The Art of Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field
My name is Rachel. I am 25 and a female, and those two small facts come as a shock to the majority of my co-workers. My predecessor was a middle-aged male, the other people in my industry are mainly male and the majority of my co-workers are males. I manage employees, most of which are male, and I am managed by males. I can faintly hear my feminist sisters in the background cheering for me, and I usually wear these facts like a badge of honor on my chest. I am proud of this, but if we are being honest, it is no walk in the park.
It is actually so far from a walk in the park that I don’t even think I am allowed to use that phrase. It is more like: A walk in the park during a hurricane while rabid dogs chase me and bees fly into my eyes. Yes, that is more accurate. It is never easy and I am OK with that. Over the past few years I have come to understand my frequent challenges, and through learning what works for me, I am slowly, but surely, showing that a young woman can perform on the same level as the big boys.
Surprisingly (read: not a surprise at all), the things that make my job challenging are not a lack of knowledge, an inability to learn, trouble working with others, poor communication skills, or even downright laziness. The things that make my job a challenge are all things I have absolutely no control over: my appearance, my age and my gender.
My appearance seems to surprise people in my field. I brush my hair, take care of my body and put effort into how I look every day (read: I don’t dress like a bum nor a hooker). I have found that looks distract people. I am not taken seriously because of my appearance, and I have to work twice as hard to show that my brain got me in this position, not beauty. The way I have learned to handle this is to tone it down. Yes, I just said that. I alter my appearance so that what I am saying is louder than any other part of me. If I am going to a jobsite, I wear cargo pants, not straight legs. I wear shirts that are a size too large, and I pull my hair back. The fact that these subtle changes determine whether or not I am taken seriously makes me crazy, but I have come to realize that what is “right” is not always “true.”
My age is a massive issue in my job, and I often try not to tell others how old I am, when I graduated college, or how long I have been in this industry. I worked my ass off in college and got an internship during my sophomore year, which lead me immediately to another internship. When I graduated at 22, I already had years of nonstop experience under my belt. That, along with good communication skills, got me a job at 23 that most people would not get without 10 years’ experience, at a minimum. The fact that I did get the job is both an amazing compliment and also a great challenge. The men I work with have been in this field for 30 and 40-plus years and believe that a lot of what I do can only be learned from hands-on experience. They often want me to go out into the field and work and, in the beginning, I had to pay my dues to be respected. I went out, got my hands dirty, got on the road and showed that I wasn’t afraid to sweat.
Besides my age, the biggest obstacle I face is my gender. My position requires that I know a lot about things that are historically predominantly male-oriented. I have to know about chemicals, tools, heavy equipment, construction, unexploded ordinances, military practices and other various topics. And I do. I know a hell of a lot about all of those things and I have worked hard to understand them. I have to be able to answer a question when a co-worker asks, it is how I build my reputation. The guys think when they call me I will stutter and be unable to respond (and sometimes that is true) but there is no better feeling than explaining the effects of unleaded gas in the soil and the proper equipment required to excavate at the drop of hat when prompted. The silence in the room as the rest of the team tries to respond is golden. Trust me, it means a lot. I have to work every day to show that I am qualified.
Honestly, some days are really hard. The people I come in contact with sometimes refuse to work with me. They won’t answer my emails or calls and they don’t invite me to meetings I need to attend. They make me work for their respect and, while it is unfair, it is life. Some days, I have to go into the bathroom to calm myself down and force the tears back, and some days I look around the conference room, filled with men over 40, and I am proud: proud that I have earned my spot on this team, that I am young, that I am a woman, and that I am doing it.
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