Embracing ‘Bossy’

A few weeks ago I presented the keynote speech to the University of Oklahoma Society of Women Engineers’ Collegiate Section. Their theme this year was “Bossy: Be the Boss”, a take off from Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In effort to Ban Bossy. My speech follows, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and presenting it.

Excited and proud to be selected as your keynote speaker, I did what most of us do when our lives take an unexpected turn, I posted about it on Facebook. It wasn’t long before a friend ‘fessed up to calling her granddaughter ‘Miss Bossy Pants’ and commented she needed to stop doing that. Without knowing the details of how she used the term, I assumed it was not in a positive light.

To tell you the truth, when Sarah extended the offer to speak tonight and told me the theme, I had to really think: when was I actually labeled ‘Bossy’. The other ‘b’ word, certainly over the course of my life, many times, but ‘Bossy’?

I figured out it was my mother who was the first person to call me Bossy. It was during times when a decision was needed and since no one appeared to me to be making one, I’d step up and do it for them. Quit being so bossy, she’d say. Maybe it had to do with being the first born for I don’t remember my younger sister ever having the bossy tag affixed to her.

My cousin set me straight years later. I’d had my first child and two months later, my grandmother died. She lived in another state and so my husband, infant and I flew in for the funeral and stayed in my aunt’s house. Amidst the reuniting crowd of cousins, aunts, uncles, their kids, other friends and distant relatives, I struggled to prepare my son’s formula so he wouldn’t starve. Back then doctors convinced us to boil the bottles and all the other accessories. It was an involved task on a good day at home, the kind that takes over the kitchen. Traveling like I was for the first time since his birth, it seemed near impossible.

So while I sweated and fussed and did the tasks necessary amid all of the crowd and noise, my cousin laughed at my antics. She said she would watch me in awe when I managed to coordinate a group activity for adults and yet here was a 2-month-old baby putting me to my knees. She never saw me as bossy. She saw me as an organizer, and a leader. She also saw me as helpless when it came to the baby.

One time my husband was paying for gas, standing at a window waiting to sign his credit card. Another man stood behind him and overheard his last name, Eckstein. The man asked him if he was my husband, we lived in a very small town. He said yes. The other man explained he worked at the same plant as I did, followed by ‘boy, I sure feel sorry for you.’ Of course he implied a lot of things in that statement, bossy being one of them.

The fact that I’m able to recall these vignettes, tells me the impact that bossy made on my life. It also reminds me how maybe, just maybe, my mother calling me bossy stirred a passion in me to persevere and lead as my cousin had noted. I embraced it even though the guy at work looked at me differently.

Throwing back to the 80’s I remember a fellow female engineer had a poster which compared male traits to female traits: He has leadership skills, she’s territorial, he’s assertive, she’s aggressive, he’s confident, she’s bossy. The list was quite long. We’d laugh at it then but it still hurts to see we’re fighting these stereotypes 30 years later.

Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkley, stated in a 2014 Huffington Post article: “Bossy” per se is not the problem: the problem is that we still see power and authority as male prerogatives, and women who aspire to them as unwomanly, unlikeable, and bad. The real task is to change the world, not the word.

Dictionary.com defines bossy as domineering and autocratic followed by its use in a sentence: She’s very bossy, a take-charge gal (Attributed to the 1880s+). The words that indicate leadership didn’t make this dictionary.

How can you lead without being perceived as overbearing? What are the keys to adding value to your company, your employees, and your co-workers without being labeled domineering? I’ve got a few ideas.

Challenge yourself – I’ve judged a few projects here at OU and it’s very noticeable that the boys present most of the technical stuff while the girls hang back. The engineering school curriculum is built upon projects whereas in my days at OU it was solely based on lectures and book learning. Actively participate; take on tasks that scare you; Embrace challenges, persist despite obstacles.

I graduated with a Mechanical engineering degree. Imagine my delight when a co-worker asked me if I’d like to transfer jobs from my current base in Alabama to Oklahoma, it meant a return to my home state to be near my parents and my children’s grandparents. I was ecstatic. Then he said I’d be performing software test.

My heart dropped. Software? What an unknown that was to me. My experience to that point was limited to piping, pumps, and hardware. We didn’t even have our own desktop computers back then. I took the required Fortran class years ago and still have nightmares over that. He assured me I would excel so I took a leap of faith. Guess what happened? My peers awarded me with a custom t-shirt commemorating my leadership in being the best tester on the program. I was successful because of that friend’s encouragement and my own curiosity to see if I could discover what he already saw in me.

See your efforts as a path to mastering skills. You may fail, you will make mistakes, and you will learn. Everyone doesn’t have constant success although it may seem like it. Success is a series of failures and triumphs blended with tenacity.

Be inspired by other women’s successes. Collaborate instead of competing with one another. Help each other.

This can be a hard one. I think on some levels we are programmed to only help ourselves out and to be jealous of others’ successes. A fellow engineer, a friend, a co-worker is successful on their projects. Celebrate it, ask and think about why she was successful.

Too many times we as women have a tendency to down trod on other women. When you catch yourself being critical, stop and think. Wouldn’t you want others to celebrate you?

Stop apologizing – This drives me nuts more than anything with women. I’ve worked with several female co-workers who regularly end emails in which an opinion is stated with something like ‘maybe I’m missing something or I could just be way off base’. Be assertive; if you have an opinion or need action, state it. ‘Please provide me with…’ is more assertive. ‘Do you think we need to do…’ is asking permission.

Ask for help – seek out mentors, if someone offers to mentor you, accept the offer. They probably see more in you than you do yourself. A good mentor can be brutally honest with you. After I botched a presentation that I felt I was well prepared for, my mentor’s first comment was ‘you really screwed that up’. He was right; I had more work to do.

Volunteer – leadership development can start within your campus clubs, sports organizations or civic community service. Volunteer for projects at work. See a need and take charge. Offer to lead a project, present ideas to the board of a non-profit, the more exposure you have speaking in front of different types of people, the more your confidence will soar.

It’s not easy to speak up, but it is definitely worth it. With practice, you will learn when to speak up. Don’t worry about leaving anything out. How many times have you said ‘I wished I’d have said this instead of that’? I’m sure tonight I’ll go thru that exercise in my head about this speech. If you forget something follow up with a communication later.

Learn how to ask questions. You know asking demanding questions doesn’t work on you, so don’t do it to others. Another mentor of mine had some sage advice: always ask questions that begin with ‘how’ and ‘what’. They diffuse any kind of hostility and most importantly you make people think. How will your idea work? What will be the impact?

It takes practice, determination and courage to become comfortable speaking up and taking charge and letting your voice be heard. I hope these tips inspire you to be the best you can be. Think back to your high school senior self. You’ve come a long way already, haven’t you?

Urban Dictionary has a slightly different take on Bossy: in addition to the traditional uses of mean, annoying and that other ‘b’ word, site users have added classier definitions: Assertive, a natural leader, the ultimate cool. I’ve known some of you for a few years now, watching you grow and mature into fantastic young women and engineers. You have the tools you need to be the ultimate cool.

And finally: Be kind. Always. Embrace ‘Bossy’; thank people who recognize your leadership, even if they call you ‘Bossy’ while doing it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Space is back, baby!

Image

I was fortunate to catch the movie ‘Gravity’ this weekend, in 3D, of course. The movie stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who are two of my favorites. But it wasn’t the ‘star’ power that caught me, it was the other star power: well, the stars, universe, astronauts, space, the final frontier (although I am NOT a trekkie). 

I worked on the International Space Station (ISS) during its design phase in the 1990’s. It was a fun program as the design constraints were so ‘out of this world’, a world without gravity, there were things we had to consider that we wouldn’t normally here on earth.

I was buzzed to see an interior scene of the ISS and warning lights labeled with the modules that I worked on. It even had some appearances that reminded me of the drawings and sketches I was privy to back then.

I thought they got the movie correct on most levels. I read an article provided by a friend that pointed out the distance between the Hubble telescope and the ISS was fiction in the movie. (As this is a new, just-out movie, I’m trying to be careful with the details so as not to spoil it for everyone else.) But the other details about life without gravity appeared to be dead on.

The intricacies of space exploration and the high risk to life and limb for the astronauts is fascinating to me. For one, to remember those who gave their lives so that the 1960’s space program could continue only to have more young adults put their name in to be part of it (this one included). For another, dealing with weightlessness and lack of force at all (Force = Mass * Acceleration, right?). So when you have no mass, force is zero and then what?

The movie played up this concept in several terrifying scenes demonstrating a gentle push sends matter off into space. Astronaut Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon during his time there. I’ve often wondered, as did my friends and family, how long will that ball circle the moon? Is it still circling? I’m guessing ‘Yes, as long as something didn’t interfere with its flight path.

I also was in awe of the screenwriting, but that’s for another time or actually, a different blog.

Other news articles I’ve read today indicated most of the moviegoers to the flick this weekend were over 40. I find that interesting. Why wouldn’t younger viewers flock to this film? Are the stars of the movie too old to be watched or not as cool as some young starlet? Is it perhaps there are no promises of aliens or blood and guts Jason-types running after them?

Is this part of NASA’s PR problem in getting support for their programs? It’s not ‘exciting’ enough by today’s standards? Have the young adults been so galvanized by the science fiction industry, books, movies and video games, that adventures in space and the technology it takes to make it happen is… boring? 

Image

Wow.

I really hope not. To do my part, I’ll put up rather than shut up. My kids listen up: want to see a great movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat without aliens and horror? Mom will pay. Let’s do it. 

And you, the parents and over 40’s, do the same.

My younger readers: Try it, you’ll like it. I guarantee it. Open new worlds for yourself and when you hear about cuts to the space program, support it. 

It’s about more than Gravity, after all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Old Day Attitudes are Back!

I’m still fuming for a friend who had ‘one of those’ experiences with a male co-worker. The new hire had an arrogant tone about him and he didn’t go out of his way to work with ‘Linda’ (not her real name). She had been successful in avoiding much to do with him, but then discovered her lead had given him new assignments; assignments that could have gone to her. 

Recognizing there was a cozy relationship developing between the new guy and her lead, Linda managed to keep her distance and get her work done.

One day, Linda asked the new guy if there was anything she could do to help him. He replied…

Wait, are you sitting down? Good.

 

“You could do the laundry.”

What really steams me about this guy is that he is just a year or two out of college. Probably not even 25 years old. I would have thought this was something from the 1970’s. 

Why do these stereotypes and attitudes exist today? Have we started to back track?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Another Plug for Space

I think we’ve reached saturation. I listened to both the local and national news this afternoon. Protests, anniversaries of gun shootings, accidental deaths, and celebrity deaths all made the news. Only on Facebook did I see some mention of an anniversary that fits none of the categories of today’s news items.

On this day, July 20, in 1969, the United States put a man on the moon. Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface. Historic in its day, we all crowded around our television sets to witness this life-changing event. Who doesn’t remember Walter Cronkite wiping his eyes in disbelief that he is reporting such a monumental event?

This landing was the crowning glory to a decade of engineering to complete the goal set by President John Kennedy. Our country united to make this goal and WE DID IT.

Thanks to YouTube, here’s a link to the video of the first moonwalk: http://youtu.be/RMINSD7MmT4

Space exploration is more of an afterthought now. The value of the effort to further explore space is virtually non-existent. The fact that the engineering put into getting us on the moon was used for other earthly uses is lost on the public.

The benefits of NASA’s engineering development have resulted in many technologies that help us on earth today. Here’s a link to a Space.com blog entry that details some of the achievements due to the space program: http://www.space.com/731-nasa-spin-offs-bringing-space-earth.html

It’s time to rethink the funding for space. It brought us together as a country, we can take advantage of the gadgets and gizmos to make our life on earth better and it’s just darn fun to watch present day explorers in action. No Hollywood movie can make up for that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Women Making History

If you haven’t seen the PBS series, Makers, you are missing a treat. Women have had quite a history in the United States and Makers documents our history through all of the ups and downs.

What fascinates me is looking back at the women’s movement in the 1960’s and learning a great deal about the pioneers for equality at home and work. I was a child in the ‘60’s and I don’t remember a lot about it. My father and mother, typical of their generation, were staid ‘he works; she keeps house’ folks. They both laughed at the news accounts of women bringing the issues of equal employment and equal opportunity to the forefront of peoples’ attention.

I had to wonder about these bra-burners: what were their issues? Why wouldn’t they love a chance to be happy as a housewife and mother? I took a look at my own mother.

She exuded happiness to the outside, but at home she didn’t have a lot else going on. She cleaned the house. A lot. She was so anal about having dinner on the table exactly at five o’clock when my father returned home from work. She waited on him hand and foot.

Many a dinner had been cooked long and hard over an afternoon, for we had no microwaves back then. We had just sat down to eat and my father noticed there was no salt or pepper on the table. As soon as her butt hit her chair, she was back up, scurrying to the kitchen for the forgotten condiments. I remember getting so mad at my dad, why didn’t he just get up and get it himself, without all the fanfare?

Most of the women’s liberation movement and push for equal rights was back page news during my college years. It didn’t die, the points were made and legislative changes were in the works. The media moved on to other news.

I’ve related before how I got into engineering. After seeing Makers for the first time a few weeks ago, I really ‘get it’ now. My career would have been made next to impossible had it not been for the likes of these women who stood up to tradition, realized and accepted their unhappiness as the June Cleaver of their neighborhood and took action. (You young readers may have to Google ‘June Cleaver’; the rest of you know what I’m talking about)

I’m indebted to these courageous women who no doubt faced scorn from their families and friends. Their labor of love opened doors to me in engineering and created opportunities that they may have been unable to experience. 

Doing a search for a previous article about the slide rule I found this image:

 Image

Yes, it’s for the company I’ve spent over seventeen years with. Times have changed and the company is hiring and promoting more women than ever. But there is still a long ways to go. Believe it or not, there are still men who think a woman’s place is in the home. And that’s good for the women who are in that situation and love it.

Like most things, it’s not for everyone. Our dreams are different and each of our dreams deserves a chance to come to fruition. Here’s to making your dreams come true.

Catch the Makers series on your local PBS station or visit their website, Makers.com. It has the whole series available for view for free.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Act of Defiance

Ever see that cartoon of the mouse standing tall with its middle finger stuck out from his hand (I said it was a cartoon) while a large vulture-like bird swoops in, talons bared and the caption reads: The Last Act of Defiance? Co-workers shared that cartoon with me a long time ago. Even as a young engineer I got its meaning.

When things overwhelm and it appears you are about to get run over, the last thing you can do is stand your ground, believe in yourself. Right before…

But wait; don’t we have a duty to sound the alarm when things look to be going wrong? Isn’t that part of what we are paid to do?

Engineering catastrophes happen everyday. Some are caused by engineers who convince their management that they are the expert and know what they are doing; they have investigated their options and for sure, this will work, no way it won’t work. I’ve experienced a lot of these situations. Just last week, as a matter of fact.

Some are caused by management choosing to listen to the beat of their own drum and the rewards spearheading a cause will bring to them. These people use the word ‘I’ a lot. They order their engineers to charge down a blind alley, never suspecting the price they may have to pay. I’ve also recently experienced this.

The Tacoma Narrow Bridge in Washington state was originally designed by a Washington engineer. His design was rejected by the Federal government who funded the project. They required a consultant from New York to modify the original designs and voila, Galloping Gertie was born. Accusations that there were politics involved in rejecting the original design, which some engineers say would still be in place today, in favor of hiring the New York consultant began after the bridge’s failure. That would be a last act of defiance. (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/TNBhistory/Machine/machine3.htm#1 )

How much more did it cost to remove the old bridge and replace with a stable one? A lot.

On a smaller scale, I’ve seen managers, too many in fact, who choose to ignore their senior staff’s advice in favor of what they deem to be the ‘truth’. On one project, this decision has cost millions of dollars and four years later is still dragging on, after five engineers with a combined experience of close to one hundred years advised otherwise.

On another project, a manager forced an interface design that was recommended by his senior engineers to not pursue. The customer hated this design and the software was modified to take out the ‘feature’. Cost was somewhere around a thousand dollars and design time to remove the code. It was a small cost, but still a cost.

And I’ve recently witnessed an engineer who single-handedly forced his ‘bright idea’ into the software (a repeat performance, I might add). Hundreds of man-hours have been spent trying to get this idea to work. Implementation is easy; it’s the rework that’s expensive.

These are just three examples from my little spot in the world. I’m sure that’s not unique. Why don’t we work smarter and lean on the people who have experience? Consensus can be a great thing and everyone brings his or her own background into the mix. Listen and take defiance out of the equation.

Celebratory Starbucks and high-fives make for a much better environment anyway.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Encouragement from Row L

I attended a performance of a local theater production featuring local kids ages 13 to 17 who had attended a summer camp that culminated in this weekend’s musical. At the end of Saturday night’s show, the camp director, who doubles as a local schoolteacher, presented their senior graduates; these are the students who graduated high school last May and are preparing to enter college in a few weeks.

There were five seniors recognized. The first two were planning to pursue degrees in the performing arts, and thunderous applause ensued after the director’s congratulations. The third student, a female, chose to enter the University of Oklahoma majoring in engineering. I missed the comment the director/teacher made about her choice of career, but the tone didn’t have the encouragement the other students received. The not-so-thunderous applause came from my seat and a few others. The last two students also received loud applause from the audience as they were also planning on careers in theater.

What are we missing here? The director and the audience reward a student who participates in music theater for several summers and then decides to study it further in higher education, but a student who decides a STEM field is more attractive to her is not?

Is it a symptom of the Midwest attitude that women should follow more traditional career choices, including the chosen path of the director (Unfortunately some 30 plus years after earning my degree, I’m disappointed this mind-set still exists.)? I listened to a sociology professor from OU recently as she talked about the state of women in Oklahoma. She said even at OU that women were often advised to pursue careers in sociology, nursing and education. Her own peers steered women away from STEM fields. Low paying fields as employees of the state await these aspiring, talented women.

I’m not discounting the women who chose those fields or who will choose those fields in the future. Educating women, starting very young, to learn of all of their available career choices is important.

Some disconcerting statistics from the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women 2010 report (http://women.library.okstate.edu/countyreport/docs/fullreport.pdf):

  • 25% of women over the age of 15 are divorced or widowed
  • The median annual income for full-time working-women in Oklahoma in 2008 was $35,600
  • Oklahoma is ranked 45th in the nation for the proportion of women in the labor force employed in professional and managerial occupations. Women are significantly more represented in educational professions, nearly tripling the amount of men in these fields, and in healthcare practitioner occupations.
  • An Amnesty International report listed Oklahoma as one of the worst places for female healthcare, with one in four being uninsured.
  • One out of every seven women in Oklahoma lives below the poverty line, ranking Oklahoma 41 out of 50 states for women ages 18 and older living in poverty.

Oklahoma is also number one in the incarceration of women. (http://www.doc.state.ok.us/offenders/ocjrc/94/940650c.htm) In this report it states: A brochure prepared by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for a conference on women in prison in 1991 remarked that “Fifty-one percent failed to complete their education because they were bored or tired, and 34 percent failed to graduate because of pregnancy.”

What is the key to helping the state of women in Oklahoma? Increasing a girl’s self-worth by opening her young eyes to possibilities in careers of all sorts. Working with her parent or guardian to break a cycle of low self-esteem or substance abuse or state aid as a salary. I remember feeling embarrassed by the results of an eighth grade career interest test. My results were overwhelming for an operations research analyst. It had ‘male’ written all over it, although I hadn’t a clue what the job really entailed.

Industry partnerships with education are excellent ways to keep the boredom at bay as well. I’ve volunteered at robotics and math competitions for the company I work for. My complaint about these activities is that the kids have no idea that I’m an engineer. I’m sure the kids at the math competition thought I was a parent chaperoning the testing. More interaction is needed to inform the students, boys and girls alike, that pursuing a non-traditional career can be the right thing for them.

I’m wishing a lot of success for all of the theater kids, with an extra special helping for the lone engineering major. Standing in the middle of that theater proclaiming a non-traditional field of study shows me she’s already got the right stuff to succeed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments