Emotional Factor of Safety

Crying At Work (About Work) Isn’t Okay

Women are often stereotyped as being emotional, flighty, weak, and thinking with their hearts and not with their heads.  Men can be portrayed this way too- if a man tears up at an emotional scene he is “in touch with his feminine side”.

Engineers and scientists on the other hand, are typecast as being analytical, impartial, and unemotional.

So women can’t be engineers and scientists then right?  It just wouldn’t work out.  How can a woman focus on calculations or problem solving when she is feeling sorry for the client who now needs 6 ft rather than 5 ft diameter shafts?

I have seen women in my profession intentionally present a starkly unemotional image.  They put a Factor of Safety on sensitivity and overcompensate to the other extreme to appear stoic and reserved. This may be because they think that will fit in better, that they prefer to keep their feelings private, or that they are worried about making others in that environment uncomfortable.

I don’t object to any of that.  If you truly have a reserved personality, I am not implying that change is needed.  But if you are suppressing your sensitivity, do yourself and your co-workers a favor: to thine own self be true!

You: In-Situ

I believe that one peripheral reason why women are leaving the STEM field is because not only do they feel that they can’t express their true personality at work, but they feel that male co-workers won’t understand or care about their lives outside of work.

How often do we hear the catchphrase “work/life balance”? I might as well continue with the stereotypes on how each generational group in the workforce interprets this catchprase. Baby Boomers are too busy industriously working to stop to think about that question…  Gen Xers are content with getting in a round of golf, a pedicure, or a family outing over the weekend before heading back to the grind on Monday.  To Millennials it means to build a wall between the two; leave work at work and home at home and fiercely defend your personal life and time.  But perhaps an unintended effect of this attitude is that Millennials feel stifled and mechanical in the workplace. This strategy may work in a more solitary, fixed-hour profession, but most of us in the geotechnical field spend over 50 hours per week on the job, whether in an office, on a project site, or traveling and meeting with clients.

So I say: it’s okay to be you.  Even in the office.  The more you show who you are (while remaining professional) the better you are going to perform as part of a team.  It will also be easier for team leaders to understand how to utilize your strengths.  A colleague recently pointed out to me that when you hire someone, you can’t pick and choose which of their qualities you get.  You can’t have their strong analytical abilities but not their shyness, or their great public speaking skills but not their tendency to get stressed about deadlines.  So rather than suppress your personality traits, follow this year’s Girl Scout cookie slogan “Be Unique, Be You.”

I don’t know if what I said earlier about Millennials is accurate- after all, I am not one of them, but I am advocating for breaking down the wall between your profession and your personal life.  If we share our struggles and triumphs then workplace communication will improve and lead to better problem solving and increased productivity which often translates into profitability and who can complain about that?

So share the 10K you are training for, the videos of your kid making that adorable noise, or that you binge-watched episodes of The Walking Dead all weekend.

I believe we should also share the hardships that we face in our personal life as well.  This is an extreme example, but it’s something that I think we need to talk more about as a society anyway, so I’m plunging ahead. Between babies #2 and #3 I had a miscarriage. It was heartbreaking and very emotionally draining.  I debated telling my supervisor and the managers of projects I was working on.  I knew another co-worker had experienced two miscarriages but chose not to say anything.  Ultimately I decided it was the right thing for me to do. I wasn’t asking for special treatment or time off.  I was looking for support and understanding, and I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of compassion that I received. It really made the situation easier to handle, and I didn’t have to hide my feelings and emotions and pretend that everything was okay.

There’s No Crying in Stratigraphy

Having said all of this, I will now present the other part of my dichotomous message: “Please don’t cry about work while at work!”  As a member in good standing of Criers Anonymous, trust me when I say that I understand the magnitude of what I am asking.  My eyes fill with tears when veterans march by in the community Fourth of July parade, and when I see my kids meet Peter Pan at Disney World, or when something reminds me of my grandmother who passed 11 years ago.  I cry at both happy and sad things and most often when I am tired and/or frustrated.

So I understand.  You’ve put a lot of time into that concrete beam design.  You’ve brought it home for the past two nights to work on and checked and double checked your calculations to account for the high shear forces.  But now at the last minute, the project manager decides to go with a steel beam instead and you will be at the office until midnight redoing the calculations yet again.

I don’t care what you need to do to prevent it, but put forth a great effort not to cry in front of your co-workers (in particular your supervisor) about work.  Take a quick break, excuse yourself to run out and grab a cup of coffee, or if you’re Peggy, a new shade of lipstick at the drug store.  Turn on the waterworks if it will help relieve some of your tension while you take a little break, but return to get the job done.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a quick escape. You are stuck in a meeting or a one-on-one performance evaluation with your supervisor where you are facing criticism.  Try your best to remain professional and not get caught up in the emotions of the situation.

My rationale for this supplication is that people react in a variety of ways when they see another person get emotional- from pity and sympathy to annoyance and disgust. For you it may be a way to release your feelings and end up refreshed and ready to tackle the next problem.  It may be a tool that you use to prevent frustration from building.  But by crying in the workplace about work issues you are distancing yourself from your co-workers, both female and male.  Your crying can be interpreted as manipulation, or that you are too stressed to adequately perform your job.  It may come across as immaturity or trying to evoke sympathy from a female or male superior.

Humans, both male and female, can be affected by extreme displays of emotion.  Someone with a flaring temper can be intimidating and aggravating to those around them.  The co-worker who is consumed with persistent indignation about their underserved bad fortune can be a distraction and an annoyance to others.  One male colleague confessed to me his inability to think straight if a woman came to him crying about a technical issue she didn’t understand, for example.  He couldn’t help but think of his mother and his sister and be overwhelmed with empathy. He would provide assistance, even to the detriment of his own deadlines. Afterward he felt resentment about the situation because he felt exploited, particularly if it happened repeatedly.

A couple of years ago, I worked on a very complex support of excavation design for a property owner. It took weeks to complete; the time commensurate with the level of risk involved. The project was intense and I spent many hours conversing with the structural engineer and the owner, educating them on the design assumptions we were making. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the project and construction finesse required, we recommended a specific specialty contractor that we trusted to handle the complexities of the project.  When the contractor came on board, they told the owner they could redesign the excavation support more efficiently. We explained to the owner that the design could certainly be completed effectively with less retaining force, but considering the myriad variables involved, we recommended the more robust system.  At the very least, if the contractor’s proposed system was used, the instrumentation monitoring program should be expanded.  The owner elected to do neither, and hired the contractor to redesign the support of excavation.  When I found out, I was furious and so upset that I burst into tears. I cried to my supervisor and co-workers and anyone who would listen.  I was moody and depressed about it for a week. I vowed never to speak to anyone from the offending firm.  Looking back, I wish I had not made such a scene. After all, business is business and ultimately it was the owner’s decision to make. We got paid for our work and have continued to work with all parties involved on other endeavors. But I know that I negatively impacted some of my co-workers’ opinions of me, particularly the staff that assisted me on the project.  Since then, I have made an effort to rein-in my emotions on project-related efforts and set a better example.

So, bring your true self to the office but enough of that sniveling, buck up and join me in this No Crying Zone. If you disagree, I’d love to hear it…I’ll just try not read your comments while watching videos of soldiers returning home to surprise their children.

Happy Holidays – Whatever That Means to You

Merry/Happy Something

It’s the end of December, and avoiding a holiday of some sort would be a difficult task.  This is the time of year that emotions and social activity seem to hit a crescendo, sounding a tone that provides a soundtrack for our lives for at least a few weeks, if not more.

As the activities increase, often so do the responsibilities…and the expectations…and the preconceptions…and the guilt.  We want to make sparkly shiny holidays to remember for our families, and we try either to overdevelop or hide these Martha Stewart-esque tendencies as we go about our professional lives.  We entertain fantasies of moments under the mistletoe based on Hallmark Channel movies, (you can admit it – this is a safe space), while trying to maintain a tough, no-nonsense attitude on the jobsite.  And we make donations to the Charleston Animal Protection Society by buying their annual Firefighter Calendar (FIREFIGHTERS WITH PUPPIES) while trying to pretend we’re really excited by the annual ASCE Bridges calendar (okay, maybe you are, but FIREFIGHTERS WITH PUPPIES).

The holidays don’t change the issues we deal with the rest of the year.  We’re multi-faceted, interesting women who can’t be pigeonholed.  The only way we can reinforce that idea is to share with each other all of our stories and special moments to affirm their importance.

We wish you a fabulous Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice/After-Christmas Shoe Sales, or whatever you’re celebrating.  Good luck making a papier mache lobster head, or baking 4,000 cookies, or finding the perfect gift, or even getting your hands on a signed copy of the ASCE Bridges calendar. Let us know what fabulous things you’re doing – here are our versions:

Helen- Christmas is a Checkbox

Right now a lot of things in my life are a blur and get finished “just in time” or are deemed noncritical and shuffled to another list.  If possible, this kicks into an even higher gear during the holidays.  Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year, and was one of the reasons I wanted to have my wedding in late December.  Now it is more than a little emotional since I got divorced last year.

At this time in my life I am in Mama Bear/Warrior Woman Mode, or MBWWM for short.  I typically sleep 4-5 hours a night and then charge about the rest of the time from one thing to another, juggling two demanding part-time jobs, involvement in professional societies, three young children, multiple sports and activities for the older two kids, one Brownie troop, and a partridge in a pear tree.  The days are long but the years are short, as they say.  My life exists in lists: grocery (of course); long-term professional endeavors such as technical paper topics; what is due this week in school: homework, quizzes, pretzel money, basketball sign-ups, contribution to a class party, or the book fair; clients to reach out to for business development; and what we are planning for the next scout meeting, outing, or camping trip.

There are also the worries: are my kids eating healthy enough, brushing their teeth sufficiently, getting enough exercise, doing okay with the divorce, making the right friends, learning enough in school?  Is it time to go through their clothes and sort things that don’t fit, give some toys away to charity or to younger cousins, or potty train the youngest?  Am I progressing quickly enough in my professional career, is the specification I wrote sufficient for that project, will the contractor change the schedule yet again, and am I getting exposure inside my company and beyond it? These worries don’t stop because of the holidays- if anything they intensify for me.

I am not just playing Negative Nancy to Peggy’s Suzie Sunshine.  The “before-children me” avidly followed Penn State football and Phillies baseball, loved having dinner parties and making breads and desserts, read books from numerous genres voraciously, loved hiking with my dogs on the weekends, binge-watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, and the X-files, and made plans to have drinks with friends bi-weekly.  But right now I am the “single-mom with young children me” and much of that has been pushed aside while I have fully taken on this role.

But I am very fortunate to have met women through professional societies who report that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Their children are grown and they are free to travel, work more, play hard, and rediscover themselves.  An overwhelming majority of them are divorced as well, which I thought was interesting enough to point out, but I won’t speculate on this point today.

So, if all that is part of my “normal” life, what does it mean for the holidays?  Aside from more lists: addresses for Christmas cards and gifts for the bus driver, teachers, the kids’ nanny, etc., it means instilling hope, love, and thankfulness in my children.  I carry on the traditions of lighting an advent wreath at family dinner, cutting down our own Christmas tree, going to Christmas Eve mass, and leaving cookies and milk out for Santa.  We have new traditions including making gingerbread houses, seeing a festive movie with the scouts, and doing good deeds with the help of our Kindness Elf (not Elf on the Shelf!).  It also means stopping to appreciate the wonder that a 7, 5, and 2 year old experience on Christmas morning and expressing the gratitude that I feel toward my family and friends, and especially my parents, for the support they give me.  Then I’ll cross Christmas off the list and move on to the next thing!

Peggy- It’s a Wonderful Life!

I grew up in a very close, Irish Catholic family, and we had more Christmas traditions than I could describe.  In addition, I am a hopeless romantic, and the sparkly happiness of the holidays feeds right into my rather ridiculous love of all things sappy and festive.

Every year I hear and read endless comments/articles/doctoral theses about how difficult the holidays are and how tragic it is that everything is so commercial.  But I tend to take the opposite stance.  I love the holidays because there is more optimism, more kindness, more love than during the rest of the year.  A pessimist would say it’s sad that people can’t be as kind and generous as they are during the holidays.  I say isn’t it wonderful that people are better versions of themselves for part of the year?  Doubters decry the commercialism of Christmas; I am happy that the holiday gives a number of people money to feed their families, and the constant commercials make some people take a moment to reach out to loved ones when they normally would not.  Yes, I am Suzie Sunshine, and I’m not sorry.  The guys on my construction sites get homemade cookies from me, and they’re not sorry either.

Many of my favorite things are holiday-related, because the season seems to act as an amplifier for emotions and reactions.  My favorite date scene in a movie is the shopping/dinner date in the 1994 version of “Miracle on 34th Street.”  My favorite dance scene in a movie is the Vera Ellen/Danny Kaye number at the club in Florida in “White Christmas.”  My favorite shopping day of the year is my annual day at the mall in December with my mom and my little brother.  And although it’s not my absolute favorite food, I absolutely love spending 5 or 6 hours making fruitcake in mid-November from my grandmother’s recipe and soaking the 12-pound cake in bourbon every week so the family can enjoy a little bit of family history at Christmas dinner.

It amazes me when clients ask for last minute drilling the week before Christmas, but I’m much less angry than I am when confronted with unreasonable requests the rest of the year.  And sexist remarks have much less sting when Harry Connick Jr. is singing about Christmas Dreaming in the background.  The happier I am, the stronger I am to take on those who don’t believe in me.

Even if you don’t live in my little glitter-filled, sugarplum-encrusted world, I hope you can find a way to experience some joy in the holidays (FIREFIGHTERS WITH PUPPIES).  Every little bit of happiness makes you stronger, and there’s a lot of stray bliss lying around during the season.

United We Rock

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.

Field Work Uncovered

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.


Learning My Way

My Way or ….Well, There Are a Lot of Really Great Roads

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.

How We Got Started

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.

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