to these women by assuming that since they didn’t want to fill a normal societal role, they didn’t want to be a “normal woman.” Translation: They didn’t like men and they didn’t want to be feminine. Although part of this was ignorance and part of it was an attempt at control through shaming, the ugly side effect was a lingering implication that feminists didn’t like being womanly and they were against men.
Organized feminist actions in the 1970s compounded this stereotype. The bra-burning, tie-wearing, loud, angry women that demonstrated for equal pay and equal opportunities reinforced the notion that feminists are rude, unfeminine, “coarse” ball-busters who don’t like men and have no interest in being nice to them. In fact, they want reparations for 12,000 years of oppression.
It’s often so easy to forget that people who start revolutions have to overcome years, decades, centuries of inertia. Society has been functioning as X, and now someone wants it to be Y. This doesn’t happen easily. It takes anger, it takes aggression, it takes breaking out of stereotypes just to get people’s attention. Changing the average person’s mind is another mountain to climb once you have their attention. It’s no wonder the early feminists seemed angry. They were trying to get people to listen! They were TIRED!!! They were exhausted from trying to overcome centuries of societal inertia. They were worn out from attempting to use logic to overcome fear and emotion. They were frustrated from worrying that they would be unsuccessful.
Despite the reason, the negative stereotype of a feminist still exists with many people. The purpose of all the hard work of Ms. Cady Stanton and Ms. Steinem and the others was to allow us all to be equal, regardless of who we are. They didn’t mean to support just women – they intended to establish equality for everyone. Purple, three-headed Martians would be accorded the same freedoms and rights as WASP males and women of east-central northern Irish descent who were born on the subway. But the residue of the battles remains, and the feminist brand often is not a positive one.
Some modern women, particularly those of a certain age, believe that to resist the feminist label is to abandon the cause. You are a failure if you don’t embrace the title and forge on with the battle. But are you? Do we shirk our duties as progressive women if we don’t deem ourselves warriors?
On a personal level, I have a serious problem with being given any label (except that of a University of Louisville Cardinal). Whether the label is true depends on how you define it. You might define it differently than I do. Beyond the definition, I might decide that I want to change in the future. The issue might change. DO NOT TELL ME WHO I AM.
I also don’t like the idea that being a feminist means tipping the scales against men. Equality means equality, not “We should get lots extra to make up for all that crap in the past.”
Here at Underpinnings, we have noticed an interesting development in this label issue. Younger women in our field are not as comfortable making a fuss about equality or their rights in the workplace, and they often aren’t ready to proclaim themselves feminists. In some cases, it’s because they don’t see their world as that bad. It’s not, because we’ve made progress. In other cases, they see us more seasoned professionals as being too confrontational and ready to raise hell. (See my previous comments on being exhausted from fighting the battle for so long). To them, the idea of being a feminist smacks of unnecessary and insensitive crusading.
In the case of Ms. Kelly, I believe that the whole point of feminism is to get us to the place where women can do what they want with their careers. When she was at Fox, she wanted to be at Fox. Was she wrong to monitor her language so as not to alienate the very audience she wanted to court? Yes, you say – she has an obligation to do what’s right for the advancement of all of us. Does she? Maybe the success of feminism is that she can express her opinion, whatever it is, and she gets to be the person to figure out what strategic moves she needs to make to have the career she wants. Whether that career is worthwhile is her business.
A necessary component of succeeding in war is unity. When the war is over, troops often have a difficult time establishing themselves as individuals, particularly if the issues from the war aren’t completely resolved. There is even fear of functioning outside of your unit, outside of the war. The need for determination and grit are so compelling during the battle that to give it up seems suicidal. Those women who fought the hardest of the wars of the past no doubt fear we will lose all the ground we’ve gained if we give up for even a second. They say that women are traitors who won’t go by the name “feminist,” lest we all end up back in the kitchen, illiterate with no freedom.
Perhaps we need a new word, one that represents our goal of equality for all, which was the original purpose. Allofusist? Everyoneist? Peopleist? We need to refocus on the fact that we celebrate women, not that we denigrate men. And we need to acknowledge that one of the spoils of this war was supposed to be our right to call ourselves whatever we want and carry out our personal and professional lives however we want. Ms. Kelly doesn’t have to call herself a feminist as far as I’m concerned. It won’t affect my ability to be what I want, which of course is a Cardinalist.
Weaving Bonds That Don’t Break
Family vacations in my childhood were spent in many different locations. The agendas were varied, the adventures were comical, (including the Exploding Station Wagon Incident of ’78), and the sibling bickering was typical. But the one constant among all the excursions was the inclusion of a visit to a historic site somewhere along the way. Civil war battlefields, aircraft carriers, forts, and so very many cannons – we saw it all.
This thread of military history also invaded our family dinners, our discussions on long car rides, and our family movie nights. I swear the soundtrack of my childhood has the low drone of a B1 bomber somewhere in the background.
Every member of my family loved these stories and artifacts of past conflicts…except me. I longed for a visit to whatever mall we were near or an overnight backpacking trip in the local state park. Mostly what I took away from the endless parade of war movies was that they wore great clothes in the 1940s, and the men who fight in wars are really, really young.
However, one fact did embed itself in my brain despite my aversion to all things war. My dad spent an evening explaining the Battle of Culloden to me one night after I mentioned all the really gorgeous plaids in Great Britain. He explained that the Scottish clans weren’t allowed to wear their clan plaids after they were defeated at Culloden. The British cemented their victory by removing the clans’ pride and identities. He also said that one of the main reasons the Scots lost the battle, in addition to being outnumbered and underequipped, was that they spent so much time fighting with each other that they did not present a united front against the British. They beat themselves by putting their individual clan goals above the goals of the country.
That problem from almost 300 years ago is something I observe today as women continue to struggle for equality. We repeatedly state that we must work together, we must unite. But unity is hard. And I believe this is one area where we need to look to ourselves to fix some of the problems that undermine our success.
As women, we have a tendency to be defensive about what we do to the detriment of women in other life roles. Professional women, particularly those of us in male-dominated fields, will scoff at women in “fluffy” positions like actresses and models. We don’t admit it, but we all have made some sort of comment about full-time moms, something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be great to only have to worry about taking care of the house and the kids?” And we pity women in unskilled positions – waitresses, retail salespeople – without having any idea of the quality of their lives and without valuing their contributions to society. The women in those categories make similar comments about professional women: “Oh, good for her that she has her career, but she doesn’t have much of a family life, does she?”
We actually have no right to stereotype, pigeonhole, or downplay the lives of women in other roles. Are they happy? Are we? Don’t we need all sorts of people in all sorts of roles to have a well-developed society? But women have spent so many centuries fighting for the few tiny crumbs available that would allow them control over their own lives that we view each other as adversaries. Instead of saying, “Good for her. She has made millions of dollars contributing to the arts and entertaining people as an actress, and now she can feed her family and send her kids to college,” we say, “Yeah, must be nice to just wear a bunch of gorgeous clothes and act in a movie and give interviews and make all that money.” Instead of saying, “I’m so glad she is able to make the most of her abilities and care for her family to the fullest extent possible,” we say, “Can you believe she gets to watch daytime TV and go to the grocery before 5:00?”
The bottom line is that no life path is better or more worthy than another. We should be taken seriously no matter what we choose to do. Unfortunately, history has dictated that women have not had a choice in the past. Now that we (mostly) do, we are insecure and self-conscious about the choices we make. We express that insecurity by denigrating those who didn’t choose our path.
In order to reinforce the worth of our choices, we have to support each other. I don’t mean we have to support each other as women in male-dominated fields. I mean we have to support all women. Every path is valid or none are.
The ladies in Hollywood have the right idea. Reese Witherspoon just started a production company intended to celebrate the triumphs and issues of women. Instead of saying, “Ugh, of course, she has the money to,” how about if we use that momentum? No, we don’t agree with unrealistic body types and some of the other unhealthy perceptions perpetuated by the media. But we are 51% of the population. If we take control of the conversation, and say, “Good for her – she commanded a big salary. Wow, I’m impressed – she’s getting people to read by starting a book club. Way to go – she had the initiative to start her own fashion line using regional textiles and labor,” we could shift the emphasis away from the freakish body types and onto the accomplishments of these high profile women. And if we refocus the spotlight onto these achievements, the light will shine on lots of other women in a wide spectrum of efforts.
The bottom line is that we need to stop whining. To be in charge, we need to stop talking about what should be done or complaining about what we don’t have and start trumpeting what we have and who we are. We need to celebrate our sisters.
The biggest challenge to this task will be to have disagreements without splintering apart like the Scots did. We must be able to argue and hash things out and hear differing opinions. Our country just experienced a big upheaval, and the most pronounced side effect has been the mean, ugly bitterness between friends and family. This is the way of failure. Just like if a family has to make a decision about sending mom to a nursing home, there will be differing opinions, and emotions will run high. But everyone has the same goal; mom’s best interests. Similarly, we all want women to move forward to an equal place in society. We need to weave bonds that can’t be broken as we shape ourselves into something new.