At the end of the summer I got a job that I thought would be the start of my career: an office support spot in an architecture firm (I just finished school back in May). I feel as if I’ve completely failed. It’s not even a matter of the Glass Ceiling (which is totally in play at this office – it’s such a boy’s club it makes me want to barf), but I’m not even viewed as an architect – I’m just the girl they send to make copies, order office supplies, etc. I feel stuck, like this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life (my supervisor is in her late 50’s and has been the office manager at the firm for the past twenty years. I don’t want that for my future!). I can’t just quit the job though, what do I do?
Without wanting to sound like a stodgy old fart, “Ah! The Impatience and Passion of Youth!” I totally relate to how you feel, I’ve been there. I think anybody who wants to make their way as a professional at whatever they do, be it as an artist, craftsman or what have you, must go through that humbling experience of starting at the bottom. I realize how frustrating it can be, especially after leaving school all revved up on the excitement of finally getting out in the world on your terms, ready to grab on to Destiny and ride off into glory. I also know how disheartening it can be to have certain harsh realities slam in front of you, making you question your passion and doubt your abilities. It goes without saying that the added insult and disrespect of the unfortunately still-rampant sexism in our professional culture only serves to increase these feelings.
So, I want you to imagine me as Burgess Meredith in Rocky when I tell you: Get back in there and fight!
First, keep it in the forefront of your mind that whether you leave this job next year, next month or next week, you will leave it at some point. Unless you go through some kind of spiritual lobotomy that leaves you an unfeeling husk, you will not be at this job for twenty years, and you will not be the Office Manager when you are in your late 50’s (even if you did, God Forbid, end up as an unfeeling husk, a shitty job would be the least of your worries). This job is temporary. So while you are there, I think it’s important to maximize your returns from it.
Here’s what I mean. You are an architect. You are working in an architecture office. While you may not be able to apply your skills and abilities towards any projects the office is currently working on, make the most of your time as a fly on the wall. Try and pay attention to the business of architecture, not just the practice. I’m sure you have the science of your craft down, but what about the business of it? How well can you read people in a conversation? How well can you communicate the complex ideas and concepts of design and construction to a layperson? Well enough to sell them on an idea? Perhaps you could eavesdrop (discreetly) on meetings with clients to hear how the brass in your office talks to “normal” people. Something else to pay attention to could be how people are managed in the firm. Are the employees happy in their work? What are the bosses doing right or wrong? These are things that, from my experience, regardless of the profession, can only be gleaned from actually being in the trenches and watching how the veterans do it. Perhaps this office will not be the start of your actual career in architecture. However, what you learn here could end up giving you a decisive and competitive edge once you do land that first gig.
In regards to the sexism, I’m sorry I can’t be as bright. While it should never be tolerated, excused or rationalized, the sad fact is that it is to be expected. We can legislate all we want, we can raise awareness, but the cliché that old habits die hard is a true one. The concept of Women’s Rights as we know it is really just about a century old, up against thousands of years of misogynist patriarchy. We are all foot soldiers in this battle, and there will be wounds. While the most extreme forms of this discrimination and oppression, such as sexual harassment, have a more apparent and direct response (filing reports and so on), it’s the more insidious kind that’s the real challenge to deal with. I can only hope that as time goes on, the enlightenment of the last few decades will remain with you and your peers as the generations shift in their positions of authority in the workplace.
I urge you to keep a wall around your heart and mind, and remember that the only entity that can define who you are is you. It doesn’t matter what your boss believes, what your job title is, or what position you occupy in whatever hierarchical structure you might find yourself in. You and you alone are the determining agent in what your reality and sense of self are. Guard that thought and let nobody take it from you.
With Love and Light,
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