I love this job. I love the work. I love the people. I love where I live. I am super happy. That does not mean that every day is rosy. (Though most days are pretty awesome.) I still have a bad day every now and then, and I still have my struggles. One of the most frequent causes of a bad day for me boils down to machismo culture. What do I mean by that? Well it expresses itself in various ways, (and actually is not as bad here as in some places), but here is a recent example:
I have been working with my counterpart at the municipality for almost a year now. By now he knows that I am a professional engineer, have worked in government and program management, and have worked on rural water projects for 10 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders. I also am about 10 years older than him.
We have overcome some tough times in our relationship (in the beginning he treated me like an intern that didn’t know much), and we have finally arrived at a point in our relationship where he respects my input and knowledge and recognizes that I am pretty smart and able in my work.
Or so I thought.
Then, one day a volunteer from another site comes to visit, and I introduce him to my counterpart. Five minutes after meeting this other volunteer – a tall, bearded, white man – my counterpart asks him to help train water system operators. This is something my counterpart has never asked me to help with. This is something that is absolutely in my position description and something I have experience in and am very capable of. But I am a woman. And clearly a tall, bearded man would do a better job than I would.
Now I did not jump to the conclusion that this was the result of sexism. When my counterpart did things like this in the past, I figured it could be a variety of possible reasons:
- When I first came, my language level was pretty low, so he probably thought I wasn’t very smart or capable because I sounded like a child when I spoke and couldn’t express myself well.
- He didn’t know me, I hadn’t had the chance to do good work to prove myself, and he didn’t know my work experience.
- Machismo culture. In his subconscious (and maybe even consciously), to him men are more capable of knowing how water systems work. Especially, tall, bearded, white men.
Well, in this situation with tall, bearded white man, Option 1 and Option 2 had been eliminated because (1) tall, bearded white man (who is my friend and a great guy, by the way) has a similar language level as me, and (2) I had presented my work to my counterpart and all of my colleagues in November, and I had made sure to highlight all my past work experience, and I also had the opportunity to present the work I had completed in my first 4 months here, which clearly demonstrated my capability (and my counterpart’s attitude did change towards me after that presentation).
So, this situation clearly tells me that Option 3, machismo culture, is at work here. Given various other comments I’ve heard by him and others (women can study environmental engineering but they can’t practice environmental engineering because the field work is too tough), along with attitudes and behaviors I’ve observed here, (for example there are no female water system operators (though I will note that there are female construction workers)), I don’t have much doubt that this was a classic case of machismo culture.
Why is it such a struggle? I am used to working in an environment where I am respected for what I can and what I contribute do because I do it well, and people recognize that and treat me accordingly. I am not used to having to really over-sell myself just to be heard, I am not used to having to really force it in people’s faces that I have experience and knowledge and capability for them to realize it. It really sucks away at my energy to have to do this.
In various instances, men interrupt me and don’t let me finish what I’m saying because they are sure their perspective is more important than mine. In various instances, they ignore my advice as if I wasn’t an expert in areas where I have more expertise and experience than them. It is a strong contrast to my previous job where we mostly worked as equals, and when I had more experience and expertise, people heeded my advice, (just as I heeded the advice of others when they had more insights than I did in a subject.)
I’m not going to lie – it is frustrating. It is draining. At times it is infuriating.
It means I have to work harder, it means the whole team has to work harder – because I have to work harder to explain myself and to have patience. And when the team doesn’t listen to good advice, they make stupid mistakes and have to go back and correct them later, or sometimes they are mistakes that cost relationships that have to be rebuilt, and sometimes they are mistakes that can take years to recover from. So this sexism doesn’t only hurt me, it hurts them, it hurts the team, it hurts the work, the whole development of the society.
There is a lot of talk about privilege going around these days. These are really great conversations that are important to have. This is my story about recognizing privilege – a privilege that I had in my previous job, that I do not have here…a privilege that was taken away when sexism exists. It is subtle. It can easily go unnoticed, or rather, unrecognized for what it is. I was lucky to work on a team where sexism didn’t exist (thank you colleagues!), but I know that there are still work environments in the US and all over the world where it does exist – and in much worse forms that I am experiencing here. I hope that when you do have the privilege to be treated with respect for the experience and knowledge that you have, that you will recognize this privilege and make sure that those around you are also given that privilege, despite their gender, race, origin, physical beauty, language ability, sense of fashion, physical ability, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
If you need an idea of how to do it, lucky for me, tall, bearded man is my friend and an ally who knows how to handle these types of situations. Being an engineer who enjoys that type of work he could have said, “Yeah I’d love to!”, but instead he responded to my counterpart’s question saying that I was here to do just those types of trainings, and that I was capable to do them well.