I believed for quite some time that there wasn’t really sexism in the workplace, at least not in the type of workplace I sought, which was one of educated people. But now I’ve come to realize that it truly does exist even here and that I’ve just been fortunate enough or ignorant enough to not see it directly. I have noticed now, however, and it simultaneously pisses me off and depresses me. And I’m usually already halfway to depression in any given circumstance anyway.
The first time I thought someone was sexist against me was when I was taking a mechanical engineering class that involved using the machine shop. The instructors would not let me nor my roommate, who happened to be in the same class and lab as me, use most of the machines because they thought our hair would get tangled in something and would then proceed to wrap around our throats and strangle us. My roommate’s hair didn’t even brush her shoulders, and I kept my hair in a bun or tucked inside my shirt. It took me a few months of being allowed to only use the CNC machine to realize I was being discriminated against, but even then I thought, well, maybe they really are just concerned for my well-being. And that was that. I went through the entire lab using only two machines deemed simple enough for us lady folk, and didn’t say a word of complaint. The instructors were old men whom I thought were cool and knowledgeable and well-intentioned, so I shrugged it off and moved along my way.
I graduated with my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering (emphasis in aerospace, minor in math, yada yada yada), and got a job working for the university as a 3D CAD designer of mechanical payload integration for unmanned aerial systems. In this department, I was treated with far more respect and trust than I gave myself. I was majorly underpaid, but so was everyone else and I was in no delusion that I was receiving less than my male counterparts. I was badgered daily by my supervisor to go to grad school and even slightly had my job threatened, although I doubt he really thought that was what he was doing, and so eventually I caved and went to grad school.
The first semester I took a class taught by my supervisor, and it was there I would experience my first taste of what I’ve come to realize is true sexism. It wasn’t in my face. It wasn’t blatant. It wasn’t harsh. It was subtle to the point where I didn’t realize it until I was ranting to a colleague about how I was being treated. It clicked then.
The class was to design and produce two unmanned aerial vehicles from two different frames, the DJI S900 and the Lockheed Martin Stalker, both of which my previous employer had in its possession. These systems were in the inventory for a long time and unusable simply because they were carcasses without the guts, and our class was tasked with putting working guts in it. I was one of two mechanical engineers; the rest were electrical. I was also one of two females (the other female was electrical). I knew a lot about 3D design and 3D printing at this point, and the professor really talked me up to the class. And yet, when they assigned me a task and I completed it to their specifications, time and time again they would ignore what I had to say and instead listened to the other (male) mechanical engineer. I put off believing it was a sexist response for quite some time, wondering if perhaps I didn’t sound as confident or if maybe the other guy was right. I questioned myself constantly until finally, near the end of the semester, I couldn’t take it.
And I bitched to a colleague. Oh, how I bitched. I had to show him several emails before I sent them to make sure I wasn’t being bitchy to those who truly deserved it, to make sure I wasn’t being passive aggressive, and to make sure I wasn’t making an ass of myself. And then he pointed it out: dude, they’re being sexist against you. I wasn’t surprised. I had thought about it but held back the accusation because I don’t like the “bigot” card being flung about, but he got me thinking that yeah, maybe they truly were. And that made me realize that sexism does in fact exist in these situations; they’re just so much more subtle than I thought.
But here’s the kicker: were they actually being sexist? That question still rings through me, every time something like this comes up. They certainly didn’t seem to intend that I get put down, in spite of the fact that they did it continually throughout the course of the semester to the point where I would have dropped the class had the period to do so not have already passed. But maybe if I had spoken up about how their actions were perceived by me, it would have stopped immediately. I don’t accuse someone of being sexist lightly.
The school year passed, and now I’m working for the same department in the summer, working on my Master’s project. We have weekly meetings, and many of those who were in that class are also now working for this department and also attend these meetings. One of the motherfuckers, that other mechanical engineer everyone paid heed to instead of the one who was endorsed by the professor himself, explained to me how I should take length measurements in one of those weekly meetings. Length measurements. Like the kind you use a ruler for. Apparently, I’m not competent enough, with my Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree (which he has yet to finish), to measure how long something is. I nodded along with a grin and a laugh, thinking this is a joke, right. It has to be. And then another guy chimed in some suggestions. And another. My grin faded. Cool. Thanks, guys. Glad for your support. There’s no way I could have figured out how to use a measuring tape. Another thing of note in these meetings is that everyone shuts the fuck up when other people are talking. Well, unless that person is me, in which case I guess it’s protocol to interrupt and tell me how I should have done things. I consider myself lucky when I can just go through my information and no one says a word and we move on.
I realized today that I want out. But I set up my own rules for doing this grad school thing, and that was that as long as it is financially feasible to do so, I will, and I will not drop out for any other reason. August is coming up, and with it the news of whether or not this next semester is feasible. I used to hope that I would get a TA or RA position and be able to continue forward as before, but now I’m thinking quite the opposite.
What makes it worse is that the reason this has become a problem today is because a different mechanical engineer who also doesn’t have his bachelor’s at this time gave me advice on how to improve one of my 3D printed parts. But this MechE I respect and believe he has a good understanding about how this all works. He’s better at CAD software and 3D printing than I am, and I’ll be the first to admit it. But the fact that I have constantly been doubted this whole time has made me immediately resent criticism, even if it’s helpful. My first reaction is now rage and I have to calm myself before I say something shitty and make a fool of myself and hurt someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Were all or any of these instances of sexism? Maybe. It’s still hard for me to say for sure when something like this is sexist. I think men are often taken advantage of because of the cry of sexism, and I would hate to add to it. I do, however, believe I have been wronged, though I doubt they meant anything by it. I’m frustrated with myself that my first reaction would be the desire to give up or lash out, but I am encouraged that I have enough personal insight to see these short comings and try to work against or around them. I’m sure few could say the same.