For the first decade of my career in construction management, I rarely thought about gender. I was constantly asked by friends, relatives, and complete strangers, "Isn't it hard to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry?" But I didn't find it hard. To me, it wasn't an issue (at least, I didn't think it was for a long time).
Though I was surrounded by men, I wasn't particularly aware of my femininity -- we all wore jeans and work boots to the job site and we all worked long and hard and had a really good time. I interacted with plenty of good ol' boys, the traditional players in construction, and for the most part I found them rather delighted by the novelty of conducting business with a woman. The construction workers themselves, far from the cat-calling, boorish stereotype, were unfailingly polite and respectful.
I was slow to realize that sexism is complicated and can come in much more subtle, insidious forms. Looking back, I can see that there were many incidents that wouldn't have happened had I been male -- some comical, like the marriage proposal written on a napkin and tucked under my windshield wiper one day, and some that weren’t funny at all. There were times when I was mistaken for my male peers' student intern or secretary, or when someone wouldn't make eye contact with me or address me directly in a meeting, preferring to talk to my male subordinates instead.
Gender simply wasn't discussed in my workplace. I never directly reported to a woman or had a female mentor, and though there were a few senior women in Operations when I started my career, I wasn't close enough to any of them to know what their experiences were or how they handled it. I was never invited to a single meeting that discussed gender. Once I went to great lengths to attend a conference for women in construction in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina, only to find that, ludicrously, gender wasn't discussed there either.
I didn’t worry about these things because I got respect when I wanted it -- from my bosses, my direct reports, and our clients. My bosses, commendably, placed me front and center from my very first week on the job, and never seemed concerned that this 21-year-old girl wouldn't conform to somebody's notion of what a contractor should look like. I felt that my work spoke for itself, and I knew I was doing great work.
But for some reason, over the last year or two, gender has crept into my consciousness a little more each day. Actually, it's not "for some reason." It's for two very simple and common reasons: my husband and I want to start a family, and I want to take a bigger step up in my career. And thinking about those two things has made me think about the differences between men and women in the workplace, both real and perceived, and why the rate of attrition of female professionals is so high, and why there are so few women at the top, and how sexism can still be sexism even when it's kindly-meant -- or oblivious. And I've started asking myself why we aren't talking about any of this.
I never wanted to be viewed as different, but the truth is, I am different, and my company -- and dare I say, my industry -- is better for my differences. And I've finally reached a point where I am ready to join in this discussion.