I’m one of the guys.
I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree with that statement. I’m an female engineering student with a tomboyish attitude, a penchant for dirty humour, a taste for craft beer, and a love of leather jackets.
Everyone always asks me what it’s like to be a female engineering student in a class and industry full of men. Of course, I share a couple stories detailing accusations that I only got an interview/job because of my gender, my disappointment at never having the opportunity to work with or for a female engineer, and other equally thrilling tales. But when it comes down to it, I always say, “these are my friends, and eventually we all come to an understanding. When I’m with my friends, I don’t feel like the only girl. We just fit in with each other, regardless of gender.”
Today, for the first time, I felt like a girl. And it sucked.
I’m going to preface this by saying that everyone in this story is someone I consider my friend, and I wholeheartedly believe that they are kind-spirited. I don’t fault anyone for anything they’ve said, and I don’t think they are lesser because of it. But sometimes people say things without thinking of their impact, and sometimes jokes aren’t really jokes anymore.
I was out at a bar with friends, all of whom were engineers from various programs and various years. Everyone else was male, but it was something I was used to and not at all perturbed by.
At one point, I said something that wasn’t meant to be sexual, but could’ve been construed in a sexual manner. Of course, everyone winked and made the connection, and I laughed as well. It was clever, after all. But then they started saying that I had “phallic objects on my mind,” and were joking about my implied ability. I didn’t really know how to respond, so I tried to make a witty comment that fell short. The joke continued. I shrugged it off and eventually changed the subject.
Later on, someone made a joke about how “all women are 10’s with the lights off.” I didn’t honestly know how I felt about that, but when faced with something you don’t like and a crowd you don’t want to look uncool in front of, your best weapon is wit. I sat there trying to think of a joke that went the other way, levelling the playing field. I couldn’t come up with anything. I looked around for support, someone else who had the perfectly-timed comment and would come to my aid. Instead, someone made a joke about how you shouldn’t feel bad about dating tall women because “all women are short lying down.”
Everyone laughed. I didn’t.
They continued to talk about how “some 10’s are not 10’s with the lights off,” how “some women look less hot with their clothes off,” etc. For the very first time, I really didn’t like the jokes being made, and I didn’t know how to respond. I scrambled for the jab, the witty comment that would end the conversation with a laugh and a nod to how ridiculous the conversation was. I panicked. I couldn’t find it.
So I looked down at my phone. And I withdrew.
For the very first time, I felt what it was like to be the only girl.
One of the guys commented on my withdrawal, saying, “look at Clarisse, she’s doesn’t even want to fight you on this one.”
They laughed. I looked up and said, “I’m just thinking that this is what it must feel like to be a woman in engineering.”
They laughed again.
“It isn’t funny.”
They looked at me questioningly.
“Look around the table. There’s only one woman here. And we all say we want more women in engineering. But who wants to be at this table if you’re all making jokes about how ‘all women are 10’s with the lights off’? We say we all want more women in engineering, and you’re just making the only woman here want to leave.”
They weren’t laughing anymore.
When I left shortly after, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what they’d say. That I’d be called uncool, or they’d talk about how I overreacted. It was just harmless joking, after all.
But as I was walking away, only one thing was going through my mind: when I went home at the end of the day, I was going home to a house full of incredible friends. These friends, who were also engineering men (and one woman!), had never made me feel like that. I’d never felt like anything other than one of the group.
I thought about how lucky it was that I had that. Because, to be completely honest, I don’t know if I could deal with feeling like the only girl every single day. If my every interaction made me feel that isolated, whether in the workplace or with classmates, I don’t know if I’d still be in engineering.
I’m still here. And I still want to be one of the guys. But the truth is, I’m not. And I’m OK with that. Are you?