It’s Never Overt, Is It?

I got mansplained all over the place last week. Willy Wonka, who has a unique blend of lineman and electrician talents, is also a bit of a buffoon. He’s got a crass and immature sense of humor. You can hear him bellowing in his gravelly, Michigan/Wisconsin-accented voice from just about anywhere on the job site. One of the first things he informed me when he was my main journeyman at a different job site was that I didn’t have to worry if I farted around him. He’d worked around diesel for so long that his sense of smell was fried. Then, he rambled on and on about whether that was an offensive thing to say or not. “Listen, ” he says through his thick glasses and walrused-out mustache. “I just tell it like it is, ok? Down’t be thinkin’ I’m sexist or nothin’. I’m an equal opportunity farter!” He never looks you in the eye when he talks to you. Thing is, Willy, has a huge heart so it’s not like he’s an instantly despicable person. He just… wears on everybody he works with. Because he’s so over the top, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his craftsmanship in the trade. Somebody once told me I would learn more from the difficult people than from the even-tempered ones. It’s true! Sometimes it’s in a “this is what NOT to do” context. I remind myself of this frequently on my current site – and I’m not even working directly with Willy!

Willy looks over my forehead when he explains the high voltage cables we’ve just pulled. I’ve never seen anything like these before. He informs me how the termination boots USED to require a complicated splice kit. But today, “they” have dumbed everything down and the termination boots are not as good as they once were. In his opinion, it’s a cheesy and flimsy installation that requires no skill. Why is this happening? Well, it’s obvious! It’s because women are entering the trades! I find it highly unlikely that products would be designed, manufactured, tested and then distributed in order to cater to ~5% of the trade; but he’s adamant these new connector boots have something to do with women in the trade. I thank him for showing me how these high voltage cables work, then excuse myself and get back to my project. He was so worked up about his opinion, there was no room for rational, intelligent conversation.

That day, I carried six sets of ~70 pound rolls of wire (two at a time: one over each shoulder) up five flights of stairs. Poor Willy was not around to witness it. The electrician who carried the other sets had no problems admitting he was tired and that his legs ached. Nobody questioned his skills or his place in the trade. During break, Willy launched into a new spiel – and he prefaced it with, “Listen, I just tell it like it is, ok? Down’t be thinkin’ I’m sexist or nothin’.” He says this a lot. Willy’s new focus was electrical substations, and to work at a substation, it requires significant physical strength – and it’s strength women don’t have. (I think a bulk of electricians will tell you they’ve never worked at a substation, nor have they ruined their careers by not being in a substation.) He tangented to women as fire fighters and how they could probably not carry their male compatriots, but they were allowed to be fire fighters anyway. “Good thing I don’t have to carry you, Willy!” I told him. Willy is overweight and – despite having access to health and dental insurance – has gnarly tartar build up on his bottom teeth. I asked him if he thought a fitness test should be administered to potential (and existing) electricians; he never answered me directly.

I’m not in this trade to prove a point; I’m in it to make a fair and decent living and because it seems like an excellent mesh with my existing interests and skills. There will always be things to learn: and apparently, dealing with narrow-minded, overweight luddites like him is part of my learning curve. Above anything else, I am learning to not take it personally.

“This is no place for you,” he said. “You don’t deserve this.” He was shaking his head and mumbling. I think what was really happening was that he was burned out and tired. He’d been taking his own share of abuse from our spineless foreman. His buffoonery masques his electrical talent.

Willy showed me some excellent work practices. He swears he adheres to a “work smarter, not harder” philosophy. There was no room to point out how this contradicted his prior mumblings about the need for physical fitness. (And it’s a fitness he himself does not have). Yeah, he’s sexist. He’s also deeply unhappy and probably dealing with his own issues. He taught me what he could, and I am now working hard to remember the cooler aspects of him while forgetting the uglier ones. I have the feeling this will neither be the first nor the last time I encounter stubborn, uninformed opinions.

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