About 10 years ago I was on serious burnout. I was working as a store manager for a global coffee retailer and had really hit a wall. I found no joy in that job and hated going to work every day. I was really honest with my supervisors at the time about my unhappiness with the position. My district manager and I had a great relationship so she delved into my resume and notice that I had quite a bit of technical experience during my time in the US Army. She asked me if I would consider staying with the company and applying for the coffee tech team. I don’t know why I hadn’t considered it before. I was always fascinated with the techs that came in and fixed the machines at my store. I applied and was eventually hired. My career path and expectations changed forever at that point.
In the beginning, I made a lot of the same mistakes all new technicians do. I clumsily wobbled between being over confident in my abilities and being overly nervous about making mistakes. Some of these missteps were definitely magnified by the fact that I was the only girl in an all-male field. Not just a gender minority, but the only one. I have been the only lady tech in most of the cities where I have worked. There are definitely some challenges to being the only gender representative in a job. It took quite a while for me to really establish the kind of Girl Tech I wanted to be. In that process, I have met a lot of stellar people and learned a lot (especially about myself) I love my job and I wish more women would discover this rewarding, diverse career path.
When I was first starting out, I realize now, that I was very concerned with fitting in and just being seen as “one of the guys”. I was familiar with this role from my time in the Army. I didn’t really want to distinguish myself in any way. This was a really tough time. I was constantly getting in my own way and hadn’t really learned how to advocate for myself. For instance; as a new tech you are usually paired with a seasoned tech and you spend all day shadowing them. You ride with them from place to place and assist in repairs under their direction. I spent so much of that time listening to crappy sexist jokes and hearing about how sexy certain baristas were, and listening to “The Men’s Room” or “Howard Stern” on the radio. I found myself wondering whether these dudes were testing me or just hopelessly unaware. It was deeply uncomfortable but I just shut up and laughed when there was a pause in the chatter. My only concern was being the cool girl.
The company I worked for had no uniforms in my size. I went to work everyday looking like I had borrowed my dad’s clothes. The tech I rode around with made it very clear that he was mighty amused that a women would try to do this job. This amusement made me feel incredibly defensive. Sadly, this defensiveness not only felt bad, but discouraged me from asking follow-up questions and really understanding concepts that were completely new to me. This really crippled me in the field when I was finally allowed to work on my own. I reveled in the freedom, but I was also terrified knowing that I was missing some basic understanding. Simple tasks took forever because I was too scared/proud to ask for help. I came across machines that were too heavy for me too move and fittings that were too tight for me to remove and felt completely defeated. Again, I found myself unhappy.
I can’t honestly tell you how much of that unhappiness was me feeling out of place and how much was the crappy work environment. In the end I am not sure how much it matters anyway. It was sucksville. I left the field for a while feeling wholly defeated.
A chance encounter brought me back. I was offered a job while shopping for coffee one day and found myself giving this industry another shot. This time I found my people. I was still the only girl, but they had previously had a couple female technicians that were very successful and although I was still different, I no longer felt like an oddity. I was really fortunate to have a boss that was really encouraging. I was also older and much more confidant. I felt empowered to go ahead and be a girl. I never went to work without eyeliner.
This time around I was able to apply lots of tactics to overcome some of the physical strength disadvantages that sometimes come with being a woman. For instance, my upper body and grip strength aren’t ideal but Science! It’s easy to work around a lot of that kind of thing using mechanical advantage. Using a fatter screwdriver handle or a larger wrench when you need that extra torque. Learning to “walk” machines rather than trying to lift them. Here’s the thing, any tech, especially one who is over 40 or has ever injured themselves, would be wise to use body mechanic techniques, that teach you how to use your body properly. I actually learned all about body mechanics in nursing school. One of the most valuable things I learned in this journey was that taking care of your body by finding smarter ways to apply force is not you being “weak like a girl” it’s smart. It will keep you working longer and smarter.
As a gender we typically weren’t raised with a wrench in one hand but that really doesn’t mean anything at all. Troubleshooting is a skill. It can be taught. There is nothing about the female mind or physical makeup that makes learning this skill any more difficult than it is for a man. I hear it all the time “I could never do that”. ‘It looks too complicated” Untrue!
If you can assemble IKEA furniture you can be taught to fix machines.