Hard Hats

Author: Sharen Walsh '78

It was at a scheduling meeting when someone called upstairs to the new secretary for a copy of a letter. One of the senior managers looked around the table and said with a smirk, “S—-t, Diane’s so fat she won’t get that letter down the stairs ’til next week.” Then he watched me for my reaction.

He made this comment partly because he was just one of those people who enjoyed belittling others, and partly (profanity included) to get a rise out of me. I was furious, but I’d had several battles with this pompous manager and couldn’t afford another showdown right then, so I just went back to the scheduling discussion. I felt guilty the rest of the day because I didn’t speak up on Diane’s behalf, especially because I was the one woman in the company who was at the “power” meetings. If I didn’t stop that kind of talk, who would? Yet I felt that if I made a big deal about it my future advancement would suffer. I just wanted to do my job, without such games, and eventually left that company.

That episode came to mind when my mailbox coughed up a survey from Notre Dame’s Civil Engineering Department. The guys in South Bend were asking all the usual questions about the current state of my career and requesting feedback about what parts of my engineering education had been most useful to me. I scanned the list of courses provided and shook my head, thinking of the classes I wish had been offered to young women engineers: “Relating to the Man Who Doesn’t Want you on his Jobsite 101,” “Being Good Enough 203,” and “Never Let Them See You Cry 405.” And by the way, the foreign language requirement should have been two semesters of “ManSpeak.”

Please don’t get me wrong, I like men, I even married one once. I just didn’t know that I would be a “first” or “only” woman engineer for such a long time, that I would be working with mostly men all the time and that we wouldn’t understand each other at least half of the time. Sure, in 1978 I knew I would be one of the vanguard of women breaching the ranks of a male-dominated profession. But I thought reinforcements would soon be on the way. I didn’t expect that in 2000 it would still be such a male-dominated profession.

It’s not the work, either. It’s just formulas and safety factors, field data and “engineering judgment.” Some have been tedious – reviewing miles of concrete pipe calculations is not what you’d call entertaining. But I still have the picture of the little water supply dam I designed for a remote village on Alaska’s Aleutian chain; now that’s not something everybody has on her resume. Nope, it’s not the work. It’s the company.

I have worked with a few other women engineers over the years and do see a slightly higher number of young ones graduating these days, eager and ready to prove what they can do. But as a group, my generation has not progressed as far as we hoped. I’ve seen my contemporaries struggle to balance a career in engineering or construction with their family lives, and I’ve watched others become depressed when the men they work with go out of their way to make them feel unwelcome. Will this next generation fare any better?

Let me tell you about “Anna,” one of the top graduates in her engineering class. Five years out of school, she established herself as one of the smartest, hardest working engineers in her firm. Then Anna and her husband decided to start a family. The project Anna was working on was scheduled for completion by Christmas, but the baby was due around Halloween. Anna was on maternity leave for the critical six weeks leading up to completion of the facility. Her coworker, Pete, brought the building in on time and got the credit for a successful job, even though Anna laid 90 percent of the groundwork. When Anna checked in to inquire about her return to work, she was told that the firm was competing on some new proposals but there was nothing for her to work on right now, check back later. The longer Anna stayed out, the more stale her technical background became and the more difficult it was to get rehired.

When Anna did get back to work, she found that her day-care center charged $1 per minute if a child was not picked up by 5:30 p.m. She was torn — she could either give the 110 percent that brought her to an equal position with the men on her team, or she could be there to pick little Joey up on time. Anna wasn’t the type to be satisfied with doing anything halfway and she decided that if she was going to be successful at one thing, it would be mothering her child.

For every Anna, there’s a woman who stays on the job. Unfortunately, she will probably discover that some of her male coworkers just don’t think women belong in the design and/or construction business. Unlike law or medicine, this field naturally attracts the guys who have been wanting to play with backhoes and bulldozers since they were in the sandbox. Some of them probably kicked little Mary Lou out of that sandbox and told her that a hard hat would mess up her hair and she should go home and play with her dolls. When these guys grow up (at least physically) they end up on construction sites where they still get some sort of evil pleasure out of demeaning women and making the girls cry.

I’m not a new graduate anymore. I’ve somehow managed to keep working and to raise three great kids and I know how to respond to the blonde jokes, the fat lady jokes and the other hostile comments. But I worry about the younger, entry level women engineers . . . are they putting up with the same nonsense I did? Do they realize that having a child may derail their career? Are they still the targets of the same hostility that was directed at me and my other female colleagues? Are they going to give up before they succeed? It’s hard to tell from this side of the generational fence.

Given the chance, I would tell these women about the things we weren’t taught in college. I will tell them about doing your damnedest to prove that you’re as smart as the boss’s hunting buddy who works next to you. I will tell them about the times when the men make a joke about the blonde walking across the street and then look at you to see how you’ll take it. Will you be a good sport and let them have their little moment and then turn the conversation back to how much reinforcement is needed in the concrete, or will you be eventually get tired of the “fun” and tell the to knock it off?

Fair-minded and professional men do work in the profession, and I’ve worked on some great teams and have been given many opportunities to succeed. I would tell them to learn the technical stuff inside out, become a woman who “knows her stuff,” and the guys will come to rely on you to get things done. Do your job and prove yourself one project, one day at a time. If you do, the sandbox boys won’t get to you anymore, and the smart ones will be glad to have you on their team.

How do I know? Well nowadays, I find that I get a lot of offers to have lunch. What starts as a friendly meal between colleagues ends with a recruitment offer. “Joe” or “Sam” will say that he was really impressed by my work on that last project our two companies worked on, and he really thinks I belong with Company X. At moments like these, I smile inwardly and think “It sure took a long time to get here.” Now, the next big milestone will be when that lunch is with “Mary” or “Jane” instead of Joe or Sam. I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I sometimes remind the guys I work with, “If this were easy, women and children could do it.” Makes them stop and smile almost every time.

Sharen Walsh is a project manager for several HUD housing villages under construction in Alaska.