Troy Eller English: Welcome to SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives, Episode 4 – Nevertheless She Persevered (Part 2). I’m Troy Eller English, Society of Women Engineers archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in beautiful midtown Detroit.
Anne Perusek: And I’m Anne Perusek, SWE’s Director of Editorial and Publications.
Eller English: In the last episode, we heard SWE members’ stories about some brazen and shameless bosses, colleagues, and members of the general public who nearly scuttled those members’ careers simply because they were women. But while I was digging into the archives, doing research for that episode, I also found many stories about more subtle discrimination that members have faced. And actually, while digging into the archives for that last episode I found so many stories of discrimination and harassment that I got into a bit of funk, even though they weren’t my stories and were the lived experiences of others. But, I did find some hope and redemption, though, in hearing the stories of women who had faced and conquered blatant harassment.
Perusek: Yes, it can be a bit overwhelming. But, as you say, there is hope and redemption, and also inspiration in the stories of these personal victories. And beyond the personal victories there’s also the perseverance and the lesson that through concerted efforts institutional changes have been and continue to be made. I think it’s very important to take hope from all of those things.
And certainly not all experiences are as glaring as others, and certainly the experiences we’re discussing today are not as obvious as the ones in our previous podcast, because gender bias and harassment can often be subtle, amorphous, harder to identify and address.These are things like being paid a little less than male colleagues when you have similar credentials and experience. Or being mistaken for the secretary. Being left out of business trips because the boss thinks you might want to stay home with family, without bothering to ask first. Or being interrupted or talked over in meetings, or having colleagues be praised in those meetings for repeating something that you just said. And even business meetings or networking happening at places where you might not feel comfortable, like sketchy bars, on the golf course when you don’t play, or even at strip clubs, which yes, still happens today.
During a 2008 SWE StoryCorps interview, Rene Weisman and Marge Inden shared stories from their first days at a Fortune 100 company, where there was subtle coding and messaging that they weren’t particularly wanted, and where initially their abilities and their expertise were simply ignored.
[Audio excerpt from oral history interview]
Rene Weisman: When I started, I was actually the first woman. There were probably 400-plus men, and me. And I remember within the first month working in my little cubicle, and someone came over and dropped a piece of paper on my desk, hand-written. And I looked at it, and I said, “What is this?” And he said, “Could you type it for me?” And that was a typical behavioral pattern back in 1969, when I started in engineering. It’s certainly changed over time, but I’ve lived a lot of interesting experiences.
When you walk into a roomful of men who are busily using four letter words in a smoke-filled room, and a woman arrives and suddenly it just gets quieter and quieter and quieter as they realize you’re there, you realize that women did bring a major change to industry. And the fact that we could get together and help each other was a key part of our success. […]
Marge Inden: When I started, I was not given any work to do. I was not given an assignment. I was put at a desk with a phone on it, and told, “Here’s your desk. Call me if you need anything,” and my boss disappeared around the corner. He told me where his office was. He didn’t tell me where my coworkers sat. He didn’t introduce me to anyone. He didn’t tell me how to get anywhere in the building. So I just made my own way and forged my own path.
And when I met some of the engineers in the department, it was pretty clear that he hired me because somebody decided in a Fortune 100 company, we needed more women. So they went out and hired a few women. They didn’t have particular assignments in mind for us. They sat us at desks. And I sat at the desk and thought, “Well, this is going to be really boring if I don’t get something to do.” So I went across the hall, and asked one of the engineers for an assignment. And he gave me a purchase requisition that needed six signatures, and asked me to run around the building to get the signatures. [06:00] Which was probably one step from typing, but not a very big step from typing. (laughs) And I looked at him and said, “I don’t understand. Is this something engineers usually do?” And I got that very uncomfortable, shifting from side to side look again. And basically I put it back down on his desk. […]
Weisman: I have to answer to Marge: at least you had a desk. The day I arrived, they didn’t have a desk. Apparently, they hadn’t set anything up yet for me, so I had to use the desk of people who were on vacation, and a different desk each time. But there were no keys, of course, because those people were on vacation. And when I said, “Well, what am I supposed to do with my purse?” my manager looked at me and said, “You have a purse?” You know, it was a little bit unusual. And so by day two I realized I’d better not bring my pocketbook in. I’d better have things with pockets, and learn to behave a little bit differently while I’m in the work place. So I just thought that was an interesting you were a step ahead, because you were hired a little bit later. You actually had a desk.
The other thing that I think turned things around immediately for me, because I remember leaving my first day, saying to my husband, “If I have another day like that, I’m leaving, and going to teaching.” It was horrible, my first day. My second day, they had a major line bust, and the line went under engineering control. And my manager came and asked me if I would work from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night because they were putting the line under engineering control and they needed 12-hour shifts. I said to him, “What am I going to do? I know nothing. I’ve only been here one day.” He said, “Well, we need the bodies.” Okay. So I went out there. And because there was so much trouble everything was being taken apart and put back together. All the engineers were out on the line. In that week I learned more than I would have learned in a month if things were going well.
So the message that I learned out of that is, Don’t be afraid of a crisis. Welcome it, because it’s a great opportunity to learn at a rate and pace that is much more accelerated than it ever could have been. And by the end of that week I was answering the questions when people asked. [09:00] And within two weeks we had formed a task force, and they put me as the leader of one of the areas. So I could never have moved that quickly if we hadn’t had a crisis. And I probably wouldn’t even have stayed with the company if we hadn’t had a crisis.
[End of interview excerpt]
Perusek: Well, for one, these stories really illustrate how unprepared this company was to make such a significant change as bringing women engineers into a formerly all-male workplace. We don’t know if there had been any training or directives for the managers, but if there had been it was ignored, and apparently with no consequence for the managers. There is no indication that human resources had discussed or even considered how to bring women in, or whether there would be resistance or discomfort on the part of the male engineers, and if so, how to handle it. Certainly, a male engineer on his first day would have been introduced to his colleagues, provided with some type of orientation, and all the tools needed to be successful. Today, we understand that when a company says it is committed to diversity it must be more than simply saying, we need more women or we need more engineers of color.
But what I really like about these stories, regarding Rene and Marge, is that they both demonstrated a great deal of personal resilience and determination. And because engineers are results-oriented, as Rene and Marge proved their capabilities, they gained more acceptance and even respect from their male colleagues and managers.
Eller English: Yeah, many members have noted that gender discrimination or harassment was so subtle that they didn’t realize it was happening or couldn’t quite put a name to it until after the fact. It doesn’t just affect women engineers’ ability find and keep jobs, though. It also affects whether and how they thrive in the workplace: their pay, their career opportunities, their general sense of well-being, and their ability to fit in and to meaningfully contribute to their team.
Betty Shanahan, a SWE Fellow Life Member and the former executive director and CEO of the Society, accumulated many stories along these lines while she was working in the burgeoning tech industry in the late 1970s and 1980s. She and her husband Bob Nuber both graduated in 1978 and they applied to a number of companies together, including Data General. Initially, only Betty received an interview there, but Data General eventually relented and offered an interview to her husband Bob in an effort to entice Betty to work there. She told me what happened next during a 2014 SWE oral history interview.
[Audio excerpt from oral history interview]
Betty Shanahan: Now, I think the interesting part of that story is, Bob and I both got offers from the same company multiple places. And every place that we got offers, I was usually a couple thousand more than he was, because I was electrical engineering/computer science, so it was just how the salaries went. Except at Data General, where his offer was a couple thousand more than mine. And I don’t think—I was so naïve, I didn’t think anything of it. And I’m like, Oh, they’re just different. And it was literally—so, at Data General, they hired a whole bunch of graduates that year. They were starting up a big project, the project that was [described in the book] Soul of a New Machine. So they’re starting up that big project, they’re getting everything going. So we all start together. And then the next year, when the first reviews are coming around, I’m seeing—I was one of the first people to start. We didn’t have any money, so we didn’t do the two months off. We just graduated and got going. And I’m not getting my review. And this guy is getting his, and this guy is—and it’s like, “Where’s my review?” And my boss is like, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” Well, it turns out my first review had a 25 percent inequity increase in it, as well as a promotion, as well as a merit increase. And I had been started at a lower rank and salary than all my peers. And I had heard through the grapevine afterwards it was the compromise that was made with the director to hire a woman, was to lowball me. And if I took it, they could get it. And I was naïve enough to take it. And by the time I realized what had happened, they had fixed it. And my first review was signed by the CEO of Data General, because it was such a huge increase. So it’s kind of funny because in the end Bob got a second look because of me, but he still got the higher salary.
Eller English:Right. Right. What did you think at that time? Did you understand at that time what—?
Shanahan: Yeah. I would say—it was at Data General, I felt more of the being a woman engineer, being out of place. […] I was hired to work at array processing, but basically all of us got pulled into this Eagle Project, just because it was such a critical time to market. And so we’re all working there. One of the existing products had a problem. I was told—and this technician’s name was Bob—we’re told to go work on it. Bob refused to work with me, and I remember him saying, “She’ll cut my vocabulary in half.” And they pretty much told him, “We don’t care. Go work with her.” And I remember my boss coming back to me several months later when another situation came up, and this guy Bob was put with one of the men engineers. And he said, “No, I don’t want him, I want Betty.” And so my boss comes back, and he goes, “Well, you’ve made a fan. Bob’s asking for you.” […]
Actually, one of the guys I was very good friends with at one point said to me I shouldn’t travel on business, because it might be tough on the marriages of the guys I’d be with. And I’m like, “Well, if it’s tough on their marriages, they can stay home.” […]
You know, so it was really a mix of reactions. It was pin-up calendars around the labs and crude jokes. Just a lot of stuff that you just ignored to fit in. It’s funny, looking at it in the context of today, because they wouldn’t do that to me today. They’d be very sorry. But behavior that’s just unimaginable today was just every day in those days. And you kind of—I think now when I know about things like isolation and that, that’s the kind of stuff that when I realized, Oh, I don’t belong here. I don’t decorate with pictures of naked women, you know. And I don’t talk that way. I don’t. And so you just put up with a lot. You ignore a lot to fit in.
[End of interview excerpt]
Eller English: Yeah, Betty’s experience at Data General offers numerous examples of those subtle and not-so-subtle instances of gender discrimination and how they can slow down your career, snowball over time, and just wear you down.
Perusek: Absolutely. After hearing messages like this repeatedly, it can be so easy to internalize them and actually let them define you. And interestingly, in some cases these messages are intentional, while others really are not – they fall into the category that we talk a lot about now of unconscious bias. But when Betty launched her career that term didn’t even exist. So think about not having a framework or the language to describe your experience , and how that makes it so much harder to understand it, and to identify something as an example of bias rather than “this strange thing that happened to me.”
So, Felice Schwartz, who was the founder of Catalyst, which is an organization seeking effect change for women in business – she made a discover that women were so used to the negative messaging, discrimination, and harassment that they were adjusting their own behavior and identities pre-emptively. Back in the March/April 1994 issue of SWE Magazine, we ran an abridged version of a chapter from her book, which was titled Breaking With Tradition: Women and Work, the New Facts of Life. The chapter was titled, “The Riddle of the Ring,” and discusses a problem she encountered while visiting the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1990.
Eller English: Yeah, so in her article Schwartz wrote:
[Excerpt from “Riddle of the Ring” article]
I had another experience while I was at Wharton, one that struck me first as anachronistic, then as profoundly disturbing. It happened when I was talking with a group of Wharton women. Suddenly one blurted out that it was common practice for married women in the MBA program to remove their wedding bands before going to job interviews.
To this day that image haunts me: a young woman about to leave her apartment to face that formidable rite of spring common to all top-flight business schools, the corporate recruiting interview. The woman I visualize is a natural. Extraordinarily talented, top-tenth percentile in her class, a comer. She picks up her portfolio and her suit jacket, checks her look in the mirror, turns to kiss her husband goodbye. At the door she hesitates a moment. Thoughtfully she looks down at her wedding band. Then she slips it off and shuts it away in a dresser drawer.[…]
My feelings must have showed, because the women who told me about the rings started interrupting one another to give their rationale. ‘You don’t want to jeopardize your getting the job, so you’re not going to wear it,’ was the dry explanation of a student in her late 20s. Why would being married endanger your hiring prospects? It was patently obvious to these women: Recruiters will not offer the plum job to those women they believe will have commitments to their families. Understandably enough, these women didn’t want discrimination to play in their evaluation. […]
The irony is that they’re playing into the intolerance through their actions. In the best of worlds the interview is a two-way process, one in which the candidate is also evaluating her prospective employer. If a student doesn’t feel able to bring up the subject of the company’s response to its employees who want to combine career and family, or its interest in advancing women, she misses an opportunity to learn something essential about her future employer. […]
We’re trapped by a phenomenon I came to think of as a conspiracy of silence about issues related to women and the corporate workplace.
And it’s not just students and recruiters who are trapped. Through all my conversations, I came to feel that if I could distill the problems of women and business in general to just one salient image, it might be that promising young women – she who is truly the elite, who has had every good fortune—marching off to her job interview with nothing but empty space around her ring finger. To me, the image has come to invoke a chain reaction of conflicts and uneasy compromises that still make women’s role in the paid workplace so volatile.
It begins with an environment that refuses to bend to accommodate the presence of women. This results in the absence of any kind of message from employers that women are valued. That leads to a lack of trust, where women view any potential employer as an adversary. Soon we are deep into a mechanism of denial, a pattern of omissions, outright lies, and casual deceits. If I just pretend I am not married, not a potential mother, not a woman, maybe the problems will go away.
But they won’t.
[End of “Riddle of the Ring” excerpt]
Perusek: Wow. I really like the way Felice Schwartz described the women’s behavior as, “playing into the intolerance through their actions,” and also as a, “conspiracy of silence,” because as long as we go along with the intolerance or the injustice, and as long as we refuse to speak out, nothing will change. When we ran this article, I commissioned two illustrations, which we will post on All Togetheralong with the transcript of this podcast and a copy of the original article. One showed a woman at a job interview holding a mask in front of her face, hiding her true self. While the mask is facing the interviewer directly, she is turning away and looking at her removed wedding ring. I think it’s because of experiences like this over and over again that today women put so much value on being their authentic selves in the workplace.
And interestingly, our second illustration showed several women running up a hill in business attire, with briefcases in hand. But one woman lagged behind them. And the one who lagged behind them has a giant ring tied to her waist, slowing her down as if it were a boulder. And I think that’s so indicative of the perception of the time, that wearing your ring would create this big obstacle to your career path.
Eller English: Yeah, those images are indelibly imprented on my mind, and when I was thinking of what content we might include in this podcast I thought of those images, which led me to this article. I think they summarize the feeling of the article fantastically.
So, during that 2008 SWE StoryCorps interview, Marge Inden summarized the challenge that women engineers and SWE face when dealing with this kind of subtle bias. Bias that is so subtle that you might even alter your own behavior before recognizing that the problem is not your own problem.
[Beginning of audio oral history excerpt]
Inden: You know, I think our challenges going forward are in some ways easier and in some ways really a lot harder, as a Society of Women Engineers. Because it becomes a little more difficult to justify as the percentage of women in engineering grows, Well, why exactly do you need that? But frankly, the discrimination’s still out there; it’s just more subtle. And the more subtle it is, the more difficult it is to identify, and the more difficult it is to explain, and the more difficult it is to support those who are enduring it.
And I watch the young women at this meeting, the ones who are going into the career fair here at our conference looking for positions. And I think, Something’s going to happen to you, because it will. It may be really horrible, and it may be kind of minor. But something’s going to happen to you some point in your career, almost a guarantee, where you’re going to need to talk to people who know what you’re going through. And it’s not going to be your male colleagues. They’re not going to understand. You’re going to need people who understand. And that’s what SWE is there for.
I see young women coming along now, and thank God for this, who have lots of female colleagues at the university level. And they don’t understand what it’s going to be like for them. And they will stand there and say, Well, that’s all old stuff that doesn’t happen anymore. Well, you know what? I don’t think too many young women entering the work force now are asked to type things for their boss. Maybe they are, but I doubt it. Who even has a typewriter anymore? […] Who even writes longhand? (laughs)
Yesterday morning, over breakfast, a colleague of about my age told me that when she started her first job, the boss walked in, popped his head in her door and said, “Coffee?” and she said, “No, thanks.” And after he left she realized he wanted her to get him coffee. But she was so flabbergasted by the request she didn’t even understand it. I don’t think those things are happening anymore. But the more subtle things that are happening require an even stronger support network, and that’s what I hope SWE will be.
[End of audio oral history excerpt]
Eller English: If you feel like you’re experiencing gender bias in the workplace, definitely reach out to your friends in SWE. They can help you identify the problem and come up with solutions, because they’re engineers and because they’ve been there, too.
And SWE offers some great resources for those times when you feel like something’s just not quite right. SWE’s Advanced Learning Center offers modules on dealing with gender bias and transforming your workplace. And you can find more ideas about improving the environment in SWE’s Diversity and Inclusion Playbook, and in SWE’s card decks on Diversity and Inclusion Knowledge, and Inclusion Solutions. You’ll find relevant programming at the WE18 Annual Conference, at the WE Local conferences, and at events sponsored by SWE sections around the United States and throughout the world. And Anne often publishes articles on workplace bias and discrimination in the SWE Magazine, which is available on the SWE Magazine app through Google Play, the App Store, and as a printed copy available through Amazon, and on SWE’s website.
Perusek: Yes, and I’d also like to clarify that out of the five issues we publish a year, the Fall issue, the Conference issue, and the Winter issue are all available in a traditional print format as well as on these other platforms.
So, if some of the stories we shared today sounded a little too familiar, we hope that you’ll reach out to your SWE network and use some of these resources to address the problems and ultimately thrive in your workplace. The transcript to this episode will be posted on alltogether.swe.org, and there you’ll find links to the archival content as well as the resources we mentioned.
The interview with Rene Weisman and Marge Inden was produced by Troy with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, an independently funded nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share stories of humanity in order to build connections between people and to create a more just and compassionate world. Listen to hundreds of stories at storycorps.org.
On behalf of myself, Troy, and everyone else at SWE, thanks for listening.
Listen to Part 1 of Nevertheless She Persevered and our other Tales from the Archives episodes on SoundCloud.
Transcripts from the first three episodes are on All Together.
Advance Learning Center – Inclusion and Cultural Awareness: https://advancelearning.swe.org/Pages/Catalog/titlecatalog.aspx?subject=41
Diversity and Inclusion Resources: http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/learning
Research and Trends for Women in STEM: https://research.swe.org/
—From SWE Magazine—
A Compendium of the SWE Annual Literature Reviews on Women in Engineering: 16 Years of Analysis and Insight from SWE Magazine, 2001-2017: http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/images/swemagazine/SWE-Lit-Review-Compilation-2017.pdf
State of Women Engineering 2018: https://viewer.aemmobile.adobe.com/index.html#project/630f08d4-cacf-4cf0-bfb7-c77938722044/view/swe_main/view/swe-stateofwomen-2018
Schwartz, Felice N. (1994, March/April). “The Riddle of the Ring.” SWE Magazine, p. 28-32. LINK TO RiddleOfTheRing.pdf
Shanahan, Betty, interviewed by Troy Eller English. Society of Women Engineers Grassroots Oral History Project, Walter P. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, [February 20, 2014 and October 24, 2014]. http://ethw.org/Oral-History:Betty_Shanahan
Weisman, Rene, Marge Inden, and Bernice Brody. SWE StoryCorps Interviews, Walter P. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, [November 7, 2008].