We Women Don’t Need Workplace "Safe Spaces"

The best workplace defense starts with a willingness to stand up for yourself.

There’s a lot wrong with a recent article in the New York Times about “What The Sharing Economy Really Delivers.” But it was this sentence about women and co-working spaces that really tied my tail in a knot: “Already many women have chosen to bypass the air-hockey subculture of conventional co-working facilities for all-female alternatives like The Wing in New York or Rise Collaborative in St. Louis. They are tired of men and their predations and inefficiencies.” 

Like Mad Men, but Less Glamorous

Talk about walking into an old boys club.

Really? This is what women have become as “equals” in the workplace? I’m so disappointed. You see, I started my career as an engineer in the late 80s in the defense industry. You want to talk about walking into an old boys club. It was just like Mad Men, but without the glamor: all clip-on ties and pocket protectors.

For a while, I was the only girl on staff that wasn’t a secretary or working in the “word processing department.” It was so man-centric that I felt compelled to go by my given name, Theresa, lest everyone assume that the new engineer, “Terry,” was a dude.

The stuff I saw, the stuff I heard, would certainly make a modern woman furious. Once, when I was 22, I wrote a report that ended up getting a high-level program manager fired as a major defense contractor. I was young, fresh out of college, and working for a small quality assurance firm. I was given a computer and a bunch of data and a job to do.

I didn’t know any better. The older, experienced men at my office, given the same data, did what most government contractors do, which was pretty much nothing. I, on the other hand, foolishly put the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet, did some math, and discovered some pretty alarming quality trends.

The best workplace defense starts with a willingness to stand up for yourself.

My report led to a meeting at the contractor’s headquarters with Navy brass, contractor top dogs, and me. As was typical then, I was the only woman in the room and at least 20 years younger than anyone else. My boss (a wonderful guy and a mentor who taught me so much) started the meeting by asking me to present my findings. Before I could start, the program manager interrupted me, incredulous, and asked: “You? You did this? By yourself?” 

My response, coolly, was, “Well, once my boss showed me how to turn on the computer, yes, I ran the calculations myself.” My boss chuckled, and the Navy brass were amused. Me, not so much.

I met fire with fire, presented my findings, and walked out of the room feeling proud, not intimidated. The program manager who had made such a fool out of himself was fired. Exposed by a mere 22-year-old girl for covering up bad performance trends! 

I learned then that the best workplace defense starts with a willingness to stand up for yourself.

Taking a Stand

A few years later, I discovered another engineering problem with a navigation system due to be delivered to the Navy. I was now a quality assurance engineer working for a different company. The system wasn’t ready, I told a group of men, all supervisors, managers, and directors above my pay grade.

It won’t shock you to learn that sometimes political considerations are more important in the world of defense contracting, often crowding out the right solution based on sound engineering and cost-effectiveness. So I was seeking advice, asking for a path forward to solve both the political and engineering considerations. Out of left field, one of the men said: “Well, you could always go be a hostess at a Tailhook Convention.”

He was referencing the infamous 1991 Tailhook scandal where a number of “hostesses” (wink, wink) were employed to entertain the men, and 83 women and 7 men were allegedly assaulted by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps Officers. The other men looked horrified at what he had said, and they all looked at me, worried as to how I would react.

I dealt with it in my way. And I was fine.

I blinked and replied, “I don’t think that would solve my current problem, so let’s get back to it.” There was a visible sigh of relief, especially from my direct manager, who I think was worried that I was going to deck the offending guy. We came up with a solution, my problem was solved, and I went about my business.

Very soon after, my manager called me into his office to discuss what happened. He wanted to know what action I wanted to take. Did I want to file a formal complaint? Did I want him fired? I laughed. “He’s just stupid,” I said. I didn’t see a need for such drastic action.

Was I offended by the comment? Of course. What an idiot! But I had dealt with it in my way, and I was fine. My manager (another great guy and mentor) decided to talk with the offender, and he made him apologize. Fair enough. Case closed.

I dealt with it, stood up for myself, and because I did, my male colleagues stood up for me, too.

No Boys Allowed?

What a tragic step backward for true feminism.

My feminism tells me that us girls are every bit smart enough and tough enough to compete with the boys at work, if that’s what we choose to do. I have noticed since my early days as a female engineer that women have worked so hard to be taken seriously and to be treated as equals in the workplace.

So I get angry when I see women choosing to retreat to some imaginary safe space, to segregate themselves in separate office buildings because they are too tender to deal with difficult male colleagues. By doing so, ladies, you prove the point for those few old codgers clinging to the 1950s that, yes, see, women just can’t cut it in a man’s world. What a tragic step backward for true feminism.

So, ladies, I implore you not to retreat into enclaves of victimhood, but to venture out and win success in the real world.

Further Reading

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