For those of us in the foundation industry, there is no shortage of advice on how to be a woman in a male-dominated field in 2016. (Truly, there is no shortage of advice on how to be any type of woman in 2016). We have “experts” explaining to us the psychology of business and how male-female relationships fit into that world. We also have lots and lots of women and men giving us detailed and confident guidance, even though they never have experienced what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, and the situation is only a theoretical problem on paper to them. So how do we navigate these waters? Is there a template we can follow? Basic rules of thumb? Perhaps an adult coloring book with situationally appropriate responses and behaviors clearly illustrated in line drawings?
I spent my second co-op semester with an internationally-respected environmental engineering firm. Approximately one hour into the first day, one of the engineers introduced herself to me and told me that she intended to take me under her wing and make sure that I enjoyed an internship that would be beneficial to my long-term career. Approximately 90 minutes into the first day, she informed me that the most important action I could take to set the tone for my tenure with the firm would be to tell the guys in the office that they wouldn’t be (blank)ing me, even though they wanted to. Excuse me? I was 19. My very polite, very southern, very Catholic world to date did not include any such in-your-face communication with, well, anyone. In addition, the logical, engineer-like part of my brain kept whispering, “How do you know they want to? What if they don’t like flat-chested brunettes with oddly green eyes?”
This engineer subsequently dragged me to jobsites, meetings, and conferences, all the while urging me to hit every guy with a full-court press of aggressive animosity. We crawled in sewers with municipal crews and drank beer with them at lunch (!), then she berated me for not biting their heads off when they offered to carry our equipment to our truck. She told off a sweet older man who told us he was proud to be working with “two gals.” She stood on a construction site and gestured to her private parts, telling the guys, “I know this is what you want, but you’re not getting it.” She told me every day that I needed to toughen up and follow her example.
I was confused and miserable. I wasn’t a shrinking violet, and I have never had trouble speaking my mind. But this just wasn’t how I was comfortable dealing with people. In my mind, others should be treated with respect until they demonstrate that it’s not warranted. I like people; most people, in fact. This engineer’s approach assumed that every man in my professional world was an adversary. And she beat me up with the idea that I would only succeed as an engineer, particularly in the construction world, if I followed her lead.
With no one to consult and no role model to observe, I had to make a decision. I could take her advice and act in a way that was completely in conflict with my personality, or I could forge my own route and risk sabotaging my career if she was right.
My rock-headed, leap-before-I-look personal drive eventually won out. If she was correct and the engineering world was going to be so contentious, I didn’t want any part of it anyway. I knew I didn’t want to exist inside a cubicle, so whatever I decided had to take into account the potentially rough and tumble world on construction sites. I decided I would take my chances and deal with it in my own fashion. She was furious and told me I was undermining women as a whole. I told her that her hateful approach might actually threaten continuation of the human race. We never spoke again. (My boss later told me they knew what she was doing but they trusted me to “figure it out.” Ugh).
I plowed ahead over the years, confronting everything from subtle sexism in meetings to physical assault in a locked construction trailer. I made a lot of mistakes. But I never felt like I wasn’t being myself.
Several months ago I heard a woman in a meeting say that she was uncomfortable at her firm because she was the only woman on her floor at the office. I waited to hear about harassment or shunning, but her solo existence was the whole of her story. My first reaction was to scoff. “Are you kidding me? No one has touched you or ignored your work or made snide comments about you and you’re uncomfortable? Seriously?!” But I realized a short time later that she, like me, has her own criteria for what makes a situation tolerable and how she handles it. Mentally I apologized, even though she never knew of my negative reaction. I’ll support her if she ever needs help figuring out how to move to a firm with more women or encourage her present firm to recruit more women. Whatever works for her.
We all need to figure out how to navigate our male-dominated paths in a vehicle of our choice. There is no blueprint, no specifications, no ASTM standard for how to behave, to react, to assimilate. We all have different resistance factors, (sorry – you knew there would have to be a geotechnical reference in here SOMEWHERE), and the minefields we’re navigating are landscapes unique to each of us. The best we can do is look around to find other women who are like us, and observe how they act. I have one friend who has a personality similar to mine, and I consult her often when I run into a testosterone wall. Another of my friends is much less tolerant than I am of human foibles, and I rarely look to her as an example or for guidance. I love and respect her, but her way isn’t my way.
As sparse little pink dots in the dirty (literally), rough sea of blue that is the foundation construction world, we have to maintain our connectivity to reinforce our presence. The more opinions and experiences that we exchange, the better chance we have that every woman will find someone else’s voice that resonates with her. And the more sounding boards we all have, the less chance there is that some of us will give up this wild, wonderful adventure.
Once Upon a Time…
…there were two little girls who weren’t afraid to get dirty. Peggy and Helen made mud pies and ran through creeks and blazed new trails through the scariest of vacant lots. As they grew up, they figured out they could make things in the dirt they loved so much. Tiny forts turned into fishing docks and party decks. The little girls wanted more, so they went to engineering school to learn how to turn their simple magic into true construction voodoo.
Most mud has worms, and the girls’ adventure opened a can of them. The worms weren’t squishy or slimy, but rather sneaky and tricky. For every marvelous discovery in how to make things stand up in the mud, someone appeared who told Peggy and Helen that good girls don’t play in the dirt. For every victory in building something to help people cross over really soft mud, a nasty boy appeared to tell the girls that mud-covered girls were sexy but not smart. And for every giant dam the girls constructed to make a lake for their neighbors to swim in, someone appeared to explain to them that girls don’t know how to do that.
Peggy and Helen were mad and frustrated, but they weren’t about to stop playing in the mud. They knew there were other girls out there who were getting dirty on purpose, and they just had to find them. If they all talked about how to handle the worms, maybe they could figure out a plan. And maybe they could just go on being who they wanted to be.
So the girls wrote a note on a piece of paper and made it into a kite. They flew the kite high and wide, and every time they reeled it back in, another girl had added to the note. Pretty soon, the kite was covered with all sorts of opinions on how all sorts of girls could handle worms in their own ways. Peggy and Helen read the notes, flew the kite, and figured out how to get rid of worms so they could go back to playing in the mud. Girls everywhere read the notes, and most of the worms got put back in the can. And life was as it should be – dirty and happy.