The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Jess Sweitzer.
In June 2011, I accepted my current position. I was leaving a fixed-term contract and moving forward in my career. I was facing big changes, the largest of which was the composition of my colleagues. I always worked in residence life and always with a variety of genders and identities in my department. My new position would place me in an office filled with men. I asked myself if that mattered and thought, “No, it can’t matter with whom I work. It’s 2011! Besides, I grew up with brothers!”
I learned a lot about myself in my first year. I grew more than I could imagine, and I gained a great deal of insight and friendship along the way. I was called “bro” so many times that I started checking to make sure my breasts were, in fact, still present. I had to get used to putting the toilet seat down before I used the bathroom. Countless times, crying students were brought into my office because I “do the emotions thing.” It was also my job to do stereotypical female things, like send cards and wrap presents. On the other side, I could talk football without having to explain anything. I always had someone to ask for a male perspective. There was also the added humor that I could get someone to leave my office just by saying “I’m on my period.” They bolted from my office quicker than ever.
There were also more serious differences I had not anticipated. I was often frustrated when I would explain policy to a student who did not want to hear it and one of my new colleagues would come out to take over the conversation. It took me a long time to be able to explain why I was so bothered. In many cases, these were male students from male dominated countries. I was frustrated because by taking over, it made me look incapable and took away my ability to act as an authority. However, from my colleagues’ perspective, they were merely supporting me in a frustrating situation.
No matter what area you work or how happy you are in your job, you need to vent from time to time. I am no different. I often grew frustrated when I would vent with a colleague and he would suddenly jump to fix my concern or tell me how to fix it. I just needed to get it off my chest so that I could let it go. I did not need someone to fix it for me. I needed someone to listen.
Also, as the only woman in the office, I was the point person for many students with some serious experiences. If a student wanted to talk to a woman, no matter the issue, I was the only woman for the job. I was fully aware of this matter from the start, but did not consider the added stress that I would experience at times. There was one week were my office was a revolving door of serious concerns that only I could be the one to address. By the end of the week, I was so emotionally stressed that I truly did not want to hear another person say my name.
There were other differences that I enjoyed. When a parent said that they had spoken to a woman on the phone, I knew it was me. When a student said that the other woman told them they could do x, y or z, I generally knew they were mistaken. It has always been fun to respond sassily about there being no other woman.
Through my experiences as the only woman in an office suite of men, I have grown exponentially. I have learned to express myself fully, to stop and breathe before I respond, and to explore why I am bothered by something. I have learned that there are differences between genders, but those differences are positive and exist to add to our environment. I have also seen growth in my colleagues. Yes, they still call me bro, but they now wait for me to ask for help before jumping in with students. I believe that we have all been changed for the better. I would not change my experiences for the world. After all, I still wrap the presents.
Currently the assistant director of housing and residence life at a small liberal arts school in Pittsburgh, Jess graduated from Ohio University in 2005. Always a bobcat, she has enjoyed her career with a variety of experiences in housing and residence life. In her down time, she enjoys reading and traveling to see her numerous nieces and nephews around the country.