“I would gladly agree that women are superior to men if only they would stop trying to be the same as us.” Sacha Guitry
This sentence perfectly describes my state of mind at the beginning of my career and the immense misunderstanding I suffered from as a woman in a male environment. Everyone knows it, has said it, discussed it with friends and agrees: a woman can only impose herself in a position by proving that she is the best and therefore that everyone was right to give her these responsibilities.
This widely held and discussed and amplified opinion can only make the situation of women’s work worse.
A woman is employed by a construction company – a male environment – as a business engineer, a man’s job if ever there was one. Even before her first day, since early childhood, then at school and again at university, she has been told that she would be unwelcome – “how could a woman hold that position?” That she would be tested – “let’s see what she’s made of!” And that she would not be allowed to make any mistakes – “I knew that a woman could not do this job.” All fired up by the challenge she has to take up, she leaves for her first day, full of arrogance and determined to prove to all of them that she is up to it.
As a result, any sign of chivalry is interpreted as a demonstration of superiority, any question or entrance test is taken as a demonstration of doubt about feminine abilities. A normal woman with the best will in the world will then find herself in a situation of acute paranoia and in a state of latent aggressiveness towards any male who dares to not immediately recognize her undeniable qualities as a new employee.
Obviously, the men who expected this behavior react as expected and do what is expected of them – they decide not to do this “know-it-all woman” any favors and not to make her life easier, and we’ll just wait and see.
Disaster scenario? Maybe. Maybe my case is unique and all the other women know instinctively how to integrate into this environment. I didn’t know how to do it spontaneously.
When I arrived in the training center in Parma the first time, I was determined to show everyone what I could do and that’s exactly what I did. I lifted tools like everyone else, I never asked for help in checking the tools, I worked as long as they did, I went out and drank like any self-respecting member of the group. Yet, I felt compelled to do more, I wanted to prove at all times that I could find a solution to the most difficult problems.
I wanted to be accepted and respected in this environment even though I was a woman. Even though. At that time, being a woman was an “even though” for me. A man would have said: I am a man and I can do it, I said: I can do it even though I am a woman.
I had to fight my personal demons: those years of education during which society repeatedly told me that a woman could only succeed by fighting harder than a man. I had to fight against my subconscious which told me, although I would never have admitted it, that a woman is necessarily less competent than a man because she has to prove a lot of things that a man never has to prove.
This attitude earned me the enmity of most of my fellow students, which I interpreted as a rejection of my status as an independent and capable woman. A few years later, Tom would say to my husband: “With Magali, it was easy, if you didn’t want to do something, all you had to do was to tell her that she wasn’t capable of it…”.
Like many people, I don’t like to feel rejected from a group, and this experience in Parma, while not entirely traumatic – we really had too much work to feel sorry for ourselves – allowed me to do some thinking about my particular situation. I challenged myself by thinking that of course they were most certainly all wrong, but perhaps there was a tiny and although unlikely possibility that the problem was coming from me.
When I returned to Nigeria, after this unpleasant period, I decided to change my attitude. After all, men have been told for so long that they are much better than women at these kinds of jobs, that approaching them head on is certainly not the way to go. It can only create a competitive spirit that is frankly not necessary for the smooth running of operations.
The conclusion of my reflections was that men accept very well that a woman is intelligent, even possibly more so than they are – as long as they don’t have to marry her – but that the vast majority refuse any concession regarding physical strength. However, the fragile representatives of the weaker sex are used to carrying a weight of about ten kilos for hours on end. This is the daily feat that every mother achieves without getting a medal.
From the day I returned to Warri, I hardly ever carried a tool again, except of course in an emergency. If I had to lift a heavy weight, I positioned myself correctly next to it, adopting the safety position, legs bent and chest upright, then I made an unsuccessful attempt and immediately called for help from a man who happened to be passing by and rushed to help this weak woman in need. The gentlemen’s egos soothed and my back preserved. Everyone won and I became an integral part of a team.
This method may seem like a bit of a stretch, but it was the step I needed to take to successfully reposition my relationships with men. It helped me to adopt a more moderate attitude.
When I have to deal with a difficult situation, I obviously ask myself what could have caused it. I wonder: is it age, or being new, or my own damn temper, or present circumstances? and only when I’ve exhausted all other possibilities do I blame sexism. The ultimate test is to ask oneself how a man with the exact same character, age and experience as me would be received. The result is often that a man would be faced with the same situation.
I was tested when I took over the base after the chief’s sudden illness. Did they try to assess my limits, because I was a woman? Maybe. But do you know many twenty-five-year-old men who come from nowhere to lead a base of over a hundred people and whose authority is accepted at once when they have no experience of the job and have to manage professionals twenty years older than them?
So, one might say, you’re trying to make us believe that a woman who works on a platform doesn’t have more problems than a man? No, I’m saying that she has it easier than a man.
The training center manager was right. The behavior of the men on the platform changes in my presence, however, not in the way he thought. They don’t dress up and shave daily to honor the female wearing the same work overalls as they do, except maybe on the first day. No, they become peacocks doing cartwheels in front of a female. So, there is an outburst of favors that these men are ready to do for me.
I never had to wait to use the only crane in the rig. The mechanic was always willing to come and repair my equipment, the electrician to connect my radio and the chef to cook up small meals after official meal times. The outpouring of services is not given in expectation of some reward that some readers might be thinking about right now, but simply as a way of showing civility and gallantry to the only woman they get to spend time with.
It would be truly sacrilegious to ruin it with a feminist and egalitarian attitude. The nicest compliment I received during that time came from another engineer who said to me at the end of an assignment, “It’s nice to team up with you, you’re the first woman I’ve worked with who isn’t trying to show me she’s better than me.”
From Parma, I came out convinced that I could do the job, and even do it well; so I didn’t have to prove anything anymore since my toughest judge – me – was happy with me. So I felt good in my job and in my relationships with my superiors and colleagues. I was sincerely convinced of my legitimacy on the base, and I did not give anyone the opportunity to question it, because it was an established fact and by definition indisputable.
I then sought to develop my femininity. The witnesses of that time would laugh when reading these lines, because I was still and always in my trouser period, and femininity for me never translated into frivolous or sexy outfits. But I would put on a little mascara at night and even replace sneakers with shoes.
I have often gotten myself into problematic situations because of my outspokenness and my impulse that makes me ready to risk everything for a witty remark. I prefer to be surrounded by a small but competent and motivated team, often made up of people who are often considered as difficult to manage, because they have a strong character and opinions.
When David and I talked about making a life together, we discussed our priorities, as any couple does when deciding on a joint project. We wanted to build a family. We thought about where work and family fit in and how we could achieve a balance that would make us feel good about our lives. I refuse to sacrifice my home for my job, but I also know that I would end up blaming my family for sacrificing my career.
Except that we have two international careers to manage at the same time! We know that it would be very difficult for David to find a job in France, and returning home is not an option. Besides, where is home? This is another problem, that of couples with different nationalities, which becomes even more complicated when the countries are on opposite sides of the world.
20 years have passed since I wrote these lines. 20 years in which we went back abroad (that was to be expected). I have steered my ship as a woman who deals with a career while having a family with two children.
But for these adventures, you will have to wait for the next book or you can go to my blog and read the articles I write about women in the industry!
They’ve read La Pétroleuse:
“I devoured it in a few hours under the amazed eye of my sweetheart. It is a simple, poignant testimony and your personality is very endearing.”
“I read your book with passion. Relatively speaking – the genius of Celine’s writing is unique – this book reminded me of Journey to the End of the Night, certainly my favorite book. The style is direct, in the first person, with a real-life experience, and you can feel it! These are truly books that make you want to live, to overcome all difficulties and to achieve your dreams.”
“Beyond the story of a woman who set off headlong to prove to herself and the world that she could do “like men” even though she was not one, and who along the way discovers that it was mostly against herself that she was fighting, I read about the construction of an identity, a philosophy of life of tolerance and respect… And the acceptance of what she is: a woman, period. No more, no less than others.”
“Throughout this story which covers many years, we witness the evolution of your personality that is nourished by an observation of each moment to always do better, to be better and to better live with yourself and with others.”
“This story is far too human or universal to be only female. It is an enjoyable read both for its interesting content and for its popular language, which lends itself well to the tale of the tribulations of a young adult who is searching for herself and wants to define her SELF in relation to OTHERS.”