The following article was written by our guest blogger, V. Freeman from Seattle, WA.
In August my entire world turned upside down when I moved from Honolulu, Hawaii to Seattle, Washington. I had just graduated with my master’s degree and was eager to start a new job in a new city. I moved out to Seattle with a few suitcases on Friday and started my new job at a tech startup on Monday. I was excited and naive and caught up in the fun of my new adventure, yet I was not totally prepared for how the next few months would go.
When I arrived on my first day I was greeted warmly by my new boss and quickly met my other three team members, together this team of five consisted of four men and myself. I was surprised to find that I was the only woman on the team, but having worked with a wide array of different team members in the past I figured there wouldn’t be any problems. For lunch my first day, the entire team took me out to a restaurant to get to know me better. On the way there I joked that I was meant to “balance out the team” since it was all men. My boss didn’t laugh at all. As I grew into my role in the first month I found myself shrinking away from my pink sweaters and feminine sundresses. I wanted to really be a member of the team, in retrospect, I really just wanted to be one of the guys.
I seemed as if I had joined a boys-only club, I was unsure how to act, how to dress, and how to be assertive in work situations. The first month was spent joking, laughing, dressing like, and making fun of the guys I worked with; we got beers after work, talked about sports, and made jokes about each other’s weaknesses. I really thought I was doing just fine, but as things at work started to pick up and I was given more responsibility I found myself faltering a bit. During one particular meeting I was asked to give feedback to a coworker. I found myself feeling like a little girl in front of a room full of men. I averted my eyes, mumbled that his work was fine, and was passed over for the rest of the meeting. I knew that I should speak up, but I felt pressure to be exceptionally smart and especially brilliant when I spoke, so instead I decided to say nothing. It felt like graduate school all over again, where I was the new student, eager to learn, but too intimidated by my peers to speak up.
In a large conference room on the 40th floor, with a clear view of the space needle, and well paid executives, I felt minute.
This incident led to several more meetings with my head down. Normally a lover of dresses and skirts, I started gravitating towards jeans and high neck sweaters. I seemed to believe that if I dressed like a man, then I would be perceived that way. I had faced similar situations when I was in college and in former work environments, but I had always stood up for myself and spoken my mind. In the corporate model; however, in a large conference room on the 40th floor, with a clear view of the space needle, and well paid executives, I felt minute. Many days I came to work and felt as though I was with my three brothers, just joking, laughing, and playing around. Other days I felt like I was on the spot, such as when a team member greeted everyone “Hey guys...and girl.”
“Do not apologize, only apologize when you have actually done something wrong.”
A little after a month I was asked to work on a special project with a woman from a different team. She knew my team members well and talked openly with me about subjects ranging from our significant others to Seattle weather to how to defrizz winter hair. She was so kind, powerful, direct, and nurturing and I felt happy and light in her presence. Near the end of the meeting I was typing slowly and apologized profusely for taking so long. She looked me in the eyes and said “Do not apologize, only apologize when you have actually done something wrong.” I nodded. As I stood to leave I asked her if she would mind presenting the ideas we discussed to my team, she smiled and told me that she could not be there, but that she had full faith in me to present the ideas myself. I left that meeting feeling strange, it was as if I had not realized how low my head had been hanging at work.
I started feeling a bit more like myself the following week, but was still terrified when my boss asked me to meet with him for an evaluation meeting. Up until that point I found my boss to be powerful and intense. Not only is he over a foot taller than me, but my fellow team members, who knew him much better than I did, revered him. Sitting in my evaluation meeting was the first time I was truly one-on-one with him since my first day. My nerves quickly dissipated; however, when he began speaking to me. He asked me questions that I had never expected from a boss. He asked me if I found him approachable at work. If I thought our team worked well together. If I felt my ideas were being heard.
At first I was reluctant to be truthful, but over the course of an hour I began sharing my thoughts: things I thought were wonderful, things I thought could be better, things I loved about my job, and people who I found intimidating at work. By the end of the meeting we were laughing and smiling and I felt as thought I was starting a wonderful working relationship with him. As we stood up to leave he stopped me and said “I just want you to know that if you ever, for any reason, feel uncomfortable by anything at this job please tell me, and if you do not feel comfortable telling me, tell my boss.” That moment meant the world to me, knowing that I had someone in my corner at all times completely changed my work environment.
During the next two months of work I started speaking up with my ideas, contributing to meetings, and giving feedback. I found some of my self confidence and began piecing back together my self worth. In early November my team was given the opportunity to volunteer at a farm in place of working in the office for a day. I was elated at the idea of working outside instead of at my desk. We arrived at the farm bright and early, ready to work. We spent the first part of the day harvesting crops for a food bank. I worked alongside my teammates, cutting arugula and washing carrots. It was freezing, but everyone’s moods were excellent despite the cold. About an hour before it was time for us to leave we were asked to haul large wheelbarrows full of wood chips. We were split up into two teams, three of us shoveling, and two of us hauling. I was one of the haulers, and spent the last hour hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow around the farm. I truly think that day changed the way my team worked together. We were all equal, all pulling our weight, all part of a larger project.
As I enter the fourth month at my new job, I am back to working in my pink sweaters, my heeled booties, and my favorite red skirt. I love pulling out my long earrings to wear to work and, despite what I thought when I began a few months ago, my attire has not changed the way I am treated.
I show up, I work hard, and if all goes well, I get to go home with a smile on my face.
There are still days when I feel as though I have no voice, but I work everyday to make sure I speak up. Of course not all the problems have been solved: I still struggle to make eye contact when I give feedback on projects, I still stutter when I have to ask my boss an important question, and I was still terrified when I had to lead a project for our whole team, but being part of a team of men is similar to being part of any team. I show up, I work hard, and if all goes well, I get to go home with a smile on my face.
It took me awhile to find my footing, but when I took a step back I realized I was holding myself back with the narrative I had formed in my head more than anything that had actually happened. It was important for me to step outside of myself, to understand that there is power in being feminine, and that going forward I need to remember to there will be days when I need to take a deep breath, lift my eyes, and speak clearly.
Written by: V. Freeman
Pictures by: Jenifer Veloso