“I worked for my uncle Scott the summer after my freshman year of college, as his home renovation ‘apprentice’ : a medieval word, but really there’s no better descriptor. A retired architect, Scott bought a sprawling house on the side of a ravine in Bayside, Wisconsin and committed the rest of his life to making it absolutely, painstakingly to his taste. He was — and is still — a perfectionist of the most maddening order.
My job was to do the kinds of character-building tasks you read about in fables.
One morning I showed up to his house to find six square yards of manure and a wheelbarrow in the driveway. (Imagine a four-foot tall mountain of poop filling a small bedroom.) “I’m leaving for the day,” he said, “When I return at 4pm, I want to see all that crap carefully placed into the flowerbeds down the side of the ravine. If you spill any of it along the way, I’ll know.” After precisely eight hours, he was back to criticize the twenty-five yard trail I’d inadvertently carved into his lawn. Much yard-tending ensued in my days ahead.
He had me sharpen all the pencils in the house so that when we measured and cut wood for his handcrafted window frames and baseboards, our incisions would have surgical accuracy. If he ever caught me using a blunt pencil, he’d either stuff a new one into my hand or threaten to make me clean the basement — which, despite my many efforts, never sparkled quite to his liking.
As the summer progressed, I realized that in allowing me to work on his projects, he was trusting me with his most beloved possession. His house represented his life’s work. He let me select the matting and framing for all of his artwork. He consulted my opinion on wall paint and hardware. He encouraged me to care about a project by embracing its minutia, and demanded that I raise the standards for my own work to meet his. “God is in the details,” he liked to say, though I’m pretty sure he was an atheist in everything other than home renovation. That he expected me to even come close to his level of artisan care was a high compliment — and a huge vote of confidence in me.
The most important thing he did was choose me to be his apprentice. It sounds simple. As a professional woman I can tell you it’s not. I knew that the job he expected me to do is primarily done by men. The fact that my gender never came up — not once, not even hinted at as the reason for my many, many shortcomings during my renovation learning curve — is so significant to me.
I’ve had countless bosses in the thirteen years since I worked for Scott — most of them older males, all of them a cake walk following that summer apprenticeship. Few have had such a lasting impact on my professional character. The voice of Scott’s exacting manner rings in my ears on a damn near daily basis — it motivates me to push things a little further, and to demand a little more of myself and those around me. His standards for me have since become my standards for myself. Sometimes people struggle not to judge my work through the lens of my gender. But I never question my drive or my pride in a job well done, because that’s what he taught me: to judge my work only as a professional.
Men: you should never underestimate the influence you can have on the women you invest in, and the positive impact of treating them as you would anyone else in the workplace. We carry your empowerment with us throughout our careers, throughout our lives. With that kind of foundation, women can just focus on doing good work. That’s as simple as it sounds.”
– Chelsea, Marketing Director
San Francisco, CA
This story was adapted from Chelsea’s article My uncle, the unconscious feminist on Medium
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