Who am I? This picture says more than 1000 words ever could. A friend suggested this picture after I rushed off a construction site in order to make a Glamour Shots appointment. My husband bought me both the tool belt and the dress but he didn’t expect me to wear them both for a picture!
When I started my career there was a saying about a woman who pursued a career –“She is looking for a man OR She wants to be a man.” But as the men I worked with soon learned, neither of those options applied to me. I was – “different”.
“Different” meant that I don’t fit a perceived stereotype. It meant I had the opportunity to forge a new perception of women in the workplace.
My story of being different begins in college. I went to Virginia Tech and studied Civil Engineering. I was also enrolled in Air Force ROTC which meant membership in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. During my freshman year the all-women unit (L Squadron) was disbanded and we were integrated into the men’s units. The men’s units kept their male traditions and we had to adapt. There were no rules, no sexual harassment committees. We basically had to figure it out on our own. And we did-without controversy. I think most of the women felt like I did – Empowered! We set and enforced our own boundaries and were respected for doing so.
When I graduated and got my commission I joined my husband at his first assignment – lovely Minot AFB, ND. Terrible location, incredible assignment! I wish every woman could have the experience I had at Minot! I learned about leadership from men who were truly great leaders. They mentored, challenged and recognized me for my abilities and achievements. They were genuinely excited to have a woman distinguish herself from her peers. These men guided me in laying the foundation on which I built my career.
For our second assignment we moved up in the world – geographically that is – to Eielson AFB, Alaska–outside of Fairbanks. I put into practice what I learned at Minot and turned a large failing operation into one of the best in the Air Force. Again, I felt encouraged and respected by the base senior leadership because they were true leaders. I never felt being a woman held me back from doing and accomplishing all that I could.
While at Eielson, I did the Supermom thing. Besides working, I got my Master’s degree in Engineering Management and gave birth to two daughters. My husband was deployed most of the time so I was a single Pioneer mom. (Ever stack 3 cords of wood at minus 20 while 7 months pregnant?) The only thing I didn’t do was sleep!! In the 1980’s women were supposed to be in awe of women like me but don’t be!! There were a lot of ugly days fueled by exhaustion. My advice – don’t try to be Super-Supermom!!
I got out of the Air Force at the end of my assignment and was happy to finally be uniform-free.
Our next assignment was near Washington DC so, like everyone who works in DC I was a consultant. It was pretty cool because I was barely 30 years old and all of my peers were 60 year old retired Colonels with kids my age. The best part is that I was working on par with them and making as much money as them. (The wage gap was in my favor!)
But, after two years, my babysitter decided to move to Florida. I rethought my life and decided to stay home with my girls. Financially it was hard so I got good at clipping coupons, shopping the bargain racks and squeezing pennies!
We then moved to San Antonio TX where I initially stayed home but was getting bored. I didn’t think vacuuming and laundry was a good application of my Master’s degree in engineering. So using some contacts from working in DC I started to pick up consulting work. But, just as I was really getting my career going again, my husband called – we were moving again…to Georgia.
Augusta Georgia. Not known for welcoming southern hospitality. I couldn’t find a job. I had no friends. I was an Air Force wife on an Army base. There are no words to describe how much I hated it! But then my luck changed. I got an opportunity to be a VISTA volunteer with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.
All I can say is that as much as I hated my first year in Augusta is how much I LOVED my second! I got to be 100% of who I am! I was something that made a big difference in people’s lives; building houses with my hands; recruiting volunteers and material donations; connecting with the community and talking to every church and civic organization in town. All the doors in town that were closed were now open. I met hundreds of warm, giving people. I didn’t want to leave but we had a new assignment.
After Georgia we moved to Arizona. We didn’t expect to be there for more than 24 months so I took the first job I could find–a superintendent for a national home-builder. The pay was worse than terrible. My husband took a follow-on assignment and we decided to stay in AZ. I found a new job more in line with my abilities. The pay was great but for the first time in my career I worked with a lot of women. I lasted 50 weeks.
From there I took a job as a construction Project Manager with a general contractor. It is here that it really sunk in how the all-male organization works and its inherent inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. And how easy it is for a woman to be successful in it!!
I stayed there until a new opportunity came along – the opportunity to manage a $100+million project. Construction is an industry where size matters so women women don’t get the big projects. By doing this project, I was playing with “the big boys.”
I was surprised the guys weren’t clambering for it. Eventually I learned why.
First, the project was literally in the middle of nowhere and no one (no wife and family) would move there. Secondly, and more importantly, the project was already labeled a “bad project” and men thought it was a “career killer”.
As it turned out one man’s trash is a woman’s glorious treasure! I made the project was a tremendous success by all construction standards. It proved my credentials as a project manager – I am one of the best in the industry.
It was during this project that I proved a lot of my career success was because I a woman. I kept notes of work and compared them to my experiences at my previous workplaces. I realized I spent my entire career solving the same performance problems over and over and over again. My career was an endless cycle of wash, rinse, repeat.
Like many women I spent much of my career believing I had to prove that being a woman wasn’t a detriment – women are just as good as men. However, I realized that being a woman was always my real advantage!
Armed with that thought I created this website.
I quickly learned that many women disagreed with me. They believed men set a superior standard in the workplace and to succeed women had to think and act like men. Even worse they didn’t really understand how men think and act because they never worked in an all-male workplace.
Their resistance made me think deeper about my ideas and doing so prepared me for the next chapter in my career – General Manager of a construction company.
Not just any construction company – but a construction company in “the manliest town in Canada” that worked out on the Canadian Oil Sands.
Construction and Oil – could I have picked a more testosterone-laden environment?!
If I wanted to prove that all of the concepts I talk about work – there was no better place to do it!
And I did.
I turned around a company that was losing millions into earning a very strong profit. And I did by empowering the women that worked for me – not the men. I tried using my male managers first but they failed. So I turned to women and they succeeded. And it only took them 5 months.
That is the difference women make in the male-dominated workplace.
I returned home to share my message with women.
Women are different from men but that doesn’t mean we are inferior. We are different but equal. We bring skills, ideas and ways of working to the workplace that men cannot bring. It is only when we combine women with men that our workplaces can achieve their best performance.
This is why our workplaces need us!