My first job out of college was as an entry level Engineering Technician with a contracting company in support of the US Army. This put me out in the field with an Army unit comprised of over 200 soldiers. I knew next to nothing about the military, or the lifestyle it encompassed, and the first week was something of a rude awakening.
I learned that the respect I was given was largely incumbent on the rank of the man standing next to the person I was addressing and leering was a common form of acceptable communication. In addition, good luck getting anyone to take you seriously unless you happened to have a penis-bearing co-worker at your side. It sounds harsh, I know, but in my personal experience, and that of my few fellow female co-workers, it is true.
I’d had my brushes with sexism over the years (typically in the form of drunk frat boys), but after the variety and open-mindedness of college, this was like a scary, entirely male driven planet full of shaved heads and confusing acronyms. Consequently, I now know a lot of really useless acronyms In Accordance With (IAW) military protocol.
Despite the amount of women now gracing the ranks of our proud military divisions, it is still, most certainly, a man’s world. I couldn’t believe some of the things these men felt comfortable saying either directly to me, or within easy ear shot.
Within the first two days of being on the job, I had heard my "ass" and "tits" detailed from a variety of different angles and with various levels of praise (my favorite was the time some guy compared my butt to his cousin’s in a very lewd and appreciative way that made it about thirty thousand times creepier). Many of these men were married. Many of them also looked about 12 years old.
I am not an exceptionally attractive person (though I was thinner and cuter four years ago /sadsigh), I would stick myself comfortably in the "average" column. I had never in my life been on the receiving end of so much male attention. Even the year I’d started wearing contacts and gotten my braces removed didn’t compare.
I worked closely with a group of about 20 men. There were no women in my group, though there were a few in some of the others, but I never really got the chance to know them. I noticed quickly that the male soldiers spoke a lot more respectfully and tactfully to these women. I chalked this up to a mutual respect sort of thing, something I’d hoped I could earn with some time and effort. I was foolishly optimistic in my young, idealistic age.
I oversaw my company’s interests with one of my male co-workers. He was about six years older than I, balding and heavy set. He was a nice enough guy, or at least he seemed nice enough during our three week training period where I exchanged maybe five words with him. I learned soon enough that he was not an ally on my quest of Being Taken Seriously. In fact, he ended up being my greatest enemy.
I got to know some of the men I worked with and, after refusing to react to their crass comments or crude offers, we settled down into an easy work-environment friendship. Key word here is "some." There were several, nearly a dozen, who just couldn’t take a polite "no" for an answer.
Let me stop here for a moment and say that most of these men were good people. They all came from very different walks of life and from all across our country. Every one of them had a different reason for enlisting. Most of them truly, and honestly, believed they were actively protecting and securing our country and, no matter what your political views, that’s an admirable goal.
There were some truly heartwarming tales of older brothers who had died in Iraq or beloved fathers in whose footsteps they wanted to follow. They were there to uphold the American dream and even the more jaded soldiers put on a good face for the freshly enlisted. And so many of these men were still very much scared boys, just barely out of high school. They had been thrust into a world of harsh adult responsibilities and I could tell that, in many ways, they were just trying to adapt, to fit in.
The Army builds up a sense of brotherhood, which is largely embedded in those things society generally considers masculine: strength, courage, dominance, toughness, ect. This mentality doesn’t always translate very well into the civilian world. Many of these men, who didn’t actually get to see a ton of women, viewed most women as conquests. As sort of trophies for all their hard work and service. Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but when you are there in the midst of all of it, it rings sadly true.
It’s in the sensual tattoos they get, the places they’ve traveled, and the testosterone-driven behavior they are encouraged to display. "Work hard and play harder," was the sort of unofficial motto, and that generally translated into wild nights on the town picking up chicks. This really wasn’t any of my business, except that many of them didn’t seem to be able to distinguish me, the professional working woman, from the drunken girl they had hooked up with the night before at the bar. No diss on the drunken girl, by the way, they are just very different situations that call for different types of behavior.
It grew very wearisome. Especially as my male co-workers not only refused to stand up for me and my fellow female colleges, but actually became active participants. It was very frustrating to constantly have my thoughts and opinions pushed aside because I had boobs (and small ones to boot).
I began to adopt a victim-blaming sort of mentality. Was it the clothes I was wearing? Was I too nice? Was it my body language or something?
I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, I try to get along with everyone and be respectful and open minded, but I was finding that this attitude wasn’t getting me anywhere. And that really sucked. I hated the idea that I had to be a "bitch" to garner any kind of respect. But I was sick of acting like their words didn’t upset and bother me, especially after I’d told them they did.
So I became all business and no play, I ate lunch alone, I didn’t joke around, I didn’t talk about anything personal and I forced myself to be cold and emotionless. Now, years later, I think about how unfair that was. How little anyone, my co-workers or my direct boss, were willing to do about it.
I still work with the military and I understand that there are now very strict rules when it comes to the interaction between male soldiers and female ones. The amount of sexual assault and harassment cases in the military is sickening and the military has taken a lot of new measures over the last few years to mitigate them but, apparently, those directives didn’t, or maybe still don’t, extend to mere contractors.
All I know is that while yes, I was getting paid more than the average soldier, I was there to help my country, and them, in my own way. I wasn’t on the front lines. I wasn’t the one holding a gun in a foreign country with my life on the line. But I was trying to make their lives a little safer, a little easier and a little more productive. I believed in my work then and I do now, and I think it’s terrible that I couldn’t go to work and be treated like a person, like a professional.
I don’t know if this is the experience of other female contractors, I hope it isn’t, I hope things have changed, and I’m sorry if this account has offended anyone. That was not my intention. But I do hope our military has taken further steps to treat women, in any profession or circumstance, more like the people they are and less like another battle to fight, or another invasion to win. After all, they are there to do what you are; serve their country. They should be treated with the same respect you feel you deserve.