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February 25, 2009 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Is this worth finding a new job over?

As established in previous posts, I work at a Big Defense Contracting company. As an engineer, in the past two years I've memorably:

(1) Gotten jokes that about making people cry during our technical interviews (I didn't)..."especially the female ones."
(2) Questions if I would "stick around as my life...progresses." Am I incorrect in thinking they are trying to ask about whether I plan to have babies and/or leave the workforce to have them?
(3) Been asked if I "could smile some more", which I'm quite sure no one would ever ask one of the menfolk-type engineers walking around.
(4) Been asked if I am "a real engineer."
(5) Been told that I am "a real pretty lady."
(6) Had a coworker inform me when I met him that were "getting good about hiring women and minorities." (I am both)

And so forth, on and on. It happens once every couple of weeks. I also keep being mistaken for some OTHER young, female engineer of the my race, and we don't actually look anything alike.

With the exception of managers asking about my life plans, I generally give people the cold put down when these sorts of things happen. (i.e., "I didn't cry during or after my interview, and I doubt anyone else did." or "Yes, I am a real engineer." Delivered with a totally dead, straight face). Offenders are mostly male, non-management senior-level engineers. Management does a good job of never, ever making these kinds of comments.

I'm tired of it, but I feel that these things fall within a gray area that doesn't warrant a visit to HR and that complaints would fall on deaf ears, anyway. For the most part, it doesn't hamper my work or make my life harder than it would be without the comments, but it sure hampers my mood once in a while.

So the actual question: Anecdotally, will this be different at another company or in another industry where a MechE could find employment? Or do I need to just suck it up because this happens everywhere? (Really, it's my first engineering job - I don't know. I'd hope not).
posted by universal_qlc to Work & Money (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
That sucks. And some of it ("smile more") borders on sexual harassment.

I'd look for a new job, if I were you. That said, I don't know if it'd be any better anywhere else. Engineering is a male-dominated culture, full of good ol' boy assholes.
posted by Netzapper at 9:42 PM on February 25, 2009


This kind of behaviour is highly inappropriate and unacceptable. It's not a grey area, and you should not, under any circumstances, just suck it up. The question of whether it is different or not elsewhere doesn't enter into it—you shouldn't be the one who has to move.
I also work in a heavily male dominated industry and this kind of thing would not ever be tolerated at all.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:46 PM on February 25, 2009


There are ups and downs to being a female in a male dominated field. This is one of the downs. As time goes by you'll learn to handle it gracefully - and not gracefully (deliberately), when the situation warrants.

Keep in mind that a lot of engineers are somewhat lacking in social skills. (I guess that is a pretty sweeping, stereotypical generalization right there). In other words they have no idea they are not being suave. Verbally give them a little slap upside the head when they're being jerks and move on. Don't dwell on it, just quickly and firmly correct when necessary.

With the life plans question, you would run into that sort of thing a lot regardless of what field you're in.
posted by txvtchick at 9:54 PM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]




"For the most part, it doesn't hamper my work or make my life harder than it would be without the comments, but it sure hampers my mood once in a while."

You're a better person than I. It would really make my life harder to deal with this. I would be angry at these people all the time. Angry = harder life.

The behavior you've described is unacceptable. And it's an unacceptable work culture to put up with. I would Get Out.

It's just not okay.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:08 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


With the exception of managers asking about my life plans, I generally give people the cold put down when these sorts of things happen. (i.e., "I didn't cry during or after my interview, and I doubt anyone else did." or "Yes, I am a real engineer." Delivered with a totally dead, straight face). Offenders are mostly male, non-management senior-level engineers.

That's a start, but I think you need to make it even clearer how offensive this is, i.e., "I didn't cry during my interview, and I find that joke sexist, condescending and offensive."

If that doesn't work, then you go to HR.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:22 PM on February 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am also a woman, not a minority. I have worked contract stints at 3 Big Defense Contractors.

I chime in because I have just gone thru New Hire orientation at my current company (BigPharmaCo, where I was a contractor for 18 months prior to being permanently employed as FTE). Your examples #1, 3, 4 and 6 are examples of stuff that was EXPLICITLY brought up in our new hire Sexual Harrassment / Hostile Environment discussion/lecture as strictly verboten type comments. They would at very least engender a written warning from HR.

That said, BigPharmaCo is definitely a different job culture than BigDefenseContractor I worked for a couple years back. I can really say with feeling and gusto that those good ole boys Just Do Not Always Get It. I once had to firmly request directly to my boss that, um, dude, the locker-room humour was really wearing kinda thin. And this is coming from me...

y'see, I maybe a girl, but I'm pretty damn thick-skinned. I have worked variously as a bike messenger, a waitron, as a dishwasher, on a satcom project with a crew of 16 (male) soldiers ranging in age from 19-25, and as a drawing gofer / filing drone at a unionised machine tool outfit where the f-bomb was more common than metal filings and once famously the Funny Prank O' The Day was dropping a (live!) snake down a visiting mechanic's drawers and damn near scaring poor dude into a coronary... and the site owner laughed it off as "the guys just having a little fun". Seriously.

My point being: These guys can be a rough crowd. That said, you do NOT have to take it. If it is wearing thin, definitely say something, both on the spot, and mention it to HR as well. Back it up. It helps if you stick up for yourself. I can say from experience that if you come from a position of hey, a little crude humour maybe okay (well, I'm okay with some of it), but definitely NOT at my expense (I shut down every "dumb blonde" joke aimed in my direction STAT, every time), then believe me, they will get it and things will improve.

They're guys, they're engineers, they're maybe socially a little tone-deaf, but believe me most of them are not stupid.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:27 PM on February 25, 2009


I would say start looking, start suing or both.

Engineering is a male-dominated culture, full of good ol' boy assholes.

I am a software "engineer," which I will be the first to admit is not a real engineer, but it is the same male-dominated culture. However, I have to disagree with the above. The defense industry is WAY WAY more male-dominated, more old-school, pocket protector, stuck in the 1950s than any other industry I know of.

I'm sure there are younger, hipper, more open-minded industries that employ engineers where your sex and race would be a non-issue, or at least much closer to it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 PM on February 25, 2009


I work in a male dominated industry, and have, for over 10 years now. Some places are worse than others. I've worked for companies where I was the only female, and it wasn't that bad. I've worked for companies where I was one of a handful of women, and it was horrible. I worked for one company that had a higher ratio of women to men, but was still largely male-dominated, and it was FANTASTIC in terms of general behavior in the office.

Some people you work with will see your existence as a direct challenge. Some will be socially inept and will make you feel awful, if you let them. Some will not be able to put their emotions and problems aside with women and may be unfair, or will just want to see you fail. Most will see you as a person and treat you with respect. Don't forget them. Remember that the jerks giving you a hard time are a subset, they are not the majority of the people you work with. Do not sink to the level of those who are being unfair to you by painting all of your male coworkers with the same brush. That is a downward spiral. The key is in who you have the problems with and how you handle them.

The fact that your management is respectful and would never say these things is a good sign. It's when your management makes unfair assumptions about you or puts you in impossible situations because of your gender that work can become completely miserable and soul-sucking.

Keep in mind that if you can resist the comments that come up from time to time, you get these guys used to working with women, and you pave the way for more women to come in and make things better in the future.

The best thing you can do, in my experience, is to not accept those comments or behaviors, but to be very careful to keep your head on straight and do your best not to take them personally. You are female, that is not a personal failure on your part. It could feel like it at times, because you may get attacked for things that you do not see as a function of your gender, but simply part of your personality. For example. As a female, you CAN have babies, but as a person, you might want to. These are different things. As a person, you might be accommodating or diplomatic, which can be perceived as weakness (in any gender, and in any company, male-dominated or no). The trick is, it is often perceived as more of a weakness when it comes from a woman in a male-dominated field. Try and separate the assumptions about your gender from general assumptions about your personality. It can be difficult.

It's tiring. It's frustrating. In a company where that sort of behavior is allowed to run rampant, it can be downright demoralizing, defeating and UNFAIR. Only you can know if blazing the trail you're blazing, and the rewards that come from withstanding lame behavior is worth it. Other posters point out that any industry has its jerks. This is also completely true. People will make unfair assumptions about you based on the music you listen to, the car you drive, or your personal style, if not your gender, in more "balanced" industries. Still, if you're particularly sensitive to people making assumptions about you based on your gender, your current road will be harder.

If you do want to jump ship, and get an interview elsewhere, simply keep your eyes open. In my experience, companies with more women tend to have fewer of these problems. The farther apart the male/female ratio, the worse these problems tend to get, and the less experienced the management tends to be in dealing with them. Look around on your job interview. Keep your eyes peeled for women in management positions. If you can't find any, I wouldn't take the job.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:31 PM on February 25, 2009 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of being a foreigner in Japan. People were always asking me stupid questions because I looked foreign, but I didn't take it personally. It was a cultural thing. And since I couldn't escape from Japan (I didn't want to, really, because I loved living there), I developed a thick skin and focused on the positive.

You have the same challenge. It's a cultural thing, specific in this case to your company, and to engineers in general. Unfortunately, while in my case people were asking innocent yet stupid questions, sometimes probably people are trying to fuck with you. Don't take it personally.

Brush it off.

And plan your next move. Since you have a job now, at least you have the luxury of searching for a company that is a better place to work.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:50 PM on February 25, 2009


I should hasten to add that, while I don't know that it'll get better elsewhere, I'm not excusing this sort of behavior. I'd also point out that txvtchick has a point: many of the dude who are saying this may just be socially retarded, and have no idea that what they're saying is offensive. Not that it makes it better, but it may well help you understand how to deal with it better.
posted by Netzapper at 11:01 PM on February 25, 2009


hmm.... I do have some female engineer friends (even one who works for a defense contractor) and none of them relate experiences like this. But then again, my husband has a female engineer friend who in the '70s was forced to go to staff meetings held at a strip joint, so maybe things have gotten a little better. My guess is yes, you could find a job with a better environment, but maybe not in this economy.

Having said that, there are career paths (and you're obviously in one) where this kind of thing happens more often.

Almost all of my clients are construction workers in their fifties (I'm a lawyer). At this point, I've seen and heard it all: Honey, Darling, Sweetheart, Does your boss approve of this?, Would you like to come to my room? One client has even tried to hug and grope me so that I've had to strategically avoid sitting next to him at client meetings.

Mostly, I try to ignore it, but occasionally humor really can help.

Case in point.

Client: Hey want to come up to my hotel room?
Lawyer: Hey, if you think my hourly rate is high now, you should see what I charge for that.
posted by bananafish at 11:27 PM on February 25, 2009


I've worked in mostly-male environments in the past, especially in IT. If I quit every job due to racially insensitive people or misogyny, I wouldn't have risen up to the manger rank. I strongly suggest that you do not quit, or you may find yourself stuck at a certain level in your field and unable to rise. That being said, I wouldn't let anyone get away with making me feel unsafe in my workspace or with breaking laws (sexual harassment, etc.). You have to pick your battles carefully, though, and you have to have a strong sense of self to not let yourself show anger or frustration when these idiots try to get to you. I would say quit only if you are miserable and there is no way to improve things enough for you to stay.

I have a friend who is a woman in a 95% male environment. She has faced some of the worst kind of sexism I've ever heard of, but she stuck it out and rose through the ranks because of her excellent work, ability to hit it off with just about anyone, and her no-nonsense attitude. Now she is in a position of power in her field; she hires, trains, disciplines and fires people. She now ensures that the protection she did not have while she was a low person on the totem pole is there for the people beneath her. She is known for her zero tolerance for sexism, racism, harassment, etc. This is another reason I hope you do not quit, as that would mean there is one less person who could make a positive difference once YOU reach a level of power.
posted by Piscean at 11:37 PM on February 25, 2009 [12 favorites]


Some people you work with will see your existence as a direct challenge. Some will be socially inept and will make you feel awful, if you let them. Some will not be able to put their emotions and problems aside with women and may be unfair, or will just want to see you fail. Most will see you as a person and treat you with respect. Don't forget them. Remember that the jerks giving you a hard time are a subset, they are not the majority of the people you work with. Do not sink to the level of those who are being unfair to you by painting all of your male coworkers with the same brush. That is a downward spiral. The key is in who you have the problems with and how you handle them.

Quoted for truth. I've tended to work for very male-dominated companies, with varying degrees of sensitivity. Contractors, architects, engineers, IT guys, hardcore finance wonks - the gamut.

Any new hire will have to find a place on the pecking order. That dynamic is being complicated by gender and race. You're different, and they've never really spent much time working or socialising with someone like you. What KokoRyu's described has happened, to me as well, though to a lesser degree. I'm whiter than a white chocolate snowman in a blizzard, but I'm different, they've only seen people like me on TV and in movies, and that's what I'm up against. You're kinda in the same place. You're a real, live, walking, talking, working minority woman - in their office - and you're normal, OMG! - and their brains might be frying out a bit at that.

Just focus on the things you can do something about - namely, getting interesting work, managing your projects well, showing you're smart and grounded and capable. You may still find that one or two people are still being assholes, consciously or no. Those are the people with real issues. Your other coworkers probably think that these guys are assholes, too. You're being pushed about a bit because of gender and race, but your coworkers are likely being pushed around by the assholes for other things. If they like and respect you enough for who you are and what you can do, they'll buffer out the asshole for you, over time. Speak up for and with you. Back you up. That sort of thing. It all depends on what place you take on the pecking order.

Quit or no: I've found that the higher amount of AM talk radio consumed by the average member of the workforce, the worse the casual sexism/racism. If everyone in your office is a dittohead, it might be a harder fight than any reasonable person would want to take on. But give 'em a chance first. Even dittoheads can have the occasional glimmer of common sense.
posted by Grrlscout at 12:36 AM on February 26, 2009


Just as a data point, I've gotten #3, and I'm male. I never thought of it as sexual harassment, though I suppose I could construe it as such, more like a "wow, do you think I'm working the counter at McDonald's?" kinda thing. And #1, uh ... I was told by a new hire (white, male) that I nearly did make him cry during an interview, so I guess it does happen, although it is really off the scale to ask.

"Yes, I am a real engineer." is good; following it up with a breezy, "Why do you ask?" is better. You know what I'm talking about: eyebrows and eyelids slightly raised, mouth open just a degree or two, head cocked to one side, interested and awaiting their response. The more you can fake casual and warm here, the better. Engineers love to tell interested parties why, and you're trying to get them to process just why they would ask.

I'm pretty familiar with the white male engineer; tvxtchick is dead on. Most of them aren't even malicious in intent, just socially clumsy and are surprised and unsure about this new person who is radically different from them. Especially if we're dealing with the over-fifty set: being young AND female AND a different race AND attractive is, to their experience (and that's what this is about, combined centuries of crusty WASP engineering), as odd as someone who came to work in a clown suit, with makeup and big floppy shoes. They're turning in good work, but ... can't ... process ... outfit. (I get to malign them a bit since I was one, briefly. White male engineer, not clown. Two-thirds of it still applies.) Hence, rather than dealing with meanness, you're saddled with their ignorance. Meanness has thrust, but, ah, ignorance has a peculiar inertia. #6 is a great example of someone who is probably trying to say that they're making efforts to change, then managing to deliver it in the worst possible way.

I say this not as an excuse, but as a lead-in to something else: you've got a pervasive culture issue, not a problem with a couple of deliberately obnoxious bigots. With that in mind ...

HR is not your friend. HR exists to protect the company. Most of the time, HR will do as little as possible to make you go away, unless there's a single person who is a clear, obvious threat and is out of control. That's not what you're dealing with here, which means that they'll be loath to do anything more than consider looking for some sensitivity training classes whose message will probably be best received by those who are least in need of it.

If you do decide to visit HR, you'll want to have your ducks in a row:
1) Anything that can be written down, should be written down. Log these little exchanges as to time, place, and who says them.

2) Gently feel out the other young female engineer of your race and find out if this has been happening to her, as well.

3) Have any lawyer friends? Talk to them. The legal climate, especially on a state or city level, is a huge input as to whether you'd want to proceed legally.

3b) You might inquire as to whether they have access or know how you can gain access to any records about previous legal issues the company may have had in this arena.

Otherwise, you're looking at finding a new job in this economy, and this time you'd want to be more selective by looking for a company where their individuals are younger and more diverse. This is probably fairly hard to do; yeah, the company brochure has some stock photos of the Carefully Selected Chex Mix of Humanity, but how are you going to find out what the corporate culture is actually like?

Honestly, what you need to do is network a bit. MechE should have at least one professional organization; you'll probably find professional engineering organizations for your particular gender/race combo, too. Only through contacts you trust can you find out if it is any different elsewhere, and where.

For some really out of the box thinking, talk to the Make folks; hip, young, and mechanically inclined should be in there somewhere, and you might meet someone whose organization isn't this creaky galley rowed by dozens of near-identical white male engineers.
posted by adipocere at 4:30 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm so sorry you're going through this. I definitely hear you -- I'm also an engineer, and since I started doing robotics competitions in high school I've seen and heard some of the stupidest things from the stupidest men (and sometimes even women!).

Anecdote 1: I recently had a friend, also an engineer, less than a year out of school, who had to go to HR at her company (a big multinational) for the first time because her mentor kept propositioning her. She was terrified -- we nice girls don't want to make a stink, right? -- but was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and professionally the problem was dealt with, and she is feeling much more comfortable now. If you are feeling excluded, or belittled, or your workplace is at all uncomfortable because of these comments, that DOES warrant a trip to HR.

Anecdote 2: I've never worked for a company that had an HR department (I'm a startup nerd) and in my last job I spent a lot of time working with some more blue-collar types. I have pretty thick skin and I am a tomboy, so I put up with a lot, and being in the People's Republic of Cambridge, MA most of the male engineers I work with are extremely enlightened (many of their wives are engineers too). But I still got propositioned, had my abilities questioned because I was wearing pearls one day (no joke), and with the excuse of "senior level people only," not been invited to "contentious" meetings with customers that my male colleagues of the same age/level were.

My personal coping mechanism is that I treat everything as a challenge and an opportunity to prove someone wrong or call them out on what they're doing. Some asshole thinks I'm not a good engineer because I'm wearing pearls? Well fuck him, won't he enjoy it later this week when during the meeting I'm running for his project that I manage, I'll be wearing a skirt and heels, too! Discover that idiot manager had me present at a conference solely because a cute girl is all that can distract people from the fact our company had nothing of substance to present? Call him out on it over dinner with other senior management present! But, I have learned to be a bitch, for better or for worse, and this way of coping is something I'm comfortable with. It may not be for you. But it's just another data point.

But it can be exhausting. Defense conferences were the worst for me -- lots of old men, many ex-military, many of whom were clients of my company, who had no reason to *not* hit on me, or make comments about their surprise to see a woman as an engineer, etc etc etc. I hated going to them but refused not to since it would have compromised my ability to network within my industry.

Of the women I graduated college with three years ago, I don't think I've talked to a single one who *hasn't* run in to sexual harassment or extreme sexism of some degree. We're at small startups and giant contractors and all along the spectrum, there are dumb people we've had to work with. But that hasn't stopped any of us from doing our jobs well, and we've all started earning respect. It is possible, if you are willing to slog through some of the shit and, as they say, "not let the bastards get you down."

My mom was in the first class of female navigators in the Air National Guard. The stories she can tell are ten times worse than anything I've run into. When I once asked her why she put up with it for 22 years, she said, "Because I always thought if I put up with it, my daughter wouldn't have to." And you know, that's true. I do have it a lot better than she did. You have an opportunity to prove to the stupid people that women and minorities can do the job just as well as anyone can, and that they need to get over it. No matter what company you're at, it will make the difference for a someone down the line.
posted by olinerd at 4:42 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


By the way -- I've never been a fan of SWE... while this may not be the case everywhere, the older women engineers I've met in my area tend to be very angry. I've had some bad experiences with SWE meetings where older women were attacking younger men who had come to the meeting for the sins of their elders. Not cool.

But, I have gotten involved with my local IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) group. Demographically, the women are younger on average, and more ethnically diverse, than the SWE group in my area, and the meetings have been more fun and more helpful for me. Even though the IEEE is the Electrical Engineering society, they're happy to have anyone join, so I encourage you to check that out if you'd like to find a support network.
posted by olinerd at 4:45 AM on February 26, 2009


"I didn't cry during my interview, why, did you?"
posted by nax at 5:01 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


For comparison, I'm a guy.

(1) Gotten jokes that about making people cry during our technical interviews (I didn't)..."especially the female ones."

Me, too.

(2) Questions if I would "stick around as my life...progresses." Am I incorrect in thinking they are trying to ask about whether I plan to have babies and/or leave the workforce to have them?

I've been asked this before.

(3) Been asked if I "could smile some more", which I'm quite sure no one would ever ask one of the menfolk-type engineers walking around.

You're quite wrong. I've been asked "Why so serious?" been told to "cheer up!" even when nothing's wrong.

(4) Been asked if I am "a real engineer."

Well, OK, that's pretty insulting.

(5) Been told that I am "a real pretty lady."

I've received compliments on my looks before. They're compliments, not invitations or standing orders.

(6) Had a coworker inform me when I met him that were "getting good about hiring women and minorities." (I am both)

Well, perhaps your co-worker was genuinely surprised and happy about the fact that there are more minorities and women than before. I mean, it's certainly awkward pointing it out in front of someone who is both, but it's not entirely unusual for male engineers to be blunt and untactful.

I also keep being mistaken for some OTHER young, female engineer of the my race, and we don't actually look anything alike.

Again, so what? I make mistakes with names all the time. I'm sure you have, too.

The only item on your list that's even remotely actionable is #4.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:08 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just a note, now that I've read some of your past posts: You seem incredibly unhappy at this job for lots of reasons, not just sexist or otherwise offensive coworkers. Hating going to work every day is *definitely* worth leaving a job over. If you are good at what you do, you will find something new.

It looks like this is your second job, that you quit the first one pretty quickly. Were they both for big companies? Do yourself a favor, find a small company or startup, and start over. I don't know where it is you are geographically, but I think you'll be happier and find yourself doing more interesting things with more interesting people. If you are in the Boston, San Diego, or Seattle areas, I recommend checking out Xconomy to find out what the cool startups are and who's getting funding.
posted by olinerd at 5:23 AM on February 26, 2009


I just want to chime in, as a female engineer at a mostly-male-firm, the behavior you describe is seen as unacceptable here, and save for a few bad apples close to retirement, would garner stern admonishments from the VP and section managers should they find out about it. It sounds like you're looking for an excuse to move on, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, you shouldn't be driven out of the company because of throwbacks in the senior level. Have you had a conversation with your management about some of these comments? Just making them aware might change the power dynamic enough to get them to stop.

Just scanning the comments, Civil_Disobedient for example has no idea what he's talking about. Yeah, some of the comments seem harmless but if they are all coming from the same 3-4 people then this is a pattern of unconscious harassment. Especially the "pretty lady" and "smile more" comments.
posted by muddgirl at 5:33 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient for example has no idea what he's talking about.

...because...?

Like this: muddgirl has no idea what she's talking about because she relies on baseless and unprovoked character attacks.

See how that because clause helps the rest of the sentence? Now you try.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:40 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Try this: when they say that stuff, say, "I'm certain you don't mean to say __________."
Insert the sexist attitude most typified by the comment in the blank. What are they going to say? "I did mean to suggest that women are inferior." Nope. They should learn to not say those things. And you haven't accused them of anything, you've explicitly said that you don't think they are doing it. So defensiveness is an inappropriate reaction for them.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:41 AM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I apologize if what I wrote seems like a character attack, C_D. I will respond more thoroughly, if you'd like:

(3) Been asked if I "could smile some more", which I'm quite sure no one would ever ask one of the menfolk-type engineers walking around.

You're quite wrong. I've been asked "Why so serious?" been told to "cheer up!" even when nothing's wrong.


Off-base. The specific request that a woman "smile more", although probably a thoughtless comment on the part of the male engineer, is a documented way to enforce stereotypes and social roles. Just because it's someone she knows doesn't negate the harrasment aspect.

(4) Been asked if I am "a real engineer."

Well, OK, that's pretty insulting.


I agree with you here.

(5) Been told that I am "a real pretty lady."

I've received compliments on my looks before. They're compliments, not invitations or standing orders.


Way, way short-sighted. This is not a compliment on her looks, it is a comment on her status in life - notice how it minimizes her from being a competent person and engineer, to being an object for the perpetrator to quantify and judge.

I also keep being mistaken for some OTHER young, female engineer of the my race, and we don't actually look anything alike.

Again, so what? I make mistakes with names all the time. I'm sure you have, too.


This isn't a simple mistake with names. In our department, the manager sometimes mistakes one older technician of Mexican origin with a younger engineer of Mexican origin. There's no reason to confuse them other than unconscious bias and laziness. It's the idea that "y'all people look alike", which is patently false in 95% of cases. It shows a lack of respect for the workforce, especially the minority workforce.

The only item on your list that's even remotely actionable is #4.
Wrong. I am not a lawyer and neither are you. All of these comments contribute to an uncomfortable workplace for the OP and she has the right to a safe work environment.
posted by muddgirl at 5:58 AM on February 26, 2009 [10 favorites]


Civil_Disobedient, I think that you are serving as an excellent example of the deaf ears the poster refers to. Certainly, most of these issues or incidents seem minor, on an individual basis. And yes, people say stupid things to men, too. The pattern of them, however, is an issue. The gendered expectations underlaying them are an issue. The fact that the poster is told "why don't you smile more" instead of the "why so serious" you get is actually a big difference -- the question directed at her is reflective of the fact that are expected to be accommodating and cheerful, while the question directed at you is an individualized question about your state of mind. Being told you're a "real pretty lady" suggests that is your most significant value, especially in a situation where your work isn't being complimented as well. Having a coworker inform you that, golly, the company sure is getting good about hiring women and minorities may be a genuine statement of pleasure... but gosh if it doesn't have undertones of condescension.

So, universal_qlc, I would recommend a multi-pronged approach. I love the response Ironmouth suggests. And I'd compound it with documenting, so that you have proof that this is a pattern of behavior. Hopefully your directed comments will stop the problem, but if not, you'll have the documentation to back you up if and when you need it.
posted by amelioration at 6:06 AM on February 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Be a little snarky.

Here are some nice responses to some of the questions you've been given:

(3) Been asked if I "could smile some more", which I'm quite sure no one would ever ask one of the menfolk-type engineers walking around.

"You look particularly dour yourself, why don't you?"

(4) Been asked if I am "a real engineer."

"I've got a BS in [field of engineering] (and an MS in [field of engineering]) and do [job] all day - I'm about as much a real engineer as you are."

(5) Been told that I am "a real pretty lady."

"I'm also your colleague."

(6) Had a coworker inform me when I met him that were "getting good about hiring women and minorities." (I am both)

"Good. [change topic in a perhaps slightly exasperated tone to something less overly focused on these things, such as design specifications, maybe give him a mildly 'dude, wtf' look]"
posted by kldickson at 6:30 AM on February 26, 2009


Civil Disobedient, when those things are said to a man they do not have NEARLY the cultural baggage as when they are said to a woman. For a woman being told she does not smile enough is like a white person touching a black person's hair. This single statement will send just about every woman I know right over the edge. WHY THE FUCK should I smile just to satisfy someone else's ideal of what the sweet little woman should look like. I think it's also pretty well established that remarks about looks are off limits. Assumptions about women being emotional ditto ditto ditto.

Most women will interpret life stages/job commitment questions as a dig at their commitment to their professions, because, for FREAKING DECADES if not since the dawn of time women's commitement to anyone outside the family has been questioned. Said to a man this will mean "are you going to leave for a higher salary, better job" Said to a woman this means "we don't trust you to commit to this job, you're just going to have a baby/get married/follow your husband to another town."

Whether or not this is actually what these individuals mean, by this time every single person in any job anywhere ought to know how LOADED these statements and questions are and just never use them ever. It completely and totally doesn't matter whether they are said in innocence or not. No one over the job grade of janitorial intern should be ignorant of this anymore.

I'm with muddgirl on this one, C_D. You don't know what you're talking about.
posted by nax at 6:38 AM on February 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


If you're asked if you're a 'real engineer', you could also transform it into a mathematical joke.

"I don't think the square root of a negative number can get engineering degrees."
posted by kldickson at 6:41 AM on February 26, 2009


Also, you could say "No, I laughed," or "Not everybody's life PROGRESSES in the same way."
posted by kldickson at 6:42 AM on February 26, 2009


If a man I worked with told me I was a "real pretty lady," I'd say, "awe...you too!" all sweet-like. But...I'm a smartass.

Having worked in a similar environment (pro sports), the best way that I dealt with it on a day-to-day basis was with either sarcasm ("yeah, they're great about hiring asholes too, eh?" although depending on your workplace, that might not fly), bluntness (like you describe), or making them talk about it more (like adipocere describes - just keep asking questions/challenging them. It's fun to watch). I also agree that you should document this. Maybe you'll realize that it's not such a grey area after all, but a repeated pattern of (at the very least) questionable behavior that you'll feel better about going to HR with.
posted by AlisonM at 6:55 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been working in construction for the better part of the last fifteen years. Currently, I am the only woman on this construction site. That is usually the case for me, and I get my share of ridiculous, sexist commentary. My personality allows for a little more "in your face" reactions to these comments, but I understand why that might not be ideal.

I wish I could tell you that if you went somewhere else that is also male dominated (basically anywhere where they need engineers), you would encounter coworkers who did not feel compelled to share their idiocy, but I don't think I can. I mean, I'm sure there are places that are like that, it's just that I've never personally encountered any.
posted by crankylex at 6:59 AM on February 26, 2009


FWIW, people in my department keep getting me confused with a white girl here. I'm Indian, have an accent, and it's pretty clear that my name couldn't be Irish (O'Day or O'Leary) by any stretch of the imagination, unless they justify it by thinking I married a white guy. I've come to realize that the other woman and I started working here within days of each other and they're just not thinking clearly. They're thinking "the new girl."

So I don't think confusing your name with the other girl is necessarily a race thing. For some reason, there are these two guys who look just alike to me. If I talked to them more, I'm sure I'd see some distinguishing differences.
posted by anniecat at 7:00 AM on February 26, 2009


when those things are said to a man they do not have NEARLY the cultural baggage as when they are said to a woman

If you're trying to find malice around every corner, I'm sure you'll find it. My comments were merely meant to offer another point of reference, because my own personal experience differs from several of the OP's assumptions about how "menfolk-type engineers" treat other males.

In our department, the manager sometimes mistakes one older technician of Mexican origin with a younger engineer of Mexican origin. There's no reason to confuse them other than unconscious bias and laziness.

This is what I mean about looking for malice. Why do you think someone would intentionally mess-up someone's name? It only makes themselves look bad. If, for example, I knew that one of two new black employees was named James, but I can't remember which, does that make me a racist if I guess wrong? How is this any different from any other physical characteristic that your brain files away to connect to a face?

I'm not saying that the OP's complaints are entirely baseless. What I have said is that, based only on the content provided (and not context, which is a far more important determining factor), I don't feel many of the points are actionable, at least in the administrative sense. Yes, that's just my opinion. Which is what the OP asked for in the first place.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:11 AM on February 26, 2009


This is what I mean about looking for malice. Why do you think someone would intentionally mess-up someone's name? It only makes themselves look bad.

Did you read the comment? The one that uses words like "unconscious bias" and "laziness"?

The problem is often not intentional or conscious maliciousness. The problem is general cultural attitudes, a base lack of respect for people who are "different" based on those assumptions, and an environment where insensitive, frustrating things are repeatedly said aloud, because those assumptions and lack of respect go unchecked for years. And years. Nobody says or does anything because they have to argue with people who minimize the frustration, instead of simply saying:

"I'm sorry, I did not realize that I offended you, I was not trying to, I will not say that again."

The OP is being offended at work on a semi-regular basis. It's her choice to decide how to deal with this, and one option (particularly in this economy) is to learn how to take it without having to quit, but I assure you that minimizing her experience is not helping, only hurting.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:03 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I had female colleagues repeatedly tell me to "smile more" in a previous job. I truly hated that job and guess it was pretty obvious. So I switched jobs, have only 1 female colleague, and no one has even come close to telling me to smile more there.

I know the other things you listed suck, but maybe you could interpret the "smile more" comments as a sign that you really aren't happy with your current job and are tired of dealing with it? It wouldn't hurt to interview around, maybe even do some informational interviews with other female mechanical engineers to get a sense of their experiences in the industry and your area.
posted by Maarika at 9:05 AM on February 26, 2009


Its probably not worth quiting over. I'd suggest attempting to be more of a wiseass in response to those types of comments.

Q: Are you going to stick around ...
A: Yep, someone has to get shit done around here.
A: Yep, someone's gotta be your boss.

Q: Smile more! Why don't you smile? (I hate this)
A: I'll be smiling when the project's done.
A: I'll smile if you you bring me a coffee.
A: No time. Things to do, people to maim.
etc.

I generally try to convince myself that these people are just socially inept and need a little training to respond as i want them to. Some sort of attempt at a snappy comeback reinforces the fact that you A:are not a sensitive pushover. B:Are in it together as one of the team. Sometimes people say dumb shit because they are trying to make small talk and get to know you a little but don't really know how. It can happen to anybody.

If this is not in your personality the other option is to just be frostily polite and respond with the truth and thus silently send out the message that you do not put up with this kind of nonsense. Then if it really still bothers you, look for a new job. But I suspect no matter where you go there'll still be some of this its just a matter of degree and how you chose to handle it.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:25 AM on February 26, 2009


I'm so glad muddgirl and nax chimed in here because I think a lot of posters here are really missing the point and some of the comments are downright laughable and naive! So what the comments aren't actionable? Who wants to deal with this every day just because you need to make a living? And you don't think race has anything to do with it? Think harder.

I'm female and minority and work in the legal area of the insurance/financial services industry. In my last review, about three weeks ago, I was given the "angry black woman" label ... which apparently any black woman who doesn't bow and scrape and can properly conjugate verbs gets from time to time. (Remember what folks were saying initially about Michelle Obama?)

Someone commented that you seem truly unhappy at this job and if that's the case, you should definitely dust off the resume. However, I can guarantee you that they don't screen very well for assholes at most places. That being said, here's what I've learned during 20 years of work life.

1. Smiling more does actually help. It disarms people and makes you feel better. Now, when people tell you to smile more, you should say something like, "I will if you will." But say it while smiling ... which makes them feel pretty stupid.

2. Do not, I repeat, do not respond to things like "are you a real engineer." Smile and walk away. Do not engage the idiots. You know why? Because it won't make a difference. You will get all upset and huffy and ruin your day and at the end of the day, that person will still be an idiot. If you must engage the idiots because you can't take it anymore, do so while smiling. Unless ....

3. Said idiots are in positions of responsibility, then make sure said idiots know that you are "surprised" or "shocked" they would ask something like that. Practice your look of horror. You will need this.

4. Get thee an ally! I guarantee there is one sane person where you are. Find him/her. Buy her coffee. Ask advice on how to handle the idiots. If there is not one there, consider looking up professional associations of women engineers. Don't be impolitic about it and engage in "tattling" but if you're having real difficulties, speak up.

5. Do your work well. I mean do the damn thing like crazy. I'm sure you do this and know this but if you a) don't respond to their stupidity and b) do your work well, eventually they just have to shut up.

6. If there is a particular idiot you can't tolerate, take him to lunch. No really, befriend him. I had a guy at a newspaper job who had just had a baby. He was from North Carolina and had fond memories of growing up with a black nanny. He "jokingly" said to me that it would be great if his kid could have the same experience and asked if I might be interested! I said, great, let's talk about it at lunch. (At which time I proceeded to tell him how silly that question was ... and he apologized ... and we became friends ... though I never nannied for his damn kid.)

7. You asked if it would be the same everywhere. We have a saying: "Same shit, different plantation." In other words, you might find a better tribe at a different company but just like in families, there's always one that makes you go "who decided to waste the DNA on you?" Arm yourself with the confidence that you are smart and capable. Carry that around with you all the time. It's your secret: You are smart and those poor people are walking around all ignorant. Pity them (but don't show it. That's not nice.) Just walk around with the cat that ate the canary look. I will warn you that some folks will call you uppity for this. Consider it a compliment!

Go forth and conquer. The sisterhood is with you!
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:28 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Holy hell, people. I wake up and get to work early, so I didn't have a chance to check this until I came back home for lunch.

Uh, first off - Civil_Disobedience:

I don't feel many of the points are actionable, at least in the administrative sense. Yes, that's just my opinion. Which is what the OP asked for in the first place.

I actually asked for an opinion on whether such remarks and/or behavior should be considered when thinking of whether to stay or go, not whether any of the offending behavior was "actionable." In fact, I actually said that I did not intend to go to HR for any of it and was nowhere close to considering "action" other than adding it to my list of reasons to move on. Please RTMF question. That being said, I'm actually a surprised by some of the knee-jerk "time to sue" responses - it seems extreme to me. Nax, muddgirl, Amelioration, pazazygeek - I couldn't have said it better myself.

As for everyone else: thanks for your input. It's disappointing in some ways and somewhat expected, but I appreciate the confirmation that I'll have to deal with it wherever I go (although not to the same extent, most likely). It's not the biggest factor affecting my job all - as noted, it doesn't affect the quality of my work and actually just got a great evaluation and accompanying merit raise - but it was something I had always kept in the back of my head. It'd be nice not have to put energy into dealing with it.

On a bright note though, this morning management shakeups in my corner of the company were announced. My manager, who's always been great and given me the freedom to seek challenging work and exciting assignments outside my assigned group has been promoted up the chain. He's brought in a couple of deputies who upon initial meeting seem extraordinarily qualified and profession - and they happen to be a woman and minority, respectively. I have to say I'm excited to see what happens.
posted by universal_qlc at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's no reason to confuse them other than unconscious bias and laziness. It's the idea that "y'all people look alike"...

Wait, so this is why I confuse my 2 daughters sometimes? Or why we all put on nametags at the social/religous/business events I attend? Please. Without FAR more detail provided by the poster, I'm closer to Civil Disobedient than most commenters here. I forget someone's name, even regularly, and I'm a racist? or sexist? or __ist? Frankly, I'm good with anything written and terrible with anything aural. Tell me a name and I'll forget. If I see it written, I'm gold.

I'm an attractive female who's taught at a major technical university overwhelmingly populated (faculty and students) by male engineers and other ...possibly less-socially-aware types. I consult in a heavily male sector (IT), for an almost entirely-male consulting company. I was once begged privately to join in meetings with a certain client "to show my pretty face". I was a little taken aback, but then I looked at the team closely: about 8 dour-faced, socially slow IT guys. "Pretty" didn't get me there, my very excellent work did, and my boss knows it, I know it, and everyone else in the company knows it. Having my boss call me pretty was a total non-issue.

Let's face it: if you do good work, and you are advancing at a normal pace, there's probably just a lot of stupidity going on on your coworkers' part, not purposeful racism or sexism. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But go to HR and say "when my colleagues say X, it makes me feel Y". Suggest that HR require a short brush-up class on more subtle forms of sexism, if that's your real concern. Everyone knows that pinching someone's butt or ogling is wrong, but the "smile" issue could be a gender thing that they don't even realize. Get your colleagues thinking. Help them out of this problem without condemning them if you can, and you'll be far more likely to actually cause positive change. (I'd say this if you were male, too in case "be positive" seemed like "smile more".)

I'm a huge believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Firm, calm conviction is worth far more than outrage or self-righteousness, especially so in an economic climate where you'll need recommendations to get your next job.

It's really hard to know what to say to the OP without a lot more detail. And remember, there are more PC environments that may say all the right things to YOU.... but have their own set of problems. I've always looooved the office I used to work at where my gay friends constantly bashed clients who were "born-agains" (said in a hateful tone, in public meetings).... not realizing that I am one.

Best of luck -- I hope you get what you need.
MDiskin
posted by mdiskin at 11:12 AM on February 26, 2009


I forget someone's name, even regularly, and I'm a racist? or sexist? or __ist?

If the only people's names you're mixing up are the two women in an office of men you consistently call by the correct name, or the two people of color in an office of white folks whose names you manage to get right, well... YEAH. You're grouping people based on their difference from the majority and not using any of your mental energy to engage them as individuals, something you're displaying a remarkable capacity to do with the rest of the group. So, YEAH, it reveals unspoken bias and laziness, as muddgirl (I believe it was) said above.
posted by amelioration at 11:29 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm a father of two adopted girls of a different race than me. When I'm asked insensitive questions I reply "Why do you ask?" In part, it gives me time to think. But it also throws it back to the questioner to explain why they are asking in the first place.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:58 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Please RTMF question.

Obviously I read the question since I quoted you. How about please don't be so rude when someone's clearly taking the time to respond to you, even if you don't agree with what they're saying? If this is the kind of attitude you take with you to work, I'm not surprised you're unhappy.

Also, for future reference, it's RTFM.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:15 PM on February 26, 2009


universal_qlc: Please RTMF question.

Civil_Disobedient: Also, for future reference, it's RTFM.

Read the fother mucking question?

universal_qlc, I wish I had useful advice to add. I'm in a totally different field, with a very different male:female ratio, so I can't answer the question about whether you would encounter similar behavior from your colleagues if you moved to a different company.

Anecdotally, I have a friend who earned a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences from a prestigious university; after a couple years, she left that field and is now, I believe, practicing patent law. Although she started a networking group for female scientists in her area, she told me that she just did not want to spend the rest of her career dealing with the day-to-day sexism that pervades her male-dominated scientific field.

Whatever you decide to do about the job, don't let the fother muckers get you down.
posted by Orinda at 6:42 PM on February 26, 2009


I work in a male-dominated industry and, while there are times I'd like to say "you know what, go fuck yourself" the unfortunate truth is that that would only hurt me in the long run.

I've found that sarcasm and being a smartass works pretty well. Having spent a lot of time around guys, while growing up and at my current job, I feel like taking and giving shit is kind of the way guys bond. So if they give me shit, I just give it right back.

But for the really blatant stuff, I've found what I think is the perfect answer. I just laugh and say "that one's going in my notebook." and when they say "what notebook?" I reply, "The one where I keep my notes for when I call the 800 number." Or I'll say something like, "Don't make me call the 800 number." And they get it right away.

I've found this to be a way that I can let someone know they've crossed the line, where they can save a little face and I come out with the upper hand. Works amazingly well.
posted by missjenny at 8:21 PM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


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