To the Women Working in Male-Dominated Fields

Vulnerability can be a daily hazard for those who identify as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Why? Because we take risks every day showing up as ourselves when the world expects us to constantly talk, act, think, and work like a man, yet still be a kind, good, obedient person who keeps her head down.

Working with men requires vulnerability when… 

  • you have to ask for help.
  • you’re still the only woman in the room (yet the statistics keep saying “it’s all fixed now”). 
  • you ask for time off or set boundaries to your working hours.
  • you have to decide how to take action (or not) when men ignore you.
  • you realize that some men genuinely see you, and you wouldn’t be where you are without them.
  • you choose to say yes quickly to a great opportunity, even when you’re not quite ready.
  • you take said opportunity then think, did I just get taken advantage of? 
  • you allow yourself feel all the hurt, anger, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, disgust, jealousy, and judgment that comes any time you feel vulnerable at work.

For me, I have a double whammy when it comes to working in a male-dominated field. I’m a civil engineer, of which there are about 25% females on average. But I also work in the construction industry, of which there are about 10% females on average.

What’s worse is that these statistics don’t even consider other affected groups: Asian/Asian Indian, Black, Latinx, Native American, and anyone with any form of disability, seen or unseen. The statistics nose dive drastically from there and still severely lack inclusion.

No matter what industry we’re in, women benefit more in the long run from bringing our whole selves to work. Not the scaled down version that confines to “their” rules. We got into our industries for a reason by something deep within propelling us forward–NOT by how many people told us we couldn’t or shouldn’t because we may not fit in.

It took me nearly 10 years into my career to feel that I really belonged in it. And what I’ve learned thus far is this: by focusing more on who I am, it makes what I produce that much richer, more connected, and more sustainable. But that’s a story (or maybe a book?) for a different day.

I wrote this manifesto to remind us that our voice–however WE choose to express it–matters in our line of work. 

I am… Human. I will know that my ability to bring humanity to my job is an asset, not a liability.

I am… Determined. I will take a seat at the table, not on the side. I will get there early enough to take that seat.

I am… Vocal.  I won’t hesitate to raise my hand, when I’m ready. I will speak up when I’m convicted, even if it’s uncomfortable. If I don’t speak up, I will not shame myself. I will decide what “vocal” looks like for me.

I am… Curious. If I don’t know the answer to a technical question, I won’t doubt my ability to learn. I will gracefully respond with “let me get back to you” as I’ve witnessed my male peers do. I will give myself time to find answers and never stop asking questions.

I am… Empowered. I will know that I am tougher than I look, whether society wants to see it or not. I am NOT an imposter. I belong here as long as I choose to stay here.

I am… Balanced. I will listen to my gut, especially with outside commitments. I do not have to go to everything. I will go to happy hours, work trips, and conferences to the extent that I’m able. I will say no if it competes with my overall well-being or sanity based on my family commitments. Saying no does not mean I cannot succeed.

I am… Creative. My ideas and perspectives are worthy of sharing. Only I possess the traits and skills I have, and only I can give myself permission to share when the time is right. My field depends on it to stay on the cutting edge.

I am… Decisive. I will deeply consider the importance of the decisions I make every day, big or small. I will say no when I mean no, and I will say yes when I mean yes. I will do this guilt-free, and I will take the time I need to make the best decision I can, given the time allowed, people involved, and information at hand. 

I am… Resilient. When someone asks me what I do and I say I’m a “fill-in-the-blank” (engineer, lawyer, mechanic, pastor, choir director, pilot, firefighter, architect, farmer, software developer, TV/film camera operator, the list goes on…), I will wait for their “I didn’t expect that” reaction to subside. And if I need to go vent afterwards, I will absolutely give myself permission to do so. 

This is for any woman who’s ever doubted her place, talents, or contributions to a male-dominated field. Writing this is a vulnerable act for me in itself. I wouldn’t have even thought to write this without having gone through my own fears, doubts, and struggles from my experiences working in a field where I often feel less than. It is difficult to even admit I’ve felt this way about a career I enjoy so much.

Still, I implore us to heal our self-inflicted wounds, ignore the silence from those we hoped would support us but don’t, and proudly show more of ourselves every day in the career we chose, the purpose we love.

This essay is brought to you by my womxn’s writing group, Illuminate Writing. You can find us on Instagram @illuminatewriting and @thekindredvoice.

Please check out these amazing writers and their perspectives on Vulnerability below:

Being Vulnerable With My Body by Hannah Kewley

Quitting Cold Turkey by Mia Sutton

I Have Been Sick All My Life by Jennifer Brown

Anxiety Hangover by Christine Carpenter

Butterfly Wings by Megan McCoy Dellecese

with love, eunice by Eunice Brownlee

 

What It Means to Stay In My Lane

How much do you pay attention to the lane striping on a roadway? Unfortunately for me, I critique notice it a LOT from working in the transportation industry as a field engineer.

Double yellow, that’s easy: don’t cross into oncoming traffic. Dashed white, also called skips: lane changes are allowed. But I mean the finer details. Like when you’re merging onto an interstate, but there’s a long solid white line that slooowly turns into white skips. Ooh, gray area. I bet at least 90% of us cross that solid line before the skips. I can neither confirm nor deny my choice, given where I’m going and how heavy traffic is. These areas are tricky because the lane next to it looks open. So, can’t I sneak on over and be on my way?

The lane lines serve as boundaries of what we can and cannot cross. We don’t own the roadway, of course (as much as we’d like to, some days). And the more I studied “striping” as we call it in the engineering field, the more I began connecting this concept to everyday life. I’ve also studied quite a bit on boundaries in my personal growth, as the notion of it was completely foreign to me until a few years ago. Back then, aside from some obvious ethical boundaries like don’t cheat, I had very few personal boundaries.

I thought saying yes to everything and everyone was both encouraged and expected. “Be a hand raiser!” “Don’t miss a good opportunity!” “Fake it till you make it!” were the mantras told to us as young college students ready to change the world. Seldom were the phrases, “But do what’s best for you” or “But take the time you need to decide what opportunities fit you” added on to remind us to stay balanced. The main message was: get the degree as fast as possible to start making as much money as possible, and the rest will fall into place. An engineering fairy tale at its finest.

I’ve learned that boundaries give us language to say what works and what doesn’t for us, both in life and at work. I think this is really tough for women in engineering to do consistently, because we naturally want to help people out. Sometimes we put up a white solid line (do not cross temporarily) but find that someone urges us to change it to white skips (passing lane, come on in). Like when a manager moves up a deadline when we just admitted (or wanted to admit) we were burnt out and need a short break. Sometimes we put up a double yellow that gets completely ignored, like when we told our significant other that we need to reschedule dinner with the folks, but they forgot and now “we can’t let them down”.

Boundaries are tough, because often others can see our lines, plain as day, yet decide to cross over anyway. The reverse can be true from us to others as well. It takes commitment, strength, and love for ourselves to not only discover our boundaries, but also to hold them, especially with outside pressure.

One thing that took me a while to understand about boundaries is that love and kindness can break boundaries. My rule follower intuitions are so ingrained that default to seeing boundaries in black and white (or, yellow and white, if you’ve stuck with my roadway metaphor this long). We can set our hard lines, but we can choose to open them up and allow them to be crossed over, too. This choice comes from the desire to preserve our most precious relationships and partnerships.

The other thing I learned about boundaries is that it’s more important that I stay in my lane rather than peek over at someone else’s. It’s easy to do this on a road when cars are traveling so quickly; save for stoplights, there’s little time to really check out what the other person is doing. We can try, but a few seconds in, and we’re easily distracted away from our own destination that day. We can easily miss the green light on our side if we’re too focused on someone else’s green.

My own boundary lines help define my perspective of my life. I can choose how much to invest in a friend or coworker who may be temporarily struggling. I can pull over safely near their lane and help support them, but I don’t have to be “in” their lane, problem solving for them and taking over their car. They can get to their final destination better with me as a passenger, not the driver. Boundaries help me stay detached.

Maybe the next time you’re on the road, the road striping will take on a new meaning and new perspective for you. Maybe you’ll wait to merge before the white-lined gore on an off-ramp. Or if someone sneaks over the white line in front of you when they could’ve waited, you’ll smile and think of love and kindness. But if you honk, that’s OK too, since boundaries are all about owning our power and choosing what works for us.

Your Words are Worthy

Words upon words upon words. From grade school on, women are the classic note takers. Scribbles on sticky notes. Endless to-do lists. College notebooks full of formulas, theories, and literal word-for-word jargon from professors, in hopes it can be deciphered later. Love notes to kids or spouses in lunchboxes. We are the quintessential journal keepers, no matter if it’s once a day or once a year.

Why do we take note of so much? For one, it engages us. It activates our busy minds that run nonstop, even in our sleep. It plants us in the moment and grounds us when nothing else will. The act of writing promises hope that we won’t forget what we feel we need to remember.

Anytime I hear from a fellow woman writer that she doesn’t feel the urge to write, my heart cracks a little. This may be temporary based on the busy day/week/month ensuing, where she’s likely busy taking care of everyone else around her. My suspicion is that deep down, she silently feels her words aren’t worthy. And this makes the crack in my heart even wider, because I am so inspired by the words of other women. It is the very thing that has emboldened and empowered me on my own journey. I can’t stop reading others’ thoughts of desperation and moments of hope that this fragile, historic year has brought.

This is a pep talk I give myself that you can borrow in whole or in part anytime you need: Do not ever let someone poison you, with either a glance or a litany, on whether or not you’re worthy to create. You are the only one that gets to decide that. Let failure be a teacher and a gift once the pain subsides. When you’re ready, have the guts to face your weak areas instead of avoiding them. The lessons of growth when you go through the fire are always, always worth it. You have more grit than you give yourself credit for, so start digging in to get you where you want to go.

Whether you write 50 or 50,000 words, every syllable matters. Let those words of yours, faintly simmering below, start to bubble up and out. It counts if it’s privately in a journal or publicly released to the world. If you needed this reminder, I hope it’s coming to you at the right time.

Today, tomorrow, next month, or next year–there is no deadline on the worthiness of your words.

This post was taken from a bit of the first draft of my memoir as a woman engineer. I started this project on a whim when I learned of NaNoWriMo two weeks before it launched on November 1, 2020. I got to 40,000 words, and I have no idea if I will ever finish and publish it. What propelled me to write was this: “Will there ever be another time in my life where I can dedicate a whole month to writing?” And I didn’t want to wait to find out.

All I know right now is that I have stories of mine to tell. Writing is the therapy I need right now to re-imagine, process, and let go.

PS, the Unpublished Podcast by Amie McNee has been one of many inspirations to my writing journey this year. I encourage you to check it out if you need a boost of encouragement, wherever you are in your creative writing journey right now. As Amie often says, only you can write what you can write, no one else can.