I’ve been working in and around government testing for the last six years. Six years which have solidified three things: I am, without a shadow of a doubt, a feminist and the only one I know willing to admit it out loud; engineering/technical fields are in desperate need of more women; and, despite never believing it possible, I really love my job.
It was my first real job straight out of college and it has been a crazy, uplifting, and often difficult ride. After bouncing around for a few years in a number of high profile tests and under a lot of scrutiny, I finally settled in at a smaller facility that rarely requires overtime and doesn’t ask me to work graveyards for months on end at the drop of a dime. Thus allowing me to actually, you know, be a mother and have a life. The one downside (sometimes) is that I am the only woman in our entire building.
Hey, I get two bathrooms entirely to myself, so that’s, you know, pretty sweet. But it has also opened my eyes to how truly difficult it can be to operate professionally in a technical environment when you are basically an island unto yourself.
Working in a field capacity prior to my current position, I had my run-ins with difficult men (and women) and sexist situations. Engineering isn’t precisely bursting with women and sometimes I’d be one of very few among hundreds of men (many of whom were soldiers). At one point I was placed in a leadership position for my division and I butted heads with one person in particular, who kept insisting that I didn’t know what I was talking about because my findings were unintentionally throwing him under the bus. I overheard a very heated discussion with his supervisor insisting that I had only been assigned my position because I’d slept my way there. When it was pointed out that my boss was a woman, he merely insisted that I was a lesbian. Tale as old as time, right?
Long story short, I was forced to grow some pretty tough skin before I ended up where I am today. It was certainly a difficult road at times, one I had to temper with years of experience and an open mind, but one I feel was invaluable to travel. I had to find a balance between rolling with the punches and knowing how and when to stand up for myself –and as someone who really struggled with making herself heard, this has been huge.
While I certainly do not profess to be an expert, these are the words of wisdom I would pass along to any woman interested in following a similar path:
1. Choose your battles
You get a group of blue collar men who are used to saying what they like when they like, you’re bound to hear some offensive stuff. You’ll hear about weekend trips to strip clubs, how sexy certain celebrities are or aren’t, and a lot of generalizations about women overall (Yes, I know you think women drivers are the bane of your automotive existence, you can shut up now, unnamed co-worker). It’s going to make you uncomfortable and it’s going to piss you off. Different situations call for different tactics, and sometimes those tactics require you to do the most difficult thing of all; let it go (I sang that Frozen style in my head, so don’t feel bad if you did the same).
You can’t fight every comment and every crude remark, and sometimes, I’ve found, that the best way to combat the worst offenders is to ignore them entirely. Like bullies on a playground, there are plenty of men who just want to get a rise out of you, and when they don’t get it, skulk away to throw rocks at puppies or whatever else they do when they’re not making women uncomfortable.
That being said, I’ve had a lot of success with sarcastic observations (Jessica Biel isn’t likely to want to sleep with you anyway, bro), blatant subject changes (hey, did you see that play in the Seahawks-Niners game), and just plain old ‘hey, I really don’t want to have to come to work and listen to you talk about this stuff and frankly, I really, really don’t have to.’ All these tactics have worked fairly well and I’ve only had to report someone once (the aforementioned man I butted heads with and let’s just say, he no longer works for our company).
You deserve to work in a safe and comfortable environment, but it can take some work and patience to get it there in a manner that doesn’t completely alienate you from everyone.
2. You will, more than likely, be the face of the facility/group
Without really realizing it, I quickly became the face of my division’s unofficial meet and greet department. Let me preface this by saying that I am awkward, I never know what to say, and you put me in front of important people I immediately forget everything I know. In my defense, my job wasn’t supposed to require me to speak to Program Managers about the state and direction of their testing, but I found myself more and more often being shoved in that direction.
I was not alone. Several of my female coworkers were placed in similar situations and we all came to the same conclusions; we were all young (under twenty five at the time), we were all at least moderately attractive, and we were all women.
This can be annoying.
Being a girl does not mean you know how to talk to people, or charm them, or whatever it is our male counterparts perceived we were inherently better at. But, on the bright side, I learned so, so much from these interactions. After eventually embracing the phenomenon I found that there were a lot of advantages to doing what none of the guys wanted to do, which was ‘shmoze.’ I had a leg up in the meetings, in having a say when things got hairy for my division, and lasting contacts that really helped with work in the future. Not to mention, I really learned to get past my nerves and social anxiety. Definitely a case of making kickass lemonade with cast off lemons, I think.
3. Be careful attending after work dinners or lunches with traveling representatives or coworkers.
When I was younger and more naïve, I agreed to go on what I believed was an after work dinner with a group of representatives for a company we were testing for. This was not in any way uncommon and happened often when we had guests from out of state. When I arrived at the designated restaurant and there was only one man present, I discovered my mistake. I learned quickly that you have to be very, very careful when trying to interface with people in these situations. They do not often work with many women. They are all usually very pleasant, and nice, and even vaguely excited. Many will flirt with you, some may even blatantly hit on you, most will take a polite no for an answer, and some will not.
Learn to exercise caution and don’t be afraid to say no, and to say it often. Your comfort and safety in a professional environment is more important than ‘customer satisfaction,’ or their perceived entitlement to say or behave however they wish.
4. You will have to prove your worth regularly
This is something that persists, for me, to this day. When a new set of customers arrive at my current facility I am usually assumed to be something of a secretary or just a ‘data processing girl’ (which I was once referred to as to my face). My male coworkers are assumed to know exactly what it is our customer’s need, when in reality we all have very specific jobs and mine is a lot more hands-on than many of theirs. It is really easy to become offended and to be frustrated. It can be exhausting to feel you constantly have something to prove. I’ve learned to just…. stop. Stop allowing the situation to affect my mood and demeanor and merely just do the job I know I am capable of doing. I actually don’t have to prove anything, it turns out.
Be kind, but make it clear you weren’t hired to answer phones, make copies, and fetch coffee as politely as you can. Unless they’re actually really nice and you needed to make some copies anyway and you were totally hankering for a Starbucks run. Point being, don’t let people peg you into a specific category, but be open minded. Not everyone is out to discriminate against you (though it can feel that way sometimes).
5. Try to facilitate healthy relationships with the few women you may work around
One of the larger problems I feel we, as women, encounter in society is negativity and competition within our own gender. I have often observed that women in my company are pitted against one another, usually without their realizing it. We bristle and we sneer when a new woman enters our territory because we have so diligently carved out a place for ourselves, and don’t want that to be disrupted. It shouldn’t be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve been burned a few times by the women I used to work with and that I believed had my back like I had theirs, but I view it as more another symptom of the problem rather than an undisputable rule. I will never buy that relationships with women are these insane dramatic endeavors because ‘we’re women,’ it doesn’t have to be that way, and I think it is so incredibly important that we watch out for one another, especially in the technically fields where there are so few of us.
6. By standing up for yourself in a positive and compassionate manner, you can change your work place
Over the past three years in my current office, I have patiently, but consistently, pointed out my coworkers’ sexist nonsense. I do it with humor, and debate, and affection. We’ve gotten close over these years and through, I believe, my work ethic and my perseverance in standing up for myself as respectfully as possible, I have changed our office for the better. I can see it in the little things, in the ways they talk about women when they think I’m not listening, in the ways that they now consider their interactions with the few other women who do occasionally pass through our doors. I can see them considering their words and comments before they make them. I was able to do all of this without shouting matches or insults, but also by not allowing myself to feel objectified, diminished, or degraded. Because, bottom line, I shouldn’t ever have to feel that way merely to keep from ‘making waves.’
While there are most certainly some situations that require legal involvement, I truly believe that most of the men I work with merely don’t understand how hurtful and problematic their behavior can be. By kindly pointing it out and explaining myself, I’ve found a great deal of success and hope that there really is a place for us –for women — in technical fields. That it doesn’t have to be a constant battle of the sexes we wage from opposite sides of the lab. We can meet halfway, we can find a middle ground.
So don’t ever, ever, feel like you don’t belong.