Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Not Really Just a Girl...Not Even Close

Pre-script (v. post-script) warning:This post is not my usual cheerful outlook buoyed by positivity. It's part confession, part catharsis, and mostly something I've needed to write for a very long time. But hadn't because I knew it would be very hard to write without it turning into an all out rant. And reading back through it, I realize I fail to offer concrete solutions to a number of the questions I raise. I'll keep working on that...


I struggle with women's groups. There. I said it.

And I struggle with the fact that I struggle with it, especially the more senior I get, the more stories I hear, the more conversations I have about mentoring and leadership and all the rest.

My first order struggle is with my interpretation of many women's groups message, which I take to be "we focus on our being women to find common ground and provide support" or something like that. Here's my issue with that: I like to focus on my ability to get the job done, rather than relying on some vagary of genetics and biology. I like to find common ground with as many people as possible, which actually, lots of times, means I don't have anything in common with other women (especially at women's groups meetings) other than the fact that we *are* women. After about the second time a women's group function mentions child care as a fundamental concern, I lose interest. For me personally. Sure, I absolutely recognize it is an issue for many...FAMILIES! Not just women. And, oh, by the way, having children (in the largest majority of cases...I can see where it wouldn't be a choice if someone close to you died and asked you to be their children's legal guardian) is a personal choice. There. I said that too.

My second order struggle is that I know my opinion about this is not typical and that many of the issues raised by women's groups are critical to supporting people with the eventual goal of diversifying our workforce. I truly believe that we are better off with diverse perspectives, and the more we open any organization to different experiences of the world, the better our decisions are.

...but that goes for women's groups too. If all they talk about is child care, co-locating with spouses either in or out of the Service, and how men and the patriarchy and the system just don't understand their struggles, then I get the feeling that my experience, my world view is not valued. Do I have stories about being judged on my performance because I'm a woman? Yes, of course. And I'm fortunate enough to have truly blatant examples that I can say without a doubt, that's on them, not on me. Except the experiences did make me doubt, and still do, but I value them for making me who I am. You could say I'm a little conflicted about the whole thing.

For example, I had one truly, spectacularly bad boss. He got fired for it, eventually, but it took so long it made me wonder how the heck he got as far in the system as he did. And just because he was a bad boss didn't mean I didn't learn good things from him. Like, you don't know what you don't know, which I took to mean that it's important to question more than you think you need to. Anyway, enough defending him. I had a couple of unforgettable run-ins with him that make good sea stories.

One was a tiff we got into over weapons qualification requirements. We had about half a dozen people on the ship who couldn't qualify on the 9mm pistol no matter how many times they went to the range and how hard they tried. He wanted to eliminate the requirement for these individuals...most of whom were petite women. I wanted to change the requirement so they were still contributing, just in a different way, to the good of the ship, because it would have undermined their credibility on the ship if they were singled out for special treatment, especially if that special treatment got them out of a particular duty that everyone else was required to do. I shared my opinion, maybe a little too forcefully for the Department Head meeting setting, and he barked back, "Well, not everyone is Wonder Woman like you." Look up backhanded compliment in the dictionary and I'm pretty sure you'll find that as an example. Tears sprung to my eyes in front of three of my peers, my direct supervisor, and the command chief. I didn't say much for the rest of that meeting. But it was my first inkling that not everyone wanted me to be successful for being good at my job.

A few months later, our cutter boat was on a run into the closest foreign port to pick up CG Investigative Service (CGIS) forensic IT specialists to see if they could find any inappropriate emails on our server related to an ongoing investigation into my boss' conduct. He and I were standing on the bridge wing, watching the boat zoom off under a cloudless blue sky through azure waters, with only a hint of a breeze, and he (a minority in his own right) said to me, "the only way minorities will ever get ahead is if they help one another." I was *stunned.* I had just gotten my OER a few weeks before, and it was stupendously good. Like crazy, walk on water good. And I kinda thought it might have been inflated before he made that comment, but I was completely convinced it was overblown after that. And to this day, when I get a good OER, I wonder if it's because I'm really that good, or if my boss has his own agenda he's trying to further by giving me a good giving another minority a chance or promoting the office's stature and desirability by showing that good performers can be successful there.

And that completely offends me. I want to know my success is based on my ability to DO MY JOB and do it well, not because I'm getting extra credit simply for being female...or whatever the agenda may be. I have control over my performance, while I have no control over my gender...and for a control freak like me, you can guess which one I prefer to be judged for.

For the younger generation I wonder, how can we make their challenges more about leadership instead of having their energy drained fighting against someone else's narrow view of their capabilities and capacities? That goes for women, racial minorities, men, transgender, religious minorities...whatever. It needs to be about the *individuals,* their capabilities, their strengths, weaknesses, experiences, their professional choices.

My sister suggested I add in something about offering support to make sure we're all starting from essentially the same point. Because not everyone has the same access to good education, good opportunities, good mentorship, or time to work, frequently based on their situation...where they grew up, how involved their parents were, family obligations or whatever the case may be. I think that fits into my philosophy of individualism just fine. It's all about finding out an individual's they got to where they are, what they value and what they need to succeed, why they're struggling. As a mentor, it's my job to help them delve into those questions and assist in finding clarity. As a leader, how do we aggregate the individuals into policy?

Everybody struggles. Everybody has challenges. Singles v. married with children...but who gets the extra support from the organization? BAH with dependents is the most obvious. And a lot of people have heard my soapbox rant about Family Separation Allowance (FSA). And woe betide the messenger if I ever hear of some single (in the sense of "without dependents") sailor at my unit being stuck with duty on a holiday because said sailor doesn't have a family on location with whom to spend the day.

I made a personal choice a long time ago that I didn't want kids (and have been called a monster for it...true story). But that personal choice has given me a different level of flexibility with which to approach my career. I've been able to get underway without having to worry about child care, or build my e-resume without having to worry about the quality of local school districts. So given that, why do I feel annoyed that other people get special consideration from our meritocratic organization for their differing personal choices?

And that's where it gets sticky, right? It's that interaction, that border ecology of professional choices and personal choices. My sister told me of a university that implemented a policy that stated that familial leave was required to be taken for the birth or adoption of a child, so that the women faculty wouldn't feel disadvantaged for taking the time off, because the men had to take it too. But what the university found was that, while the women used their time off for child care and adjusting to a new family reality...and probably recovering from the medical experience of childbirth, the men used the time off to write and publish more academic papers and advancing their careers.

Well, hell.

So after all that, I still got nuthin. No answers, no solutions. Just my experience. Just my complete unwillingness and utter rejection of being judged for being Just a Girl.


swizza242 said...

I feel your pain. I have worked incredibly hard in my life (and career), and when I married into the military, I had to specifically request that at my wedding we were announced as "Jason and Andi Newby" and not "Mr. and Mrs. Chief Newby." It is easy to lose your identity to the men in life, not because they are more capable, but because they were born with the Y chromosome that I seem to be lacking. My identity does not revolve around my husband (although he has worked incredibly hard and deserves EVERYTHING he gets from the military). I, however, have worked hard as well, because every time we move, I have to reinvent myself and prove my worth all over again. I could just coast by and wait until the next PCS, but I don't. I work just as hard to make a name for myself as the best teacher I can be. Until I see "Teacher Husband" bumper stickers, you can guarantee that you will never see a "Coastie Wife" sticker on my car!

Just a Girl said...

Andi, Thanks for sharing your story! That's what this is really all about, right? Sharing stories to help other people understand where we're coming from. I admire your tenacity in protecting your own identity...I know it can't be easy moving around so much. I'll keep an eye out for the "Teacher Husband" sticker!