Thursday, October 1, 2015

Three Thoughts from a Working Woman

Dear Blog Readers -
I have had the following posts brewing in my head for a while, and since they all relate to work, I thought I'd post them all at one time. Enjoy! :)
1) Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test?

The Bechdal test ( if you don’t know, basically asks if in a work of fiction, do two women have a conversation, in a room, alone, about something other than a man. And I usually test movies that I watch against these standards, and judge them for not portraying real life.

However, about two months ago, I had a conversation alone in a computer lab at work with my co-worker Elizabeth, and realized something - that was the first day in that week that I had a conversation that passed the Bechdel test.

Now, I realize that may sound a tad extreme, so I started doing some review of my life, and taking stock before I decided to write this blog post. Where I work, groups are divided into sections. In my section, I am one of eight, and I'm the only female. My group is a little better, but still, I think we only have 8-10 women in a group of over 60 members.

I've worked on two main projects (with a third project that has rotated around to be several different things at different times). On my two main projects, there's Elizabeth on one of the projects, and just me on the other (I had another female co-worker, but she's had to shift to other tasks). I do have a female office mate, but she and I don't talk on a daily basis - we're both too busy! Sometimes we do talk, but when we do, we are usually talking about our male co-workers (not in a gossip-y way, more in a "have you seen Aaron today" way), or our significant others. Not something that would pass the Bechdel test.

OK, so that's just at work, right? That's because I am a STEM female, I signed up for this life, I signed up to work with the guys.

Well, I looked at my life after work too, and I determined that I don’t spend time with other women on a daily basis. I am in a book club and I meet with a small group of gal pals from childhood, but I’m mainly hanging out with guys – my guy friends, my husband, and his guy friends. And I have seven sisters! I don’t believe the movies that fail the Bechdel test are true to life – my life is not the rule for all women – but it is interesting, given my STEM career, that I don’t pass this test most days. At least, I thought it made me feel funny, and it made me more conscious of seeking out those other ladies.
2) How Work is Like College (a humorous list):
-         You have a room that you decorate. Sure, you call it an office or a cubicle, but the principle is the same – you decorate with posters of your sports teams, TV shows you like, etc. No posters about alcohol here though.
-         You split your space with a roommate/officemate/cube mates. They sometimes have visitors, and you have to be quiet and leave. It’s not because they’re in a relationship anymore, but you still know – a closed door when you know they are in there means you should find somewhere else to be.
-         You have a hall and a “dorm” (building) and there are parties and email list just for the “dorm residents”.  Instead of being reminders about quiet hours, the building emails are usually about cars with headlights left on, but the food at the building parties is way better than it was in college. In fact, at APL our group admins are somewhat like RAs – you go to them for all the answers.
-         Everyone hates on the cafeteria. No explanation needed. Rumors of building a Chipotle nearby are still as rampant as ever and still never come true.
-         Extra-curricular clubs still all meet at the same time. Sure, the clubs are a little more technical – Computer Security Reading Group vs. Machine Learning Forum where in college it would have been the DIY Sundae Stand vs. the acapella choir singing, but everything is still scheduled for noon to one pm, usually on Wednesdays.
-         The gym still sucks. You still see the athletic people and feel lame for running so slow on a treadmill. But my co-worker Barry said that if you’re at the gym at all, you shouldn’t feel lame because you’re trying to better yourself. So that was a nice sentiment.
-         There are still finals. Instead of the end of the school year it’s the end of the fiscal year, and instead of professors, its executives, but you still have to prove you have done work and that you accomplished, aka learned, something.
-         So essentially, work is college, only you can’t take summers off, and you don’t constantly have homework (it’s constrained to the 40 hours in the office).
3) The problem of “How are you”
Earlier this week, I attended an event hosted by the Hopkins Women’s Network titled “Strategic Connections: How to make your connections count”. It was designed to encourage professional networking, but one part in particular stuck out to me as true across the board, in a professional context or in any other context – the question “how are you?”
The presenter at the professional networking session thought that this was a bad question because of how easy it is to turn into a “nothing question” in the hallway – that is, it is easy to fall into this pattern  - “hey, how are you?, fine, how are you?, I’m just fine, what’s new?, nothing much, new with you? Not too much. Cool, we should talk again sometime.”
Did that count as a conversation? The presenter went on to say that a better way to do that conversation is to try to think of one concrete detail you know about that person, and what you can ask them. For example, “How’s your wife?” if you met their spouse, or “happy birthday!” if you happen to remember that.
Personally, I’d say at work, skip asking how are you at all. In my experience, people ask it as they pass in the hallway, and they don’t want an answer. They are just conditioned to say that after hi. If I give a real answer, people are often shocked. If we're just chatting, ask me what you want to know – how’s work on X project, how’s marriage, did you like the luncheon - something specific. Or if you’re just passing me in the hall, don’t bother – it’s OK to just say hi!

But if you ask “how are you” when I’m having a bad day (which happened recently) it will do more damage to our relationship than good if you’re already moving to your prepared “good to see you” response to what was supposed to be me saying fine, but was really me crying out for you to be relational with me, to hear what was overwhelming me at that moment. It's OK to not want to be uber-relational at work. Here's the deal though - I want to spend time on real relationships, so if you're gonna ask, I'm gonna give real answers. And sometimes, those answers will be outside of our happy technical realm (sometimes they won't be). Bottom line: At work, either be relational, or don’t be. But don’t fake it just cause it's work.

PS - as I read this over I realized it sounded pessimistic. Understand, some people at work ARE relational, and really ARE invested in me personally and professionally. It's not like I have NO work relationships, it's just not everyone, and the assumption that "how are you" should always be answered with "fine" got under my skin. Thanks, people who are invested in me and are taking our relationships past the "simple associates" level, and who really want to know what's going on with me. Y'all are great.

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