So what's it LIKE to be a female blank?
August 25, 2007 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Are you a female in a profession where females are rare enough that people ask you what it's "like" to be a female whatever-you-are (or just meet you with surprise because of your sex)? If so, what responses do you give to those people, and do they depend on context (stranger at a party, interviewer, etc.)?
posted by sparrows to Work & Money (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I work in construction. I'm a quantity surveyor, and have been an estimator for GCs, a project manager, and am now a consultant dealing with cost and sustainability. North americans don't generally understand what a QS is, Brits/Irish people tend to know it's a well paid profession.

My standard response (with a smile) is that the industry would fall apart without the women managing it - the reality is that there are plenty of women on teams I'm on, usually on the consulting side; architects, client reps, project managers, etc. (More than one man I've worked for has said that women's organizational skills make us perfect for this field). People usually find this interesting and ask more questions.

My har-har response for older men who use the "you don't look like a bricklayer" line is a wink and a comment that I chase electricians around sites all day, which often makes them laugh.
posted by jamesonandwater at 5:09 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

you could always laugh and say, "well, i've never been a male [blank], so i couldn't compare the two."
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:47 PM on August 25, 2007

When i got one of my first jobs doing helpdesk back in 2000, I had several people say to me 'I didn't know girls worked in helpdesk'. At that job 95% of the people that were calling were female as we supported a national retail establishment. i usually just held my tongue and then one day I said 'Yeah, and I wear shoes too and I'm not pregnant'.

Occasionally we would get people that would call in, get me, and ask to speak to a guy. I would send them to one of my level one techs, and then they would say they had to escalate to a supervisor. Which was me.
posted by pieoverdone at 5:58 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

They may be genuinely curious, and quite interested in your experience. If I meet a woman who's working in a field where women are underrepresented, I am very curious about her experience, what motivated her to be in that field, etc. Since working in a field where you belong to some class that is underrepresented in that field involves overcoming barriers, it's an indication of sorts that you are likely to be extraordinary in some way, and I'll be curious about what makes you extraordinary.
posted by lastobelus at 6:22 PM on August 25, 2007

I can't imagine asking anyone but a friend this question, but perhaps the intention is not that women cannot do the job (e.g., they are surprised you are able to handle the work), but that being a perceived minority in a culture or profession that would cause special difficulties.

The public image of construction is not the huge infrastructure that supports the industry. The image of the construction industry is not an estimator using statistical analysis to manage multiple projects. It is of a bunch of burly men sitting around on their lunch break and making comments of passing women. I do not think it is unreasonable that people assume that construction companies are hostile to women.

I realize that some people asking might be condescending, but I believe it has more to do with how they perceive the work environment to be.

I say this as a male who people couldn't believe would would work in construction because I didn't chew, drive a pickup or have any other of the blue collar qualities that people assume comes with a construction company.
posted by geoff. at 6:35 PM on August 25, 2007

I get this a lot in engineering; often when I'm introduced to older (50+) men in a professional context and they find out I'm an engineer, and not in sales or something, they say "Gosh, that's just great to see young ladies like you getting into engineering! Keep up the good work!" or something similar. I try to take it as a compliment and make some further small talk if necessary.

For younger people... the big thing for me is that a lot of folks my age think that sexism in engineering is a thing of the past, but I've run into it enough that it's very clear it's not. In high school I was on a robotics team mentored by some college guys from the local engineering school, and at a competition our all-female team was groped and otherwise generally harassed by quite a few of the young males at the competition, and were asked things like "How'd you build a robot with just girls?". When our mentors found out, they were horrified and honestly shocked that stuff like this was still going on from people our age. It was really eye-opening for them (and for us, unfortunately), and they probably think a little more now about how they treat their female coworkers -- a good thing, in the end. So if people start asking me what it's like, I'll tell them that where I work now makes it mostly a non-issue, but I'll throw in some of those anecdotes. I'm willing to talk it up with people to show them how it can be, that it is still a problem, and that they should maybe think about this stuff when they run into a similar situation in the future -- maybe the two minutes I take to talk to them will make a difference for another woman down the road.
posted by olinerd at 7:55 PM on August 25, 2007

I'm a volunteer firefighter who is in the academy in order to become full-time/career.

More and more women and other "minorities" are joining the fire service, and while I have heard tales of hazing and the "good old boy network," I've yet to meet anyone who's been hostile or even merely or indifferent.

In fact, all of my brothers (other firefighters) and instructors have been extremely supportive.

Like any other profession, each individual has their own qualities to provide. I may not be able to bench press 250 pounds, but I am excellent in search in rescue because I'm small and flexible, even with my turnout gear on.

If you can do the job, know your shit, and love what you do, people generally leave you alone.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 7:57 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gah, scratch the "or" before indifferent, and that should be "search AND rescue".
posted by sara is disenchanted at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2007

I've never had people openly ask this, to my recollection. Usually I can sense the discomfort though. Even back in high school when I worked in a camera store some people (even women) wouldn't listen to me when I discussed their camera problems or whatnot, and would ask to speak to a male clerk instead. Now I administer a large online community and usually users assume I'm a man. Not that it's out of malice, just a passive form of sexism. ("Oh, I guess a girl could do that too.") But at least they usually don't fall over in disbelief that I'm a woman.

Sometimes I just let people think I don't know anything about anything because it's easier and because I don't like the way it feels to try to win their respect.
posted by loiseau at 8:07 PM on August 25, 2007

I too worked help desk and I found that women and men at my company appreciated a female touch to their customer service needs. I felt that it made me more of an asset.
posted by k8t at 8:54 PM on August 25, 2007

I've found that in my field (bio-tech), that women have more pressure to establish a "presence". There were no meek women in my position when I was a manufacturing supervisor. You were expected to be able to deal with some level of sexual harrassment and to take care of it on your own without talking to HR.

In my case, I laid down the law with someone who seemed intimidating, and after that I was golden.

Meanwhile, my partner is a welding instructor, which is a predomitately male position, and she has dozens of 20-year-old male puppies responding to her every command. It is completely dependent of the industry and the players, IMHO.
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:38 PM on August 25, 2007

I work as a landscaper, and I've had clients be very surprised when three females showed up to lay irrigation and plant trees in their backyard. I found it amusing more than anything; I suppose if I lacked confidence in my skills or crew it might have been a little bit nerve wracking. The only time anyone ever asked me what it was like to do my job was during a time when I was the only girl in a company of twenty gardeners, and it was other women asking what it was like to work only with men.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:12 PM on August 25, 2007

I worked in the steel industry for 20 years. I started out in a temporary clerical position at a small company, got hired on full-time and then started filling in for the salesmen and traffic guys when they were out. I learned a lot and eventually got my own accounts and entered the world of purchasing, sales and steel inspection. I've always looked younger than my age, so I was met with a smirk by many a foreman at various plants when I came in to watch coils being slit (to monitor surface quality and supervise the packaging). Usually after I didn't react to their comments and instead kept my conversation on a professional basis, they realized I was serious and got back to the steel.

At parties and conferences and such, when someone asked increduously "Why on earth do you sell steel?" I'd simply reply, "I'm into heavy metal." My only really speechless moment was once when I was leaving a processing plant late at night in a dicey neighborhood. The plant superintendent walked me to my car, and when he saw it was a Lincoln Continental, asked me, "Are you dating your boss?"
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:25 PM on August 25, 2007

Agreeing with lastobelus.
When I met a woman who was a priest about ten years ago I asked her exactly that question without even thinking about it. I blush about it now but you know, I was 18 years old, also a woman, and I just wanted to know.
posted by bluebird at 2:02 AM on August 26, 2007

While I'm sure female computer techs are becoming more common, in college, I was one of only two women in our program. I didn't mind it... the guys were all pretty cool. No one treated me differently. And I didn't do things like ask them to lift heavy stuff for me, or have them go down in the hot, sticky basement tech room to work on the network.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:13 AM on August 26, 2007

I work on ships. Apart from the hotel services side of passenger hips, it's about as male-dominated as, oh, mining. Or maybe a bit more so.

A lot of guys have looked at me quite blankly, and said 'But, it is very hard for a woman to do this job, why do you want to do it?', to which I usually reply that it is very hard for anyone to do this job, so why is it harder to be a woman, and anyway, I want the money. Most of those guys were Polish and had what I consider quite old-fashioned attitudes towards women, but understood that it's quite nice to have a job that pays comparatively better than other work.

Most people ask why I wanted to go to sea, which is the wrong question, and gets different answers based on who's asking - the money's good, the time off is good, I wanted to travel and not have to pay for it, I wanted to go back to college and not have to pay for that either, I just wanted to be at sea.

The second question from people ashore is then 'But isn't it difficult to be the only woman on the ship?', the answer to which depends on who's asking, and how, and also on the situation on my last ship.

People asking what it's like to be a woman working at sea get a greater or lesser degree of willful misunderstanding depending on how annoying they are.

Why are you asking?? I could go on about this for quite a while....
posted by Lebannen at 3:24 AM on August 26, 2007

I also agree with lastobelus. I work in oil fields and on oil rigs, and I've found that greeting questions like that with the real euthusiasm and passion I feel for my job only gets more interest in return.

Someone once said to me, but isn't hard to get the respect you need from those 300 lb Cajuns? Yes, it is. It's hard for everyone. You have to earn your spurs, so to speak, and you have to know your shit, regardless of sex. The only problem is, when you don't know your shit, if you're a man, you're just an incompetent ass. If you're a woman, it's because you're a woman. (I hate that.)

I often feel that because I'm a woman, men feel more comfortable asking me about certain aspects of the job itself than they would another man.

Honestly, the only time I feel uncomfortable with that question is sometimes when other women ask, isn't that strange? With most women it's cool, but sometimes I feel like the woman asking is herself uncomfortable somehow.

I'm also curious why you are asking. Do you need a witty reply, or are you curious about how often it happens and how we react?
posted by barchan at 6:48 AM on August 26, 2007

Lebannen, I'm curious ... why is asking why you went to sea the wrong question? Because it's dumb? (Like, DUH, I took the job because I want the money.) Or because that implies the highly personal question "What were you running away from?"

I've actually been totally fascinated with the entire shipping industry lately, after reading a particular John McPhee book. If I were to ask you questions about being a female working on a ship, it would be because ... bonus! I found an actual person who can give me first-hand information about something that intrigues me. Not willful misunderstanding about the role of women in society.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:07 AM on August 26, 2007

I was actually interviewed by a student who was writing a paper about women in the legal profession and she asked me this very thing. The strange thing is that at (I believe) most law schools, and certainly mine, it is/was roughly a 50/50 split in terms of gender. I found the whole question highly bizarre and unanswerable in terms of gender, and basically ended it by saying that there is no unique advice that I would give to a woman that I wouldn't give to a man. She seemed highly disappointed with my answer, which really irritated me, since I was happily reflecting on the fact that gender is not a barrier, rah rah rah, but I guess she was hoping for some inequality struggles to throw into her paper.
posted by gatorae at 11:26 AM on August 26, 2007

Response by poster: These are all very interesting answers, thank you. I'm asking because I encounter this question and this sentiment regularly and there's no single ideal answer... and it's kind of exhausting to be always figuring out the best answer based on the context. I think there is not really an answer to my question, in fact to be honest it verges on chatfilter, but I think I have gotten some reallly interesting perspectives here at least!
posted by sparrows at 2:36 PM on August 26, 2007

I would say: "Funnily enough, I don't use my vagina to drive a truck / swing a hammer / lead the nation."
posted by Lucie at 5:33 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

why is asking why you went to sea the wrong question? Because the very short version of the answer is all the options I gave above, but weighted somewhat differently depending on my mood and where I am at the time - travel is good but airports aren't, college is fine apart from coursework, etc - and there's not usually much point in going on about something people either understand already or aren't going to understand.

If someone asks me what it's like to be a woman on a ship, well, how do I really know? I know what it's like to be me on a ship, and find that hard enough to put into words. Different women on different ships are going to have entirely different experiences; apart from the odd situation where someone says 'But you can't do that, you're a girl!' or 'Heh, Captain, you haf a vooman on your ship' (complete with leer), how do I know whether my experience is different because I'm female or because I'm quiet, flippant, cynical me?
posted by Lebannen at 8:38 AM on August 27, 2007

I'm in software development, and the few times people have asked me about what it's like to be a woman doing this kind of work, they've seemed genuinely curious about what it's like for me, rather than doubtful of my abilities. For the most part I don't feel that my experience really differs much from what men go through, but I try to respond with something mildly interesting just to keep the conversation flowing. I usually tell a story about the first time I went to a developer conference. After several hours of morning seminars, everyone ran to the lobby for the first break. I was absolutely delighted to waltz into one of several empty stalls in the ladies' room, while the line coming out of the men's room was a mile long. This anecdote usually gets a smile, and then the conversation moves on.

Of course, if someone asks how I can still be single despite working with so many men, I pull out a line that I heard once in college: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." That's a bit tangential to your question, I suppose, but still somewhat related.
posted by vytae at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2007

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