I have recently officially received my papers showing I have completed my apprenticeship. I have endured 6000 workplace hours, taken four levels of electrical schooling, and am now called a journeyman/journeywoman/journeyperson. I have been working towards this accomplishment vehemently for about five years, and oh, what a journey it has been. I am now paid full journey rate according to what my union contract has negotiated, having started at a mere percentage of this with the percentage going up every six months. I am relieved to have finally made it this far, and to not have had any of my worst fears, all of which were horrible reasons to fail, come true. I was certain I would get cancer, or some other horrible disease, or lose a limb, and not be able to do this job. But none of those bad things happened. And I am still working safely to this day and loving it.
I still imagine worst case scenarios while working and do what I can to prevent them, keeping my work space and others clean and tidy, giving ample warning when working around other people. I am now able to work alone, and qualified to check my own work. I can even teach other people what I know and have grown confident in my knowledge, finding I am explaining some things to other journeyman many years my senior. This feels good.
Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and lollypops. I’ve been working so hard at getting to where I am that I had thought I would suddenly have people’s respect once I got here and they would stop mistreating me the way I so patiently, as all the best apprentices do, endured. Now I’m just beginning to realize that I will always be an apprentice to some people. Or a flagger.
‘You will one day be really good at your job, because you want it so bad’.
Said to me by one of my co-workers, who was recently my journeyman but is now my equal. He was wrong in saying that. I am already really good at my job, because I want to be, and I know I acheive higher than average work performance for my level of experience. If he was too ignorant to realize that then it’s his loss and he will have to watch as I surpass him in skill and knowledge, champion of my own successes and never looking back at his underestimation of my capabilities.
It was a heartbreaking moment when I realized that this co-worker was never going to be my friend. Friends do not gas-light each other, manipulating the scene trying to push me down in order to keep himself up high.
‘I can do the pipe work!’ I declared. ‘I am good at pipe bending.’
He agreed I could do the pipe work but proceeded to show me how to bend pipe. He did not believe me when I told him I felt confident.
‘I have ten years more experience than you do.’ was his rationing. As though all my years of pipe bending counted for nothing compared to his. I suspected this to be slightly patronizing but wanted to think the better of him and patiently waited out his explanation. I was amused at the perfect illustration of mansplaining being demonstrated to me before my very eyes.
Finally, when the time to complacently amuse my co-worker ended and I could get to work, I picked up my measuring tape, pencil, a stick of half inch pipe, and a half inch pipe bender and walked over to my allocated site. It was a tricky bend, a very unusual request and I dove in ambitiously.
A few hours later, I was expressing frustration at a certain tricky area. To my surprise, my co-worker took the bender and pipe out of my hands as I was working on them. He just walked up to me, said ‘let me help you’, and took the tools out of my hands as I was working through a problem.
‘Please give me the tools back’. I calmly requested. ‘I was still using those and do not appreciate you taking tools out of my hand as I was using them’.
‘You were frustrated and I wanted to help you! I don’t see what’s the big deal. You’re acting crazy.’
‘Would you have taken tools out of anyones elses hand as they were working with them? No, I don’t think so.’
This was the moment of realization. He was not my friend and never would be.
‘You are the hardest person I have ever had to work with’. He then spits out. ‘And you have a bad attitude. Maybe it was the way you were raised, I don’t know.’
These ones hit me by surprise, because I had thought we were developing a rapore. They were meant to wound me and were not meant to help us complete the job we were assigned to. This was not our first conflicting moment, but I had thought we had worked through the conflicts and were at a better place. Instead, I found myself losing respect and trust for someone that didn’t deserve it in the first place.
I realized right then that I needed to change my game plan. Getting along and being successful in my trade meant a shift in my professionalism. I needed to be sure that I was seen as an electrician. Not as a woman resembling their wives or girlfriends or mothers, and definitely not engaging in the stories they live out normally with women in their lives. I would have none of that. I was not a man or a woman, I was an electrician.
I have done some learning since this experience. I have learned that I am a woman working in a culture of masculinity. They are struggling to see me as an equal, and struggling with their own masculine identity as a small women trots all over power tools and problem solving. The boys see me and they don’t know what to do with me. So I will have to give them the words and the correct ideas as to what to do with me.
I have an old guy calling me hun, and asking me what would people think if they saw him letting me carry all the heavy stuff. The answer from now on to him, is that he cannot call me hun, even though I appreciate the endearing nickname, he would call me my name at work. And as for the second part, I will reply, people will say that we are two electricians carrying heavy things, doing our jobs.
I will stop pretending to be stupid to make the men feel smart. I will find the words and confidence to be assertive in every situation, maintaining an honest, clear, positive and calm communication style. Being assertive means not being passive (no more swallowing my knowledge) and it also means not being aggressive (losing my cool when someone irks me wrong). It means communicating calmly and effectively my wants and needs, taking into account the wants and needs of the people around me. And usually the wants and needs of our collective group is and should be to get the work done, so finding the common ground can always come down to our common goal.
To be taken seriously as a journeywoman, I will have to step up my game in making sure the tasks are completed as asked, efficiently, and properly. I will have pen and paper handy at all times to listen to the full instructions and write down key points. A willingness to be attentive shows respect for your superior, which will not go unnoticed. they will see that you patiently listen without interrupting, which will assure them that you take your duties seriously and can handle more responsibility. I will be better than them, and one day they will regret doubting my ability.
Probably no one is purposely or maliciously out to get me. Yes they will marvel in watching me fail, but they will gasp in aw at watching me succeed as well. They all have their own internal dialogues, insecurities, fears. And deep down we all have a need to be liked. Using this knowledge I will keep conversation topics professional at work, choosing clean topics such as the weather and cute dogs, not afraid to have fun and make jokes, but also not afraid to draw lines in what is appropriate for a professional and respectful workplace environment.
I have realized that it’s not so much that they don’t want me to succeed or believe I can be good. Its that it’s confusing to their own masculine identity that a small woman can barge around their worksite and do everything they can do. It challenges their own sense of identity in the masculine paradigm. They will get over it.