A blast from the past

(The following was a Facebook post I made in 2014)

The anecdote about Amy Poehler being assertive with a producer got me to thinking about similar incidents I’ve had.

Because once upon a time, I was a heavy construction safety manager in NYC.  How did a woman end up in such a male-dominated field? The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple answer is that I wanted one job where I could make enough money to not work a second job to support myself as a single parent. I saw too many single mothers working at two jobs in the “pink collar ghetto;” their children ended up with no parent at home: kids raising themselves. I also wanted a job that ran the same hours as school did: 7 AM to 3:30 PM, just like construction. My former work as a restaurant manager meant I would work all nights and weekends, and not be home when the children were, so that was not an option. My final criterion was to find a profession where there was a huge shortage of personnel, where they would have to hire me, female or not.

Construction safety management fit all of those requirements, especially the part about the shortage of personnel. I found out about safety as a career while working as a newly-abandoned wife working as an office temp, and started working systematically toward that goal.

I did not do it to be a trailblazer, but I was a trailblazer anyhow. I did not do it to make a political statement, but it made one anyhow. And here are some of the things I learned.

Standing up for yourself is a lot easier if they will have trouble replacing you. I remember one construction project where I was pressed into service as a flagman on busy 2nd Avenue. At this point I was a degreed engineer, and I could have objected since I had 17 floors and 150 men to monitor, and paperwork, and a sore leg . . . but I did as directed, and still managed to walk the entire building and do my reports. It meant I only got a 10-minute lunch break, but I was okay with that: my job often meant work during lunch with irregular breaks. So imagine my surprise when the project superintendent came into my office spitting venom, yelling at me that I was sitting there (doing paperwork) when I should be out in the field, working.

And I thought to myself, how would a guy react to this tirade? Understand that I worked as an engineering consultant rather than corporate employee by choice, to deal with contractors asking me to work unsafely or allow the men to work unsafely by simply walking away. So I very calmly told him that I had walked the building already and was making my report. He screamed at me that I was still spending too much time in the office. I countered, professionally, that I had only had a 10-minute lunch and that he had no idea how much paperwork this job entailed. But if he was unhappy with my work I had three other clients clamoring for me to come to their sites (which was very true). I was sorry he felt that way. He should call my boss at the consulting firm and request a replacement for me.

Then, in a calculated insult that had the young engineers sharing my office gasping in shock. I turned my back on the screaming man and went back to work.

In about an hour, the man came in and apologized. He used the “I wasn’t feeling well” excuse, and I graciously allowed it to let him save face. He’d been way off base, insulting, nasty, and unprofessional. And we both knew it.

Men are rude to other men; the perceived condescension might not be because you are female. In the above situation I did not assume he was vile to me because I was a woman. I assumed he was vile to me because he was an asshole.

I’ve seen countless women hide behind threats of discrimination lawsuits because they thought they had been wronged because of their gender. While that was true sometimes, and I am all for suing about screw-the-boss-to-get-ahead threats, at other times the offending person was simply a jerk to everyone. In my humble opinion the way you deal with jerks in an all male environment, or any environment, is to assume that the more professional you get, the more they look like jerks. I don’t lower myself to their level and act rudely back at them.

True story: A female vendor for a prison lock company was very upset at how she was being treated at a meeting, and there was not a thing wrong with her treatment that I could see. A very level-headed female structural engineer friend of mine had to pull her aside into my office and sternly but gently explain that she was being treated the way everyone else was, and–dammit–by flinging baseless accusation of gender discrimination she was making our gender look bad. I sat there nodding, confirming the female engineer’s message to the woman salesperson.

Sometimes it’s not about being female, it’s about being treated normally for the business and you don’t know the rules yet. A mentor can help you learn the rules, but so can keeping your mouth shut and your eyes open. You know, like young men in the same job would have to learn the ropes.

You’ll have to prove yourself in any new environment. So do new men. It’s not gender discrimination when you get harmlessly hazed (how does the new guy take teasing?) or questioned on your competence (does the new guy know enough to be an asset to the team? or will I have to avoid his spatter zone?) – in any new job, you have to prove yourself. Yes, you might be questioned a little more closely since they are not used to seeing females do your job. This is usually a chance to educate them that a gal can do whatever it is as well as a man, not usually an inquisition.

Have I been discriminated against for being female? Rarely, and I met it head on. The guy who told me to my face that he “did not think women should be in the field” was told that I was supporting three children, and that I was a fellow breadwinner. The guy who thought I should not be there because I was “stealing a job from a man” was told that if he wanted to blame someone, he could blame my ex for abandoning us and non-support. The manager who would not let me train in the field “because she might get hurt” overheard a planned and planted conversation that he would not have such concerns about a 35-year-old man: permission to work out on the jobsite was granted the next day.

Standing up for yourself engenders respect, not reprisals. I knew I was not getting paid what I was worth, and that was okay at first since I had not gained experience or finished school. But once I finished my degree the $5K/yr raise that my boss was oh-so-proud to offer me left me $15K/yr below what a male in my field with my level of experience and education should be making.

So I lined up a new job. When I called to give notice the president of the company wanted to make a counter-offer. What would it take to keep me? Frankly, I told him, I could not pay my bills on what he was paying me. So he wanted to know why I had not brought that up at the review where they gave me the $5K raise. “Because you said that was all you could afford, and I was stupid enough to believe you,” was my reply. He sharpened his pencil, and somehow got me the $15 K more a year it would take me to stay.

And for the rest of my tenure there, I was suddenly treated with wary respect.

You know, just like a professional.