By Becky Yep – Philadelphia, PA
Sexism Exists- Just Not How You Would Expect it to Be
Coming out of college, full of fiery hope and defiance, I was determined to set my mark as a female engineer in a sea of men. I was ready to battle anyone who dared to cat-call, demean or pay me that 78 cents to the dollar. But the sexism I encountered wasn’t anything like I expected.
In my head, I expected I would walk into the office and stumble upon a fort with a sign screaming “No Girls Allowed,” or that some sleazebag would look me up-and-down and say something gross under his breath. No, I didn’t have to mace anyone in the office, nor did I once have to use a rape whistle – although that would make for a more dramatic lesson in sexism.
I experienced the worst kind of sexism – the subtle, deeply ingrained kind from men who thought they were trying to protect me. It started out with an older guy calling me “sweetie” after helping me through a technical issue on my computer. Forgivable, I thought. Then, guys started watching what they said around me, or catch themselves when they cursed (“sorry! I didn’t mean to say that in front of a woman.”). Understandable, I thought. And then I found myself in my manager’s office, who was obviously treading lightly around me when talking about controversial work issues, as if he was afraid I might get emotional on him.
“Hey,” I told the guy who had cursed and then apologized, “you don’t have to watch your mouth around me. How are you gonna take me seriously if you’re worried about protecting my ears? Besides, that guy that screwed you over DID sound like a motherf*cker.”
In my situation, I have found this to be the best way to combat that kind of subtle sexism- with subtle humor. I let them know I wasn’t some little girl who couldn’t get her hands dirty like the rest of them. Moral of the story? It’s important to find a balanced way to go to bat for yourself and take a stand.
Every Person has Something to Teach You
This is where being a woman has actually worked to my advantage. I’ve already proved competent to the engineers, just by doing my job well and in a timely manner. As for the shop guys, being a small, unassuming Asian girl definitely has its benefits, because who is the last person you would expect to crawl around the shop floor and get their hands dirty?
By showing I was willing to dive into the nitty-gritty of the assembly process, I surprised a lot of the mechanics. I also offered what many other proud engineers sadly haven’t – respect. I make sure to learn each of their names, greet them with a firm handshake, and ask honest questions when I need help.
The shop floor guys, in turn, provide me with helpful feedback, show me tips and tricks they’ve cultivated from their “tribal knowledge,” and even invite me to work out with them at the company gym (plus, I can out-squat some of the guys!).
My takeaway was simple: always seek to better yourself and learn from others, even in the most unexpected places.
The Workplace Comes with Politics
While not entirely unexpected, this little fact still somehow surprised the crap out of me. Suddenly, you have to dig way back to your high school roots to remember how to deal with the cattiness of your colleagues. Unfortunately, the “Real World” is a lot like 10th grade. Yes, there are the good times, the pep-rally-type meetings with free pizza and guest speakers, the field trips (actually, business trips might be even better than field trips- no two words are more beautiful than, “expense it!”), and the upper classmen-type mentors who might tease you, but might also take you under their wing.
Remember those 12th grade jocks from high school? Oh, they still exist, but disguised in expensive business suits and fancy cars. The beautiful and cruel Queen Bees? Still beautiful, still cruel, just hiding under the pretense of professional businesswomen, “networking” their way up the ladder. And the high school nerds, bless ‘em… they haven’t changed much (read: ratty sweatshirts in a dark corner cube with noise-canceling headphones, typing away with their Cheeto-ringed fingers).
I might be exaggerating a little, but just because you’ve become “an adult” doesn’t mean the rest of the world has grown up. This was one of the hardest pills for me to swallow.I had always put adults, especially professionals, on some kind of pedestal. It was tough to realize the truth – your age doesn’t determine whether or not you know what you’re doing.
The good thing is, I made it through high school and I’ve made it through my first year on the job in the same way: by working thoroughly and diligently, trying to be a genuinely good person toward those around me and keeping my goals in mind. If I have learned anything, it’s that hard work beats talent and popularity in the long run. I don’t mind keeping my head down, paying my dues, and working my ass off- this is what I expect of myself (especially this early in my career), and in a perfect world, everyone else would operate this way too. The bottom line is, you can’t worry too much about others; YOU have to take the responsibility to avoid getting sucked in and regressing into your high school self.
Know Your Priorities
For the first time in my life, I have defined hours and proprietary work that I can’t take home (which means no homework! Yay!). This was GREAT news to me, because it meant I could leave work at work and focus on enjoying my new, fast-paced life in the city.
This delightful work/life separation lasted all of four months. Once I became more competent at work, I was assigned my own projects, and the responsibility and stress that accompanied these assignments would creep into my post-work happy hours, my afternoon runs and even into my dreams.
When I was lamenting my work-related stress over the phone to my younger, collegiate sister, I could tell she was mentally glazing over, and I realized how ridiculous I must have sounded . Upon taking a step back, it came to me: “This multi-billion dollar company will ACTUALLY survive if even if you don’t stress away your day and nights about this ONE PARTICULAR project.”
As this obvious notion dawned on me, my chest became so much lighter. I did NOT want to become someone whose life revolved around their job. True, it can be hard to remember this, and my work can still sometimes creep its way into my personal life, but I am more determined than ever to make my personal life my priority. After all, what is the point of working if you have nothing to live for?
Cherish the Past, Hope for the Future, Live for the Present
One of the most intimidating things staring me in the face right now is a lack of something staring right at me, if that makes sense. After 22 years of a streamlined upbringing, in which each step of my academic life prepared me for the next, I have suddenly found myself looking into a void. Instead of tackling this head-on, I continually pined for my simple, structure past, or impatiently awaited what I hoped was my simple, structured future.
While flailing alternatively between sad nostalgia for the past and crazed anticipation for the future, I have too often let the present slip by. It wasn’t until polling my peers (I say “polling,” and I really mean loudly complaining to anyone that would listen) that I realized about everyone at my stage of life is in the same boat.
Sure, there are those few who know EXACTLY what they want out of life, but the vast majority of us are flailing around together.You aren’t alone in your uncertainty. While the warm, comforting bubble of the past is certainly something to cherish, and the bright, open dream of the future is certainly something to hope for, we shouldn’t disregard where we are right now. Part of the fun is figuring it out as we go along.