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Commentary: Working in a male dominated field

Alice Ohrtmann

Talking about myself is not something that comes naturally to me, so when I was asked to participate in this series and was given the choice of speaking about my experiences in a male dominated field or the changes coming to the Macomb water system, I was going to talk water.  I can talk water, and wastewater for that matter, all day.  It comes easy to me.  But after some consideration, I decided that perhaps now was a good time to talk about my 30+ year career in engineering.

First, a little background.  I grew up in Pekin, Illinois with 4 brothers.  My father, Joe, was a World War II vet, ceramic engineer that taught physics and chemistry at Pekin High. My mother, Ollie, was a registered nurse that worked in manufacturing during World War II - a real life Rosy the Riveter.  My parents had very strong beliefs on what they felt was right or wrong, served their community in a variety of ways, and helped anyone that needed it regardless of race, religion, or gender.  We were taught to stand on our own 2 feet and to be the best people we could be.  I was not treated any differently than my brothers.  If they were expected to help with a project, then I was too.  They pushed me just as hard as my brothers to excel in school and continue my education after high school. 

I had great role models in both my parents but I think that my mom was the one that taught me to not let myself be pigeon holed or treated poorly because I was a woman or in a lower position at work.  I remember hearing stories about how she had to set some doctors straight that weren’t treating the nurses as important team members.  She was definitely not someone that would tolerate being patronized.  I think that I learned the most from my parents by watching how they treated each other and those they interacted with in daily life.  I truly believe that they prepared me well to make my way in the world.

As my daughters are both in STEM career paths, I hope that I too have prepared them, and given them a good foundation to do well in their chosen careers.

So, off I went to college to study physics!  That was a mistake but I realized that fairly quickly and moved on to civil & environmental engineering.  I had been interested the environment for a long time so it was a good fit.  It was an area that I felt would provide for a certain degree of job security because we all need water.

I would be lying if I said that I never encountered discrimination at work but, with a couple exceptions, it was never bad and, with those same 2 exceptions, it never stopped me from achieving my goals.  Those 2 exceptions, they treated everyone poorly.  If I wasn’t a woman, I’m sure they would have found something else to use against me.  Management by intimidation is real and it is ugly.

So here a few of my thoughts on this topic:

On being a woman in a male dominated field.  Don’t think about it!  If you think of yourself that way, others will too.  I have never thought of myself as a woman engineer; I am just an engineer.  I believe it is all in how you carry yourself professionally and how you treat others that will determine how you are treated. I have always strived to treat the people that work with me as equals.  We are a team with a common goal.  People respond well when they feel like they are an important part of the team.  That is the type of work environment that I try to develop. 

Develop a bit of a thick skin.  As an older person, I know that some of the things that I say are construed as being politically incorrect, even though I don’t mean it that way.  If someone says something to you that sounds like they are being sexist, ask them to explain what they mean and, if necessary, explain what you heard.  Don’t just get mad. It gives them a chance to think about what they said and the opportunity to correct themselves.  Hopefully, they will learn from the encounter but be prepared for a few rounds.

Remember that when you are working in a field that tends to have more men than women, the conversations can get a little salty. You have a choice to either put up with it because that’s just how it’s always been or you can ask them to tone it down when you’re around.  I have found that a couple of ‘hey nows’ usually does the trick.  Quite honestly, after awhile you become immune to it because in the big scheme of things, it really doesn’t mean anything.  9 times out 10, they aren’t trying to embarrass you or make you feel uncomfortable.  

Finally, you might be surprised to find that there aren’t that many people out there that will treat you differently because you’re a woman in engineering.   Was it a little scary coming here to work with a group of people that I had never met and in a position that had never been held by a woman in Macomb? Absolutely!  Did I feel like I was being judged more critically than a new man might have been? Not at all.  I feel privileged to be working here and contributing the future of Macomb.

Alice Ohrtmann is the Director of Public Works for the City of Macomb.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.