A girl in a world of burly men: my own Lean In story

by Irina Vishnevskaya, Tastemaker in Residence

    Photo credit: Ruth Orkin, American Woman in Italy


Photo credit: Ruth Orkin, American Woman in Italy

I was just 21 years old at the time, graduating with a shiny, magnificent diploma from one of the best business schools in the country at a time when everyone around me couldn’t possibly care less- it was 2009, people were losing their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods. It was an awful time to be sending out a resume looking to land my first big-girl job. 

So I had another idea: my Mom is originally from Hungary, and I speak Hungarian (along with just 10 million other people in the world; it’s a pretty exclusive club). Using my language skills and my Mom’s family connections, I landed a job in small town Miskolc, Hungary (which I have since dubbed the Detroit of Hungary). I would be the Sales and Marketing person at a company that manufactured brewing equipment for craft breweries in Eastern Europe and all over the world. 

My plan was to ride out this strange American recession/ economic crisis thing we were having in Hungary of all places, and have a little bit of an adventure while I was at it. According to my calculations, I figured I’d be back stateside within a year’s time. 

But when all was said and done, nearly 5 years passed before I returned back to the USA. 

It was, in fact, a grand adventure. It was hard and scary and daunting in ways I cannot even begin to describe. 

Do I regret it? Absolutely not. 

Would I do it again? Not a chance. 

Was it worth it? Oh yes. 

I was a fish out of water in so many ways it’s hard to even list. I had joined a company of engineers, welders and mechanics (89 of them, to be exact). I was one of three women in the company, and the other two were secretaries. Because of a lack of desk space when I first joined the company, I was told my desk would be in the engineers’ room- a big room filled with desks, large monitors and the aroma of man-sweat. It might have been a full year since a lady had last stepped foot in that room. 

For the first six months of my life there, walking into that room was the hardest part of my day. I knew I was being judged, scrutinized, analyzed and all that other stuff that’s not so fun to be on the receiving end of. Not only was I young, I was also the furthest thing from fitting in. I am by no means a tom-boy- I like to wear dresses and skirts, I wear a bit of make-up, and I feel good in heels. I’m also loud; I like to laugh and joke and I’m not at all a silent chameleon.

Looking back now, my coping mechanisms were rather comical. I lied about my age- I told everyone I was 26 years old. They probably didn’t believe me because I actually looked like I was 12, but it made me feel better. I reduced my wardrobe to strictly flat shoes and non-tight-fitting pants. I never wore jewelry with the exception of my stud earrings. I learned to be quiet and to listen and observe and only speak when spoken to. This wasn’t necessarily fun, but to me it was a challenge, and I’m too stubborn of a person to quit; so I kept on trucking along. 

With no end-game in mind, I took on every challenge that came my way, within my first few months on the job I had already flown to and signed contracts with new partners in India and organized multiple trade shows in Russia. My life was 100% work. I would come home at 6 PM, have dinner (alone, of course) and open my laptop for another few hours. I figured if I was’t experienced enough, manly enough or smart enough my only other option would be to be tenacious enough. Even so, I dreaded nothing more than Monday mornings in the office, those “how was your weekend” questions were the worst; how do I tell them I did nothing but work on Saturday? That’s so pathetic. And what about the fact that the most exciting thing I did on Sunday was go buy toilet paper. 

And then there were the clients I worked with and the vendors I collaborated with, also big, burly, machismo men. In fact, I would often joke at trade shows that I bet I’m the only women in a one mile radius. To this day, I’m confident I would have won that bet. Every single time I met a new person in the industry, they thought I was an assistant or a secretary; there were times when I was told to get my boss (it was clearly implied that it was a HE), or someone competent enough to answer their questions. Surely, they thought, this teenage looking girl wouldn’t be able to. But instead of getting offended, I faced the facts. I held my ground, and proved my authority and my competence; word by word, action by action. I became used to the fact that the first 15 minutes of any new interaction would be about me proving myself worthy of the conversation, and then we could start talking shop.

Eventually, tenacity and stubbornness paid off, and soon enough I earned and established the trust of my all-male crew of coworkers, clients and vendors. I was in. I was a part of the team. And so I slowly began to show more layers of myself, dressing more like my feminine self and acting more like my boisterous self. The truth is, I could have done it without dressing like a man. It turns out the secret sauce is hard work, not flat shoes. 

Years later, I got called into my boss’s office and reprimanded- apparently, someone in the company was complaining that my laugh was too loud. By then, I had the bravery to smile a confident smile and explain that my laughter is a non-negotiable part of who I am. 

So why am I boring you with this melodramatic story of mine? 

My intent is not to start a new wave of feminism, nor to showcase the disparities between men and women in the workplace. That’s old news and I’m sure each of us has experienced it personally. 

Instead, my point is that roadblocks are always and will always be present. In my case, they just happened to take the shape of muscular engineers.

But too often it’s easier to run from situations where we’ll be the little fish, or the fish completely out of water. So forget the fish analogies, instead, let’s choose to be that fly that falls into milk and instead of drowning swims so furiously that the milk turns to butter. 

We all need a reminder to face life just the way it is, without any sense of it “should” be like this and it “shouldn’t” be like this. It doesn’t matter, because it is what it is. The sooner we accept it and get to work the sooner we’ll start making progress. 

It’s not easy; but it’s certainly possible.