If I Were A Boy

This post is part of the “If I Were A Boy” Carnival, a series where female bloggers share their candid experiences or observations about women in the workplace. This is not at all meant to be a male-bashing exercise! Please check out the links to other participating bloggers at the end of this post!

I had gotten most of the way through high school before I realized girls weren’t supposed to be good at math.  Sure, I could be good at doing sums in elementary school.  That was OK.  I was never supposed to be good at middle school geometry or algebra, but my mother passionately argued for my brain and had me moved up into the advanced classes.  I really wasn’t supposed to be good at calculus, but at that point there was really nothing anyone could do. Still, my smarts were stealthy. Our calculus teacher graded on a curve, and he used to write everyone’s test grades on the board as a way to illustrate our performance along that curve.  The nosier people in the class would try to figure out who had earned the best grades, the worst grades.  Once, I got a 100%.  The class investigators never even looked at me when trying to figure out who had gotten it.

When I got to college, I discovered that most guys will ignore the fact that you’re a girl if you can help them with their homework.  Still, it was around this time that I started having doubts about my own abilities.  I attended a seminar on the Impostor Phenomenon, which affects high achievers and makes them feel like intellectual frauds. Although I’m sure this affects people of both sexes, I noticed an interesting trend within my group of friends. My male friends, receiving a poor grade on an exam or lab report, would immediately launch into complaints about the professor. Us girls would shrug, tucking the paper into a folder, and think to ourselves, “I guess someone finally figured out that I’m not smart enough to be an engineer.”

When senior year rolled around and we were all freaking out about finding a job, a classmate and friend (who had copied my homework and who I had outscored on every test) snorted and said, “What are you worried about? You’ll get a job because you’re a girl.” Apparently, my hard work and good grades were nothing against the mighty power of quota-filling hiring practices.

It still took me a while to find a job, but I did get a few offers. I took the one in California because it seemed like the coolest place ever to a girl born and raised on the East Coast. Chad was still looking for work, but focused his search in LA. His job offer was $3,000 more than mine, despite the fact that my GPA was higher and we had comparable work experience. I don’t think this was gender-related at all, but surreptitious glances at the salary sheets in my new hire seminar showed that most of the men were making about $3,000 more than me. I’ve never quite been able to shake that feeling.

(As an aside, I understand that salaries are almost never fair. There’s negotiation skills and the amount of money available at any one time and job types. And I was working in a slightly less technical area, which generally means less money. Of course, all of the people working in my slightly-less-technical area were women…)

I did get lucky to have bosses who would advocate for raises and promotions (and I was hired during the good years, so I like to think I did OK). Two months before I graduated with my Masters degree, I got a raise that pushed my salary about $100 beyond Chad’s. With the job I was offered in May, I negotiated another promotion. I know that I’m now paid very fairly, especially since I got to sneak a peek at a coworker’s paycheck.

Even knowing that I’m fairly paid, however, doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with sexist crap sometimes. I once spent an hour debating sexism in hiring practices with someone (thin, straight, white male. Shockingly.) who insisted that large engineering companies were hiring 50% women, when women (he claimed) only make up about 5% of engineering graduates. He based this off of the number of females he had in classes in college and how one time he worked as a recruiter and 2/4 people they hired had to be women. Upon further discussion, he revealed that his boss had insisted on the 2 females because he had already hired too many men. All of my explanations about inherent bias were dismissed, even though the story clearly shows that the hiring practices up until that point were influenced by the hiring manager being male.

In reality, 20% of graduating engineers are women, while the total percentage of women employed in engineering is somewhere around 12%. These facts did not sway said male coworker. He also complained that our boss “hires only girls.” Two women, in fact, into a group of 15 people that had previously only included one female (sounds like got us up close to about 20%!). If our boss had hired 2 men, I doubt anyone would have even noticed. But which one would have been less fair?

The highest ranked woman at my work site is pretty incompetent.  She is one of many incompetent managers.  Most of the underlings have asked how such stupid people could be in positions of power.  It is only for her that they think they have the answer.

She’s married, but doesn’t have any kids.  Other women I interact with include a respected woman who is not married and has no kids, and a woman who would probably be in management if she worked more than two days per week (she takes the rest of the time off to take care of her 3 kids).  Interestingly, the second woman’s husband works with us, and I have never heard of him taking any time off for child-rearing.

Obviously, there is a lot of personal choice going on here (choice, or social conditioning?).  I just hate that I have no one to look up to as someone who was able to make it work.  If I were a boy, I’d have plenty.  My (male) boss has 7 (!!) kids.  Guess which parent cuts back their hours to watch them?  Nearly all of the men in my office have at least one child, but have wives who stay home or who work only part-time.  If I want to work full-time when I have kids, I’m going to have to blaze my own path.

If I were a boy, I would never have to worry that my accomplishments would be attributed to affirmative action. I wouldn’t live with the knowledge that my failures would reflect poorly on my entire gender – possibly even being used as an excuse to exclude women in the future. I would never have been asked, “Why are you studying engineering? How is that going to help you raise your children?”* I wouldn’t have to worry about family planning, trying to time a pregnancy so that I’m not getting pregnant too soon or putting it off too long. I wouldn’t have to struggle with knowing that I want to work after I have kids but that I will be judged for it. I wouldn’t think that just because I can be anything, I have to be everything.

Please check out the posts by other female bloggers, and feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

* Actual question asked by an elderly uncle.
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20 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RevancheGS, Paranoid Asteroid. Paranoid Asteroid said: New Post! If I Were A Boy http://goo.gl/fb/G82W2 […]

  2. […] Paranoid Asteroid […]

  3. […] Paranoid Asteroid […]

  4. This is FANTASTIC.

    What a great look into an industry that is so like mine, albeit less technical and math-oriented.

    “Why are you studying engineering, it won’t help you with your kids”. I can’t believe that was actually said. It’s like they think girls are born with only half a set of the available types of brains out there and boys are claiming the other half.

    Sneaking looks at paycheques is a great way to figure out if you are being compensated properly. My colleagues were surprised when I candidly just told them how much I made, not caring if they made more or less (generally, I made about 30% more, men AND women).

    It all boils down to negotiation for me. Once they get over the fact that I’m a young girl, it’s just a matter of proving it to those people recruiting for companies so they can vouch for you in the future.

  5. […] Paranoid Asteroid […]

  6. “Why are you studying engineering? How is that going to help you raise your children?”

    I am a guy who was raised in a household of strong women (Mom and three older sisters were and still are not to be trifled with, Dad and older brother a bit more laid back). Quotes like this are one of the few things that get my extremely even-tempered blood boiling.

    And it makes me uncomfortable that, despite a lack of direct sexism, there are only two women working in my group of forty-five engineers. I wish I could get inside my manager’s (and his manager’s) head to see whether there is something going on there or if it is a very bad-looking coincidence. I know that, statistically, the former is much more likely.

    • I honeslty think that there aren’t a lot of people who are purposely sexist. If it makes you feel better, your managers are probably just victims of a tendancy to prefer things that are like them. This is why I’m OK with some uneven hiring practices; women are Other, so there has to be a reason to hire fairly.

  7. I was a Dietitian for 5 years in the hospital system. I was the only male studying Dietitics in my year and one of 4 in my university (all below me). It was fun going on work experience and being the only male in a 20 female strong staff room, I never had a male boss in 5 years. Infact there was only 1 male in management in the entire state!

    I remember nurses going “Huh a male dietitian? I’ve never met a male dietitian”.

    There are female dominated industries as well. Allied health in particular is female dominated industry.

    • How many high-paying fields are woman-dominated. How many low-paying fields are woman dominated?

      Women are dietitians. Men are doctors, surgeons, chiefs of staff. Who is making more money? That is the point, and I think you’re missing it.

      • Your right! I did miss the point if it was about making money. I thought it was about doing what you’re pationate about regardless of predetermined gender rolls or pay scales. By jove your right I should have been a doctor instead because i’d make more money as a doctor

        • I do apologize if I was snippy in my reply to your comment. I’ve been getting a few “yes, but think of the poor men!” comments, and unfortunately you got the brunt of my retaliation. I am sorry, there is no excuse for it. (Here, I wrote you a novel!)

          The problem here has two parts. The first is that women are pushed toward “helper” roles. Traditional female jobs are teacher, nurse, social worker, etc. Men are school principals, doctors, and engineers. Women are taught to do good for others, where men are taught to do good for themselves & their families. It’s an issue of social conditioning, and I’m not sure how you fix it.

          They’ve coined the term “female ghetto” to describe female-dominated industries. Studies show that as more and more women enter a field, the median pay for that field will decrease. Women will still go into it, but men will not, as they’ve been conditioned to be providers and thus to desire higher pay. When a man does enter the field, he is usually in a management role.

          The second issue is that once you’ve gotten a woman into one of those high-paying, male-dominated fields, how do you keep her there? She’s probably making less than men in the same position, and she probably isn’t getting the respect she deserves. How do you drive women to a field where they can expect certain abuses, without the feel good effects of knowing they help people?

          I know a lot of girls who have been very lucky to find a mentor in engineering. I also know a few girls who have left the field entirely, out of a desire for more flexible hours or to help others (teaching is a common field) or just because they felt that there was a wall they couldn’t break through.

          I see a lot of progress, but I think we need to keep speaking out about it in order to get things to be truly equal.

          • Thank you for the novel:) Sounds like some industrious female engineers need to start their own firms.

  8. I am a Gifted Intervention Specialist and spend my days teaching fourth and fifth grade gifted students reading and math. I have also taught 7 years in middle school. I can’t think of a time that I saw a girl being held back. I think there has been great progress in the past 20 years educating girls in science and math. There is certainly room for continued improvement. If you look at current statistics the gap between female and male achievement in science and math is within the measurement of error. However, there is a huge gap in reading ability with the boys falling behind. Rarely do you hear about this. I wonder if at some point there will be an outcry about the gap in reading ability, just as there was for the science and math gap for girls.

    • Well, educating girls is a good first step, but overcoming pervasive sexism so that they can actually work in those fields is much more important. I am great at math and science, but I was definitely steered toward the humanities.

      There has already been a devaluation of reading and writing skills because that’s what women are pushed toward. That’s why boys aren’t interested. Quite frankly, I think what’s more troubling is how women’s book are not taken as seriously as men’s.

      • I certainly don’t know if there is or isn’t sexism in math and science fields. There very well could be sexism, it wouldn’t surprise me.
        However I do know that I have many former female students in math and science fields. In fact of the ones that I keep in touch with there are many more in technology fields and doing quite well. I’ll have to ask them what their experiences are.
        Sexism in any manner is wrong. Reading is necessary for just about any profession. The right thing to do is to even the playing field in all subjects and let the person with the most talent win. Sexism is wrong. (Without qualification)

  9. Engineering does seem to be one of those last bastions of female exclusion. I noticed when I lived in Texas (working at a big EP&C co) that sexism is FAR more pervasive there than in Canada regardless of profession. It was a rude awakening for this Yankee. I’ve read that the reason for the low enrollment of women in engineering is because women have more of a tendency to want to help people and they don’t see the potential for that in engineering – maybe environmental is the exception.

    As far as the writing goes, it pisses me off too – and maybe some affirmative action is needed in the publishing industry…
    http://greenlanternpress.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/why-weren%E2%80%99t-any-women-invited-to-publishers-weekly%E2%80%99s-weenie-roast/

  10. Great post 🙂 That statement from your colleague just sucks as it’s so blatantly sexist.

    I guess we’re all conditioned somewhat from the start to “stay home and raise the children”, hopefully with newer generations this pervasive culture will change.

  11. Your description of what happens after a bad grade on an exam/lab report is spot on in my experience in science as well-I know that every time I got a “bad grade” when I was an undergrad, I thought “Well, I guess I’m not smart enough for grad school after all, what should I do instead?”, and I would sometimes either confide in my husband or best friend that I wasn’t sure if I could do this, and then pick myself up and move on. Hubby, though, definitely would blame the teacher, the test, the questions, the book, or something else, and it seems like our friends reacted along those same “gender lines”.

    Interesting post!

  12. […] Paranoid Asteroid […]

  13. Very interesting post, and pretty similar to my experience as a female engineer as well. I think part of the reason that I stuck with math and science was the same as you, I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to be good at it. In order to get more women into technology fields, we have to start early and help girls feel confident in math and science.

    The book Schoolgirls (http://www.amazon.com/Schoolgirls-Young-Women-Esteem-Confidence/dp/0385425767) was incredibly enlightening about the passive ways that women are discriminated against in the classroom at early ages and how it affects their achievement goals later on in life. Small things like boys are more likely to blurt out what they think, whether it’s right or wrong, and this leads to them receiving a larger percentage of the teachers attention. I’ve definitely encountered that in the classroom and in the workforce.

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