One of my female coworkers stopped me this morning, looking flustered. She said, “Why is it that when a man makes a decision, he’s being firm, but when a woman makes one, she’s being a bitch, or passionate, or emotional?”
After this encounter, I returned to the meeting I had stepped out of and realized that I was in the company of seven white men. Instead of Lauren White (yes, that’s my last name – laugh it up at the irony), I was, briefly, Snow White. Just without all the damn whistling. I started to wonder what they thought of me, if they noticed I was the only black woman in the room, if they would mistake my quiet for incompetence. Then, I thought… I don’t actually care. I do not know any of these men. I do not know their thoughts and beyond the workplace, I do not care to. I hold no ill will towards these men, but I realized that some measure of conditioning had happened in my mind, without my realizing it. My subconscious was becoming sexist and assuming.
Now, likely your initial reaction is to assume that I’m going into the age-old discussion about equality and sexism in the workplace. Why hard-working women are relegated to the bitch category. That’s been done, though, and I for one, am tired of the conversation.
I worked as a research assistant in my final year of my Undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. I was contemplating how to speak my mind, without being a bitch. If you’ve been following along, it is not hard to figure out that I can be a little blunt, abrasive, and honest. Just a little.
Ten years later, I haven’t forgotten my professor’s potent advice, “No, be a bitch. Be. A. Bitch.”
It is only now, at 32, that I recognize I unknowingly took that advice to heart. I am a total bitch. I admit it and I love it.
One of the first seminars all first-year engineering majors took at my school (back when I started in 2004) was on ethics. The ultimate theme: “When engineers make mistakes, people die.” I dare say most of us were vastly terrified and considered if this was a pursuit worth continuing. I persevered, though (barely), graduate, and since then, have received my Master’s in Systems Engineering. All of this education and exposure in the workplace has thought me that the most important quality I can have as an engineer, as anyone in any capacity, is INTEGRITY.
Oft quoted is the statement, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I loathe and despise that sentiment. Who’s to say I am or am not well behaved? Who or what defines what constitutes good behavior and in what context is each individual action appropriate? Who cares?
I received “constructive criticism” early on in my career regarding offensive speech. The problem is that I did not know what I had said or who I offended. I found out my mentor had been approached my supervisor to assist in quelling my mouth. He opted not to. He told me that he would rather I be myself and tone it down just a bit, then revert to the opposite end of the spectrum and be a yes-person, as company folk often are. I thank him to this day for allowing me to be who I am in his presence and reminding me that I am just fine how I am.
I choose not to think of myself as misbehaving, but as being passionate and zealous in my work. I am not a bitch because I am a black female in a white-male dominated field and I feel the need to compete to succeed. I am not a bitch because I can hold my own with the most foul-mouthed Sailors and Marines, but be professional (enough) when required. I am not a bitch because I speak up and speak my mind, especially when I believe actions will negatively affect the end user. I am a bitch because, sometimes, you just have to be. I am here to do a job and if I don’t do it well, my end user suffers. People can die. Of what benefit is it to anyone if I act shy, demure, or lamb-like because I fear being labeled a bitch? None. Who do I save my sugar-coating my speech? No one.
In this particular context regarding words, tones, and actions in the workplace, if someone believes you are being a bitch, embrace it. It probably means what you are saying is getting the attention it deserves. Not only that, you’ve probably threatened the person petulantly hurling profane names at you, men and women alike.
Some people tell me I am harsh, tactless, or have a big personality that intimidates others. Some people tell me I am refreshing in my honesty and clarity of thought and I have a big personality that attracts others. Perspective is everything. Whatever the case, I tell people this: I will not say anything I do not have to. When I do say something, it is assuredly with purpose. But, if you want to try me, I keep my bitch hammer in my back pocket.