I work in a male-dominated field and while tough, it is manageable. I experience sexism and unprofessionalism at times but I can handle that (read: bring. it. on.). The part of my job that keeps me awake at night, brings tears to my eyes and a wave of nauseating anxiety is when I have to travel for work.
In all fairness, I was told when hired that I would have to travel and it is my fault for not understanding what that entailed. In past jobs, traveling meant going to another state or another office to give training. In this job, traveling means going on site visits all over the country. I could visit a construction site in Key West one month and the backwoods of West VA the next. I have been to the most western part of the U.S. in Alaska and I have been all the way down in Puerto Rico. Now you are probably thinking I am lucky, my job takes me around the country and the “me” that accepted this position would agree with you. The “me” now, three years later can easily explain why this is not ideal.
I am alone. Being a young woman, alone, in places that are unfamiliar is terrifying. More than once I have been lost, alone on the side of a mountain in West Virginia with no cell service and no idea if I am going in the right or wrong direction in the dark. Often times I get off a plane, get in a car, pray to get to my destination safely and drive for hours. Despite having directions to my destination and a phone to call 911 (if there is service) I am on my own.
I try to be gracious during these moments, when tears are running down my face, when I am lost on a dark back road with no one to call. When I feel the panic rising up to my throat like a wave just about to break on the shore, I try to remind myself I see beautiful things and I go to pretty places. I try to remind myself of equality and how I should want to be on these trips because all the guys at work go on them. I try to tell myself if they can brave it so can I. I try to believe myself as I am saying them but in all honesty, I am terrified.
I am scared because I am not a local to these places. I know that a young woman, alone and lost is probably some dangerous guy’s sick fantasy and while I am responsible enough not to put myself in situations like that personally, professionally I often don’t have a choice.
After a few trips that were particularly awful I started to become terrified of traveling for work. I would push back when my boss would suggest I go somewhere– I would find reasons I couldn’t go, knowing professionally what I was doing didn’t look good but willing to look bad in exchange for not being in a situation where I felt unsafe. I used every tactic I could and they still sent me out on the road again.
My advice to you, young travelling women, is listen to your gut. If it is telling you something about a situation isn’t right, then something isn’t. Recently I was told I needed to go to Puerto Rico and alarm bells like never before went off in my mind. I just felt something was wrong. I learned that I needed to rent a car, rent a GPS, navigate the Spanish speaking island (I don’t know any Spanish), drive a couple hours to my hotel and do all of this with possibly no cell service. All week I battled with the actual terror I felt over this trip in comparison with wanting to show that I was tough, that I can handle my job and that my company didn’t make a mistake hiring me.
I then made the decision to speak up. I explained why I was uncomfortable and where my head was concerning the trip and why I wasn’t going to be able to go to this site unless someone familiar with the island would drive me. I wasn’t comfortable, having never been to Puerto Rico, driving and trying to read Spanish road signs. I wasn’t going to put myself in this situation and saying that, speaking up for myself, didn’t make me weak or a less valuable employee. It made me smart.
I don’t know about you, but I get so worked up in wanting to please others and be a good employee that I often keep quiet even when my intuition tells me otherwise. My message to you is don’t keep quiet. If something is going on at work and you genuinely feel unsafe or uncomfortable, you have to speak up for yourself. Don’t be afraid to be your number one advocate, you are still tough, you are still professional and you are still valuable. Saying something when that little voice in your head tells you to speak up doesn’t mean you are setting back women’s empowerment or implying that because you are a woman in a male-dominated field you need special treatment. You’re doing what every smart and responsible woman should do- protecting yourself.
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