By Joan Runnheim Olson
In the following article, Jane Mertz, owner of St. Croix Telecommunications, LLC, in Stillwater, Minnesota, shares her journey along with tips for being successful in a male-dominated field.
Since I can remember, I loved to figure out how things work. When I was little, I broke things and, when reprimanded I would claim "I was just looking at it." In my mind, looking at it meant taking it apart to see how it worked. When I was a kid, I always had boxes full of springs and gears and magnets, and my favorite toys were my Lego blocks. Being a girl, I was never encouraged to pursue a career working with my hands.
I went to college and got a degree in Business Administration. I worked for a few years in business but was never very interested in what I was doing, so I wasn't very good at it. Three years after college I was looking for a job and ended up in the Navy recruiters' office. I needed an adventure, and they needed women in technical fields to meet their affirmative action quotas.
They sent me through two years of electronics school and I maintained communication equipment for four years. I loved my job, but the Navy lifestyle is difficult. Sailors work shift work and move every three years, or they spend months at a time at sea. This is not ideal for family life, so when my contract was up I got out.
My skills easily transferred to civilian life, and I got a job working for a telephone system vendor shortly after moving back to the Twin Cities. When that company's business began to fail, I went to work as a central office technician with a telephone company and eventually went into business for myself.
I believe I was destined to do this kind of work but realized quickly I was not going to be accepted by my coworkers right away. I always felt I needed to be better than the guys to get the same recognition. After 22 years in a male dominated field, this is what I know.
1. Don't expect to be accepted right away. Even if they are nice to you the first day, it won't last if you don't pull your own weight.
2. Don't expect your coworkers to change the way they normally act or do things. If you can gain their respect, and they know you hate a certain behavior (i.e. cussing, telling off color jokes, spitting etc.), they may stop doing it when you're around. If they don't respect you, and they know you hate it, they'll do it just to bug you.
3. Be prepared to spend some time alone. You're not one of the guys, at least not right away. Give them some time to get to know you, and what you can do for them and the organization. They'll come around eventually.
4. Men communicate differently than women. Men are much less direct so you have to really pay attention and figure out what they are really saying. For example, a woman will say "don't do that" but a man will say "you don't need to do that." I once had a guy ask me if I wanted to go with him to a site where we kept some equipment. I thought he just wanted some company and, finding him a big bore, I said "no." He later accused me of refusing to help him. In my mind, he didn't ask for help. He didn't even ask me if I would go with him, only if I WANTED to go with him.
5. Always be professional. Flirting may get you what you want today but in the long term you need them to respect you, and flirting won't get you any respect. Sometimes you may even need to be a little cold. This is difficult, but keep a professional distance at least until your coworkers get to know you. Once you're part of the group you can relax a little.
6. Do all you can yourself and ask for help only when you really need it. Don't ask them to do it for you. If you can't lift something, ask someone to help you lift it; don't ask them to lift it for you. Everybody needs help sometimes. If you ask them to do it for you, they will think they will always be doing your work for you. Nobody wants to work with somebody who can't do their part.
7. Find things to do that you can do better than everybody else, and offer to do them. Having smaller hands than the guys enabled me to reach farther inside the walls and equipment. Women are usually smaller and more flexible and can squeeze between the ductwork and pipes in the ceiling more easily.
8. Find somebody that likes you and knows more about the business and get them to mentor you. It doesn't have to be a formal thing. If somebody likes having you around, they won't mind teaching you. Offer to help them with something they don't like to do. In the technical world administrative tasks are considered a necessary evil.
In the Navy, I worked for a guy who was a phenomenal technician but couldn't type to save his life. I typed up all the division parts orders, and in return he taught me all about antennas and radio transmission. This can be tricky though; you don't want to be seen as a kiss up, and you don't want everybody to think you're the administrator. It's all about balance and limits. I typed for Dan but no one else.
9. Work hard! Try harder than anybody else. Once you know the ropes, get better at it than everyone else. Anticipate the next step and prepare for it. Don't wait for a supervisor to give you direction if you know what comes next. If you're ahead and ready for the next step, take it. If you're not sure, ask if you should take it or if there's something else you could do that would be better. Learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them.
10. Have a sense of humor. You're not perfect. You're going to make mistakes. It's okay to laugh at yourself when you do something stupid. People like people who can make them laugh so even if you do mess up, at least you've entertained your coworkers. Don't take yourself too seriously. If your first day is a disaster, laugh it off and try again tomorrow. It is all worth it to do something you really love.
Working hard is not hard when you like what you do. To me, wiring is cathartic. It relaxes me the way knitting or crocheting relaxes some people. Programming is fun. It's like a game where you have to outsmart the machine and make it do what you want. Troubleshooting is the best part of all. It's great to be the hero when somebody goes down hard and you get them running again. When your customer thinks they sent him the bottom of the barrel this time.
After all, what was this woman going to do that the two men they sent before her couldn't do? There is such a feeling of triumph when you figure it out. I love it when the customer shows me to a telephone room that looks like somebody took a bucket of colored spaghetti and threw it against the wall. They give me that frightened and confused look and leave me to go back to their desk and pray I don't mess it up even more. The shocked and impressed look you get when you figure it all out and get them working is all worth the extra effort you had to make in the beginning.
I know that I am never going to make the history books. I'm not going to find a cure for cancer or bring peace to the world. But hopefully, I have cleared a small path so that women in the future will be able the chose their occupation based on their talents and interests not their gender.