When I went into the Air Force as an engineering officer in 1982 my first reaction to my new workplace was: “What the Hell? I thought you guys knew what you were doing!”
My reaction came from the perspective of a young woman raised at a time when society believed men excelled in business… and women were housewives because they couldn’t.
Given this perspective, I naively expected that since men “excelled in business” that everything would be thoroughly planned out, then flawlessly executed. I expected men to run their workplace like Martha Stewart hosting a dinner party. But much to my dismay, the male-dominated workplace functioned more like a housewife who burned dinner every night.
Being a natural efficiency freak I wasn’t prepared for the amount of chaos and crisis management that was accepted as standard operating procedure. While women were expected to fit into and conform to how men functioned, I didn’t want to fit into my male colleagues’ chaotic way of doing things. I wanted to function better.
I needed to talk to a woman with experience in the workplace and have her explain how it functioned to me. But, there were no senior professional women or senior female Air Force officers. The only women with years of experience in the workplace were secretaries.
Could I talk to them?
Or, would I lose credibility as an engineer and an officer?
Watching my male colleagues for a clue, I concluded that since they seldom talked to the secretaries, I should be careful.
I found myself in an uneasy quandary but luckily the Air Force provided me an opportunity to get what I needed.
The Air Force said its mission was to “Fly and Fight” but the sarcastic joke was that the real Air Force mission was to “Fly and Write.” Everyone was expected to write, even my fellow engineers who had horrific writing skills which were only surpassed by their even more atrocious spelling. Because my squadron had so many bad writers we had a rule: Nothing left our squadron until it was reviewed and approved by the Squadron Commander’s secretary Marian.
Marian wasn’t like the secretaries we see portrayed on TV. She was a smart, professional executive secretary with a Bachelor’s degree in English. She was my commander’s unmistakable right hand on all administrative matters for which she was grossly underpaid.
As the new 2nd Lt. I was delegated a lot of writing assignments. After turning a few draft documents into Marian for review she reported to my Squadron Commander that I could write. And spell! Word quickly spread that there was ONE BIG difference between male and female engineers – female engineers can write. As a result I was given even more writing assignments.
Those writing assignments gave me cover to talk to Marian anytime I wanted.
As the Commander’s secretary Marian had all the inside information. By talking to her I got the first-hand account of what went on in meetings I was too junior to attend. Needless to say what Marian told me was often quite different than what filtered down to me through the workplace hierarchy.
One day the higher ups held a meeting on a very important issue. Afterwards I went to see Marian to get the scoop on what was said. She told me what they discussed and the course of action they decided on. Then with absolute certainty she said the words that forever changed my career: “But it won’t work.”
What does she mean that it won’t work? How does she know? She’s not an engineer or a facilities management professional – she’s just a secretary with an English degree!
Marian then went on to explain the holes in their plan – the things they didn’t discuss or consider. It was the holes that would cause their plan to fail. (Weeks later she was proved right)
Listening to Marian I realized she was seeing the same problem in her meetings that I was dealing with, with my male peers: Poor Planning.
My fellow 2nd Lt.’s and I were routinely given special projects to work on as a group. And true to stereotype I had one of those loud mouth male colleagues who thought he knew it all. On our first project he dismissed my concerns about his plan and we wound up doing the project his way. The project quickly became a disaster as my concerns came to fruition. Though we pulled it out in the end, I was not a happy camper fixing problems I knew could have been prevented.
Our second project followed the same scenario with the loud mouth taking over. I tried to get some of my other male colleagues to take him on with me but it didn’t work. This time however, I was smarter and got with a couple of my colleagues to develop a recovery plan for what I knew would be the problems. When disaster hit, we put our recovery plan into action.
On our third project, the loud mouth again assumed he was in charge again until I stood up and said “We’ve done it your way twice and both times were a disaster. We aren’t doing it your way anymore.” I then took over the meeting and we collaborated on how to do our project. Both that project and the next were great successes.
Up until Marian said “It won’t work” I attributed my desire for collaboration and detailed planning to me being a slightly more OCD engineer than my male peers. I suddenly realized it wasn’t an engineer thing. It was a woman thing.
My perspective changed dramatically. Maybe there were more differences between male and female engineers than better writing, spelling and communication skills. But what??
This realization set Marian and I off on a new mission to find out how men and women differ in the workplace. Given her lack of opportunity she was very committed to helping me advance. She gave me the support to feel like I didn’t need to become one of the guys; I didn’t need to conform to how the guys did things. I could be different. I could be a woman, I could be me.
I will always remember the day she literally pushed me out of her office like a mother bird pushing her young out of the nest to fly. She pointed me down a different path from my male colleagues and told me to go walk it.
For over 30 years I’ve stayed on that path. Along the way I discovered that women bring many different but highly beneficial qualities to the male-dominated workplace. I learned that women aren’t meant to fit into the male-dominated workplace, they are meant to transform it into something better, more productive and more profitable.
Even though Marian was “only a secretary” she was one of my most influential mentors. She kept me from being absorbed into the all-male culture which has either driven so many female engineers out of the profession or held them back. By walking the path she encouraged I discovered how women can succeed in the male-dominated workplace by being themselves. And I am now able to share that information with other women.
So, on behalf of myself and many other women all I have left to say is: Thanks Marian!
Empowered Women Walk Their Own Path
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