I’m a woman who works with men most of the time. Always have. When I was a teenager, I was active in Explorer Scouts, an extension of Boy Scouts of America. It was co-ed, but still mostly guys. I went on to college where I majored in Electrical Engineering. By the last half, I had settled in with a nice group of 4 or 5 girls, but most of my classmates were men. Then I got a job in Software Engineering, again, men.
This has never bothered me, particularly. I get along with my male coworkers. I’m not a high-strung woman that takes offense easily. I’m not overly girly in my speaking or mannerisms. I wear jeans and tennis shoes to work, just like any of the other guys.
But I’ve been having this strange awakening lately. It’s come partially from interacting with more female coworkers and partially from reading blogs from other women in male dominated fields, like this one.
I’m starting to realize things I do because I’m the only woman in the room.
Take, for instance, some coworkers who like to complain about the government. Their political point-of-view is quite different from mine. From my perspective, at least one of them has fallen for some major fish stories. I frequently wish they’d just shut up. Or go talk somewhere else so I can’t hear them.
Do I say anything?
Do I walk over and say, “Hey, guys, would you mind keeping it about work? I don’t want to listen to this.”?
No. I don’t.
I always thought it was just my eagerness to fit in and be liked that kept me out of such confrontations. After talking with a like-minded female colleague, I’ve come to realize that there is another reason I stay silent. They might very well do what I ask, but it wouldn’t be out of respect for me and my rights. No, they’d roll their eyes and when a topic started to come up next time, they’d say in a low voice, “Well, we can’t talk about that because… you know… the woman will be offended.”
I’ve always thought of myself as one of the guys and always assumed they saw me the same. But when I transferred into my current work group, many of whom I’ve worked with before, a small handful bemoaned gaining women in the group: “Oh, I’ll have to start behaving myself now that there will be women here.”
I was recently test solving puzzles for a friend who was writing a puzzle hunt. He had a group of six of us that were communicating about the puzzles via group emails. I was the only woman. It didn’t bother me until one night near the end of the solving. There were two or three batches of puzzles to solve – 10-15 puzzles, each taking me about 3-5 minutes to solve and provide feedback on.
I was tired. Maybe a little depressed and unmotivated. I didn’t feel very good. My stomach was cramping. No… not those “lady cramps” – real, literal stomach cramping. I. Did. Not. Want. To. Solve. Those. Puzzles.
But I did.
He would have understood. If I just said, “Hey, I’m burned out. I need a break. I’ll get to these tomorrow but I bet everyone else is already giving you great feedback”, he would have been like, “Man, that’s fine. I totally understand.” And it would have sounded just like that. He’s a cool guy.
So why did I solve them? Because I was the only woman participating. At least one guy had his wife solving too but she wasn’t one of the original requested solvers. It was just me and a bunch of guys. And I just couldn’t be the woman too weak to finish it out.
It reminded me of Petra in Ender’s Game – the book, not the movie. At the end, during “Command School”, when the kids were being pushed well past their breaking points, Petra buckled under the pressure. She made a mistake with devastating consequences. She felt horrible. She had let down the team. And I always felt that she took it harder because she was the only girl participating. She had always needed to be better than all the guys to be considered an equal and when she stumbled, she feared people would think it was because she was female and couldn’t handle it.
When I was in high school, in that Explorer Post, we hiked at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Two weeks, hiking rugged trails and camping in tents. Four adults, eight guys, two girls. One day, we arrived at the base of an infamously brutal climb: Bear Canyon. I was part of the day’s water crew and the campsite we were headed to was dry. We had filled up the extra large water bag and some of the guys were gleefully adding the 20 or so pounds to my already fully-loaded pack.
As the water dropped into place, I felt the weight hit my hips and my knees buckled slightly. At that point, I was carrying over half my body weight on my back. I hefted the weight and, trying not to sound worried or incapable, asked if anyone was going to take it from me part of the way up.
“If you can keep up!” one of them exclaimed before they all scampered up the trail.
I saw red. How dare they?! I’ll show them! So I started walking. I held my water bottle in my hand, picked out a comfortable pace, and just kept walking. I didn’t stop. I didn’t slow down. I. Just. Walked.
And eventually, I caught up with them taking a break on a log. There was my chance to divest myself of the 20 pounds of water. But I walked by as if I was having no trouble at all. In fact, like I hadn’t even seen them.
And I beat them to the top. Just barely. A few guys – who hadn’t taunted me – got there earlier than I and were playing a game of cards. They motioned me over and quickly tossed me some cards so I’d look like I was playing. I worked very hard to regulate my gasps into semi-normal breathing.
The older brother of my main taunter looked up as they approached. “About time you got here,” he said, “She’s been here for ages.”
The comment made me feel good. But it was crazy that I felt the need to prove myself in that way.
Women in male-dominated arenas often feel forced to prove themselves. Like the “lady preachers” in the linked blog above, keeping it serious so that they will be treated seriously. Afraid to look or act too much like a woman, lest they not be treated like a professional.