She is Here Too! Visibility in the Workplace
I am a workaholic.
I am starting the article this way for a few reasons. First, it's for me to finally say it to myself so I can start to understand what that term means to me and what, if anything, I am going to do about it. Second, it’s to start a narrative of the juxtaposition between my habits and those of my female coworkers, and how a small difference unfairly changes general perception.
I am at work a lot. I am rarely the first one at the office, starting between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM. However, I am consistently one of the last to leave, regardless of the day of the week, deadline, or project. I often work weekends, catching up on side projects that are super interesting and fulfill my passions but can’t be worked on during the week when real projects have budget to spend and deadlines to meet. Even after hours when I shouldn’t be working, I sit at my desk to do personal tasks with the intention to eventually do work later. I am doing that right now writing this article, expecting that if I finish it with enough time to spare I might be able to catch up on a project I have been neglecting before I go to a social event this evening. I have lived with the co-founders of EngGirlProblems for nearly two years, and it is still a joke that I never see them because I am home after they are in bed.
To date, this has worked out in my favor. Some of the coolest projects at my firm have come my way because I have gone the extra mile, spent the weekends training myself on specific software, or because I was there when an influential Principal was leaving at 10 PM and wanted to chat on his way out. I sit right by the water cooler in the kitchen so everybody has to walk by my desk to leave the office. I am visible, both to my peers and to upper management.
At first, as a self-centered go-getter trying to make a name for himself in the workplace, I thought I was one of the few people doing this. There were other male coworkers on the other floors who I looked up to and I thought “that’s the benchmark I have to beat”. If I stayed later then Jake* and was busier than Braden, I was doing well. There was one female coworker, a night owl and incredible engineer named Kelsey, who also put in many twelve-hour days, but among the junior staff it was mostly males staying late. Further, I work in a very male-dominated office, so whenever a Principal or Associate had to help push a project through, it was more often than not a man.
But my company has women working at our office too, across all departments. There is a female accountant named Mikaela who sits behind me who keeps tabs on some of the most important projects at the firm. There is a female junior designer named Amy who sits in front of me and is becoming an expert on analyzing structural models and vibration analyses on large infrastructure. The largest transit project at our company is managed by a majority women team who are persevering regardless of what the client throws at them. Our People & Culture department also has multiple initiatives to lift women up at the firm and we have a culture that encourages inclusivity and diversity. From my perspective (which is, of course, a male perspective), it is a great place for women to work. However, the fact still remains that when people stay late, it is consistently men doing so.
Again, as that self-centered go-getter trying to make a name for himself in the workplace, I thought to myself that “I am making work much more of a priority, therefore I am a better performer”. This was a dangerous idea because it inevitably leads to the perception that “work isn’t a priority for them”. So when the sun has set in the summer, and there are a few sparse men sitting around you in an office of 100+ people, you can’t help connect “them” to “the women of the firm”. I am worried that this may be the perception of your average male manager who is the last one to leave the office. Though I am no manager, this is where I was just over a year ago.
I am ashamed to admit that something like that would cross my mind. Whether I fully formed that thought in my head or it sat in my subconscious, it does not matter. I was wrong in that perception. But the realization that my perception was flawed came to me slowly over the past year until a moment where it hit me, working late one night with one of my female coworkers.
But before we get to that story, I have to give credit to my roommates, friends, and the founders of EngGirlProblems for starting me down this path. When Olivia and Elaine started this blog just over a year ago, I didn’t expect anything from it to fundamentally change my way of life (again, self-centered go-getter trying to… you get the picture). Then they started the Book Club, with the first book being “That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need To Tell Them) About Working Together”. The book was eye-opening. Early in the book, another book is referenced (Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar), in which the author calculated that in a forty-year career she will spend nearly five years of time making herself look presentable for her job. Excuse me?! Elaine and Olivia got content in front of me that made it clear that I needed to be more of an ally to my female coworkers.
My first memory of being an ally, and the first instance where I realized visibility was a problem, was on one project in August 2018. I received an email from Braden with the opening sentence “Hey Gents”. However, there were 5 people on that email, and one of them was our newest female employee. I was embarrassed. I pulled over Braden and asked him to re-read what he sent. He was confused. On my screen, I pointed to “Gents” and then to Kathryn’s name. His eyes went wide. He apologized to me. I do not know if he ever apologized to her, so I did it for him. Kathryn didn’t seem to be bothered by it, but she was happy that someone had noticed and spoke up. I got the feeling that this problem was known by Kathryn and other female coworkers, but simply accepted as part of the job. I didn’t want to accept it, so I didn’t.
About two months later, another big change in my perspective was forced upon me rather aggressively. My friend and I were walking home from a social event when we were confronted on the street by a man wishing to do us harm. We walked away with no injuries and all our belongings, but it was a frightening experience nonetheless. Unable to sleep that night, I considered what would have happened to my friend, who is a woman, had she been alone. She is one of the strongest willed and hardest working women that I know (and can run faster than me in heels when there is a scary guy chasing us), but it was still unsettling to consider. Then I started thinking of my female coworkers. By this point, I was already considering that maybe the reason why I was getting so much recognition could be somewhat attributed to my physical visibility. Then it dawned on me; maybe one of the reasons my coworkers were going home at times I considered “early” was because leaving the office past dark would be considered unsafe. If my hypothesis was correct, then the women at the firm were getting the short end of the stick because staying late was not a viable option for them the way it was for the men at the firm.
I scheduled a meeting with the head of the People & Culture department the following morning. We sat down and I told her what happened to us the night before. I talked about how I was concerned for the younger woman at the firm leaving late, and how women may have to choose between their safety and being visible at the office. We discussed what the company’s current policies are, whether employees needed to be reminded of them, and whether those policies should be improved. A week later everyone at the company got this email:
The fall season is here, and the days are becoming noticeably shorter. We are mindful of everyone’s safety and would like to refresh everyone regarding our Working Alone/Late Policy:
In keeping with our Health and Safety Policy, we would like to ensure that its employees return home safely from the office when working late and/or alone. It is requested that an employee inform a co-worker or their manager when working late and/or alone in the workplace. Should an employee find themselves in a situation where it is necessary to extend their workday to 8:00 pm or beyond, a taxi chit may be obtained from reception or a taxi receipt for the expense may be submitted for reimbursement afterwards. When possible, pre-approval from your manager is preferred but if the event was unexpected, then notice by email should be sent after the fact to your manager.
Please reach out to a member of the People and Culture team should you have any questions regarding this policy.
There was a lot of buzz around the office when this email went out. A lot of people were impressed and happy about this new initiative, but it was clear this wasn’t going to become the norm very quickly. Today, people still stay late and I am only aware of a few examples of someone taking advantage of the offering. But its existence is an important step in the right direction to ensure everyone, male or female, has the same opportunities at the firm.
The final moment came when Kathryn and I were staying late to finish a specification document for a midnight deadline. We finished with an hour to spare, uploaded the document to the cloud, and high-fived. Kathryn was about to go upstairs to get a taxi chit, when she received a Skype message from Amy.
“Girl. What are you still doing at the office?”
I didn’t see what Kathryn responded, but I did ask, “What is Amy working on so late?”.
“Amy is working late all the time”.
What? How was I unaware of this? As it turns out, Amy was bringing her laptop home regularly to get work done after hours. As I got closer to some of my female colleagues, who were also go-getters trying to make a name for themselves at the company, I started to learn that they were often working late also, just remotely. There are a few people I know of who leave work at a normal time to go to a social event, come back afterwards after most of the office had left, grab their laptop, and work on transit and at home. The head of the People & Culture department once took my call at 8 PM because she was working from her home office and was available. Now, when it's dark outside and I am the only one at my desk, I find myself checking Skype and seeing that there are many coworkers, many of them female, still online. That’s when I started to notice, on the few days I made it home before my roommates were asleep, Olivia and Elaine would be on their computers, either for work or writing for the blog, before they went to bed. I am workaholic, surrounded by workaholics, but I just couldn’t see them. A self-centered go-getter.
All of this article so far has been hopeless conjecture. I have presented no facts and everything above has been based on my own observations. I have tried to find articles online to support my theory of perception, but to little luck. A quick search of “Why are women less visible in the office” had articles come up like “Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work” by Harvard Business Review and “Why Women Stay Behind the Scenes at Work” by Stanford News. Everything I could find offered strategies women must employ to get recognized at the office, tactics to counteract male biases, or explanations for why work/life balance is different for men and women. Olivia and Elaine have touched on topics like these in their past posts. However, I couldn’t find an article specifically related to whether one’s physical visibility at an office impacts one’s career and how that may be different for men and women who work the same amount but in different locations. I am looking for a study that checks if managers have object permanence similar to an infant; how does a manager perceive the work of an employee when they can’t perceive them?
I also understand that this issue is not a problem that can be solved exclusively. My observations and those listed in the Harvard Business Review article intermingle due to a set of root causes that can’t be fixed without a holistic approach. But what this past year has taught me is that I don’t just need to keep my eyes open; I need to learn to understand each individual’s specific situation before I make any assumptions. If anyone is reading, finding themselves in a similar situation, and wondering how they can even the playing field for their female coworkers, consider the following:
Promote the work of your female colleagues when the opportunity arises. Is a manager listing off people he is impressed with? Consider slipping in the name of a female coworker he may not have noticed.
Personally tell a female coworker when their work is exceptional. They clearly don’t hear it enough and will appreciate it when you notice and don’t end up taking some of her credit.
Bring them in for a second opinion. I am constantly finding myself in impromptu discussions that only have male opinions. Suggest that maybe your female colleague might have a good perspective on this and bring her in.
Ask her how she’s doing. I have learned over the past year that everyone has their own situation, is trying to find ways to balance work and life, and is trying to get ahead. Ask her what she wants, what her concerns are, and how you can help. There is no cookie cutter solution to being an ally.
To any men reading this: gents, take off your blinders. Stop being that self-centered go-getter for ten seconds and think about whether you really are the only one working right now. You likely aren’t. You might be here physically, but she is here too.
A huge thanks goes out to Nicholas for providing his perspective on this topic and for being our first male contributor. If you want to read more about Nicholas, check out his bio here.
*The names of individuals in this article have been altered for their privacy.