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Chapter 4: Dealing with Discrimination

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Anna wanted to be a great project manager in construction, so she quickly learned the technical side of the business. This included incorporating equipment for specific applications when setting up a quarry. She seized every opportunity to learn from the specialists on site.

One morning, while working in her office she received a phone call from a customer.

The customer spoke abruptly, “I want to speak with Fred now! We are down on site and need him to explain the fix.”

Anna thought this quarry is having a problem with their equipment, maybe I can help. She replied to the customer, “Fred is not in the office, I’m Anna. What is the issue on site?”

The customer fell silent on the phone. Anna said, “hello, are you still there?”

“Yes, I need to talk with a specialist for the XV unit”, he said

“I understand, you can speak to me. I’m an application engineer working for Fred, and I can help you,” Anna said calmly. What was this guy’s problem, she thought.

“But you’re a girl!” The customer said furiously, “I need Fred, now!”

Dude (her conscience) whispered to Anna, “this guy must be from the dark ages! Just ignore that insult and ask him what his problem is…”

Anna said, “can you describe the problem on site?”

“Just get Fred to call me, this is Jean.” And with that, the customer hung up. Anna was perplexed.

Anna turned to Dude, “Did he just hang up?” Dude just shook his head and replied, “Just keep doing what you are doing and don’t let this darken your day.”

An hour passed, Anna had tried Fred a couple of times on his mobile and left a message, but the man was MIA. Her phone rang and she picked up, “good day, this is Anna, how can I help you?”

“I’m still trying to reach Fred! "Have you been able to reach him?”, the customer screamed on the phone, “I can’t believe he sent me a $30, 000 estimate fix last night, which is unacceptable! I want to talk to him about it, but he seems to have disappeared. Every moment the unit is down we are not making money. I need to talk to him NOW!”

Anna took a deep breath, “unfortunately I have been unsuccessful in reaching him as well. I’m sorry to hear your plant is still down. Can I help you?”

The customer asked rudely, “what exactly do you do there?”

Anna answered without missing a beat, “I am a mechanical engineer who project manages all of Fred’s orders and answers customer questions. I believe I can help you.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of a woman engineer in construction. Right now, the unit is down and there is an oil leak.” Anna could hear from the customer’s voice that he was very annoyed about having to talk to her instead of Fred. The customer went on to say, “Fred sent over an email last night when the leak started saying we needed to replace the mantle and concave, but I don’t agree. How can you help me with this?”

Anna took another deep breath and reminded herself she was talking to a customer. Dude chimed, “Think of him as a robot with no feelings and with obsolete programming in his head”.

Anna calmly spoke, “I’m not sure why Fred gave you that fix but there must be a reason. If you say there is a leak, it may also be coming from the automation unit, not the equipment itself.”

The customer rebutted, “really! Do you think that the issue is with the automated unit that’s located at the bottom of the equipment? No way can that be the issue!”. Once again, he hung up on her.

Anna was baffled and asked Dude, “Is he living in the same 20th century as we do? This is starting to irritate me.”

Dude responded, “be patient Anna. Don’t you see that every time he calls you, he gives out a little more information about the problem. He’ll come around…”

“And if he doesn’t?” Anna replied.

“Then he’ll need to wait and continue losing money. Maybe while you’re waiting for his next call, you can check out his project folder,” Dude answered.

She decided Dude was right and went to check out the customer’s project folder. She knew that this was one of the customer’s Fred wanted to manage himself and now she understood. The guy was extremely rude!

She noticed in the file that the customer had bought a new piece of equipment that included automation. This automation was new and problematic. So, she was right. The engineer working on the issues was a buddy of hers and spoke about it frequently in the last month. This wasn’t the only customer with the unit down due to this new automation box. She decided to give him a call. Maybe he had figured it out on other sites and could help.

“Hi Henry, Anna speaking. “I got a customer that says he has an oil leak from the XV unit. I was thinking it was similar to your other customers’ issues with the new units that have automation. Fred thinks it’s the mantle and concave, but the customer isn’t buying it. How did you fix the issue?”

Henry laughed, “Fred is trying to make a sale. I told him already that any leak comes from the bad installation of the automation. They fixed the problem in the factory but for the units on site, we are going to have to give them the fix. Do you know if the leak is coming from the bottom or the side?”

Anna thought about it for a second and said, “no clue. This customer hung up on me and doesn’t believe there are women engineers or girls in construction, as he puts it.”

“Well, he just hasn’t gotten to know you yet,” Henry replied. “When he calls back, tell him he needs to disassemble the bottom concave to see where the leak is coming from. If it’s the bottom, then he needs to dismantle the automation unit and replace the gasket. If it’s from the side, then it may be coming from the lube system which means he needs to take out all the oil and test the basin. Those are the things we found so far.”

“Thanks, Henry! I’ll tell him if he calls back. I think he is still trying to get a hold of Fred.” Anna hung up.

“Way to go, Anna. Now you know what to say when he calls again,” Dude exclaimed.

The next morning, Anna got into the office early to get through her paperwork before the day started. All of a sudden, her phone rang. Who would be calling at 7:15AM she thought. She picked up and recited her standard greeting, “good day, this is Anna, how can I help you?”

“It’s still me and I haven’t been able to get a hold of Fred. He still works there, right?” the customer barked.

“Yes, he does but I was told he took a few days off and can’t be reached at his cabin,” Anna responded and then quickly added, “concerning your unit, is the oil leak coming from the bottom or from the side of the unit?”

“It’s the bottom. Why? Do you know what to do?” the customer retorted.

“Yes, if the leak is at the bottom, then you need to dismantle the concave and automation box. It’s probably a broken gasket,” Anna answered.

“That’s crazy! Do you know how much it costs to dismantle and then reassemble the unit? It will involve two men for 4 hours. Who’s going to pay for that?!” the customer screamed on the phone.

“Do you really know what you are doing or are you just giving me useless solutions to keep me busy until Fred comes back?”

Anna had to extend her arm, so the receiver was far from her mouth, and she grunted. She turned to Dude, “this guy is unbelievable!”, Dude just shook his head and hung it low.

So she took a deep breath and spoke, “this is what was found with other units that had the same issue you are having. You can see if that is the case or wait for Fred to get back from holidays.”

The customer hung up again. Anna had to leave her office and walk around the building just to calm down. Why didn’t Fred tell her he was taking time off and why didn’t he take care of his customers! She grabbed a coffee and went back to her office to focus.

She saw there was a message on her answering service. Maybe this is Fred coming to the rescue, she thought. She dialed in to get her message and heard the customer state, “my mechanic thinks you may be right. I’ve decided to dismantle the unit to see if that’s the case because the fix will be less than Fred’s quote. I will let you know what I find.”

Well, now he’s listening, it only took two days and three hang-ups for him to listen. Anna prayed a Hail Mary hoping Henry was right.

Right before lunch the customer called. He calmly said, “Anna, this is Jean. We dismantled the unit and found the gasket was broken. We need to order this part. Do you know if you have it in your warehouse?”

“Wow!” Anna exclaimed while smiling at Dude, “he can be human!”

She answered the customer, “let me check in the warehouse and call you back. Can you give me your phone number please?” He gave her his number, thanked her and hung up. What a difference, Anna thought.

Dude beamed and stated, “I told you he’d come around! You did good just staying calm and talking to him professionally. I’m crossing my fingers for you!”

Anna went to the warehouse to check and found Matt doing inventory. “Hey Matt, a customer’s unit is down for a gasket, do we have this part number?”

Matt took a look, then checked on his computer, “sure do! But can you do me a favor?”

“Sure, anything for this part” Anna said.

“This gasket costs $3.86 and it costs more in paperwork. I will buy this small part from petty cash so you can just take one and ship it in an envelope to your customer”, Matt said.

“I’ll do one better. This customer is about half an hour away. I’m going to ask if he can come pick it up” Anna said with a smile. She went back to her office and called the customer.

“Hi Jean, we have the part. In fact, I’m holding it in my hands.”

Jean sighed, “Thank God. I’m going to send someone to pick it up. How much is it so I can write up a purchase order?”

“It’s free as long as you come pick it up. I’m in the office all afternoon so just has your person ask for me at the front desk,”, Anna replied.

“Great, and thanks for calling back so quickly,” retorted the customer.

“They can be taught,” Anna told Dude. “Who would have guessed?” She placed the gasket on her desk and continued working.

About 40 minutes later the front desk called her. The receptionist said, “I have a Jean Talon here to see you. He says he knows Fred’s office and I told him yours was just next to his, so he wants to come down to meet you. Is that alright?”

“Sure,” Anna said, surprised. She was shocked he actually came himself instead of sending someone.

“The big man himself! I bet he wants to see if you’re really a girl,”, Dude said chuckling.

“Hi, Anna” asked an older man poking his head into Anna’s office.

Anna stood up and smiled extending her hand, “yes, you must be Jean. Nice to meet you in person”

Jean just stared and then shook her hand. He said, “you are young, how long have you been out of school?”

“I’ve already been working for five years, Jean. You seem surprised to see a woman engineer,”, Anna replied.

The customer looked at Anna sheepishly and spoke, “I’ve been foreman on the quarry for the last thirty-eight years and never knew a woman could be an engineer in construction. But my guys are happy that it was only a gasket and so am I.”

“I’m happy too! Here you go.” Anna gave him the gasket which was in a plastic sealed bag. The customer took it and gave her the broken one. Then he said, “here is the broken one, I thought you would like to have it so you can show Fred if he ever comes back to work. Tell him Jean doesn’t think this is worth $30,000.”

Anna took the broken gasket and hung it from the solid end on her bulletin board. “A great reminder than sometimes there is a simple explanation to a complicated question,” she said.

Jean smiled and said, “you are right, and I was wrong. I learned a lot the last few days and I apologize for my rudeness. If I have any other problems with the units we bought from you guys, I’m going to be calling you!” And with that he shook her hand and left the office.

A couple of months later, Jean called Anna. “Hi Anna, this is Jean, do you remember me?”

Anna smiled and said, “Yes, how are things going? You need any help?”

“No help, I hired a woman engineer on the site. She is organized, smart, and keeps all my guys on their toes. I’m so happy to have her. I wanted to tell you that I hired her because of you. You opened an old man’s eyes. Keep up the good work!”

Moral of the Story

You can face discrimination head on with patience. Sometimes you just need to give the other person enough time to see the error in their ways. This is a true story I recounted from twenty-four years ago. It was a difficult path at the beginning but the rewards at the end were worth it.

Lessons Learned on Communication:

1. Using the 80/20 rule, patience works 80% of the time as long as you don’t give in. Read more on the SCARF method for handling difficult people.

2. If you repeat it over and over again, eventually they will listen to the message. Anna kept reaching out to the customer to help them, but it wasn’t successful until the customer opened up and listened.

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