Sometimes Being Tough Means Being Stupid
There are a number of milestones most women will experience if they undertake a career in a field populated mainly by men. At some point, you will get singled out in a very conspicuous situation (important meeting, large construction site) for being the only female within miles and will be asked to give relationship advice. Somewhere down the line, you will be the object of someone’s unwanted affection, creating an uncomfortable professional situation with potentially negative career implications. More than once, you will have “female problems” at a very inopportune time. (Group cringe here). And in response to some random occurrence, you will feel the need to act as if you are never treated differently, and you will assert that you are too tough to let any little sexism bother you. You might as well be one of the guys, right?
I wish I could say a) I’ve never done this and b) I’m too young to see the problem with this response. Alas, I can claim neither. Much like most of you, some experience(s) in my past caused me to act as if all was well and the screaming bad behavior of those around me wasn’t a problem. Many mistakes later, I wish I had been honest and dealt with the situations as they were, rather than how I wished they were. My “toughness” did no one any good and undermined my professional progress as a whole.
To be clear, I am a highly empathetic and sympathetic person, but I have no stomach for high maintenance behavior and whining. I think trophies should go to those who earn them, and most people don’t understand the value of hard work. Everyday life is not a Hallmark card; that’s why they make those cards to commemorate the moments that are. And even those who love their jobs don’t wake up every morning singing with a chorus of forest animals and dreaming of the two-hour conference call to come. If life isn’t challenging you don’t learn anything, and if you think only about yourself, you live your life with the maturity of a seventh grader.
On the other hand, to ignore obstructive conditions in the workplace is not being tough and growing, it’s being counterproductive and inefficient. Many of us have felt at some point like it was time to “suck it up” and just proceed as if the sexist old draftsman isn’t doing all of your projects last because he doesn’t think you should be there or the contractor isn’t spending so much time looking down your shirt that he’s not listening to you telling him THE SHAFT BOTTOMS AREN’T CLEAN ENOUGH. We have told ourselves the conditions at hand were just there as a rite of passage, and it will all get better once the people involved see that we’re competent. Often, someone else will be telling us that we would make life easier for ourselves if we didn’t mention any problems we have and just act like one of the guys. But we’re not. And to evaluate things dishonestly is illogical and very un-engineerlike. Nothing – not the project, not your company, and certainly not your life – will benefit from evaluating conditions as they might be, instead of how they are. And your dishonesty about who you are will have long range consequences.
Shortly after I opened my company, an architect I knew got me hired to do special inspections at a state prison project. I was thrilled for the work, and I ignored the architect’s history of flirting beyond the line of appropriateness. The benefit to my new business outweighed any perceived discomfort on the job.
I had worked on a number of prison projects, and I was familiar with typical protocols for ongoing work at an existing facility. However, the architect said this project was a bit different and that he wanted to visit the site with me for the first inspection to make sure all was well. The site was three hours away, and he insisted on riding together so he could brief me on the way. He was formal and appropriate on the drive down, so I assumed all would be well.
When we arrived at the site, I found out the project was being constructed with prison labor. I was escorted to the area in question by six guards with rifles, plus the warden. Although I was surrounded by 25 prisoners with tools, I had plenty of protection, so my initial misgivings evaporated and I was grateful for a hopefully profitable project.
We had no sooner left the prison grounds when the architect surprised me with his plans for a tryst at a local motel, followed by a “nice lunch” at a nearby greasy spoon. (How could I say no when chicken fried steak was being offered?) I was furious, and I told him we were going home NOW. He grumbled and whined for three hours.
I hope you have enough faith in me to know that I drove to the next inspection by myself. When I arrived at the prison, the puzzled guard at the gate told me the warden was gone for the day and they had no one scheduled to escort me. He said they could spare a guard to walk me back to the site, but that I would have to just stick with the guard/superintendent who was in charge of the jobsite after that. Seriously?
This is the point when I should have said no. This is a prison. These men are incarcerated, and they have tools. No person with any sense would send a 30-year old female into a construction site with 25 felons and only one guard. But I couldn’t stand the idea that someone would say the inspection didn’t get done just because I was a female. So I said, “Sure. Okay, let’s go.” The guard who was the site superintendent was furious and cussed the escort guard a blue streak. I finished my inspections (mostly), but I finally left the site when a small, heavily scarred man started walking around me in circles, muttering and slamming a hammer into his palm.
I found out later that after I turned him down, the architect told the prison board that I didn’t need so much protection because I was a “tough girl.” He also purposefully didn’t tell the warden I would be on-site that day. The warden went ballistic when he found out I was at the site with so little protection, and one guard lost his job.
Did I get the job done? Yes. But the risk to me, (and the risk of a riot and injuries the warden told me), was not commensurate with the product. Being able to measure mortar proportions on that job did not prove that I was a good engineer and did prove that my judgment might be questionable. In fact, I had let my emotions (pride and stubbornness) override my stewardship of the best interest of the project.
There are many degrees of femininity, and some women will blend into an environment that is mostly male with more ease than others. But that ease should not be equated with being a better engineer/contractor/equipment salesperson/sword swallower. I am NOT one of the boys and I never will be. But I’m a damn good engineer.