24: Patricia Valoy
writer and STEM activist
Patricia and I spoke about recruiting and retaining women in STEM careers, mentorship for women of color, bodies in Latino culture, and feminism across the class-spectrum.
Patricia Valoy is an engineer and project manager, feminist writer, and STEM advocate based out of New York. She holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Columbia University where she focused on construction management and structural engineering. With her professional background in construction and engineering she writes and speaks on a variety of issues pertaining to women in STEM and other male-dominated fields, particularly as it relates to women of color and underrepresented minorities.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 12, 2017, in Patricia's Queens apartment. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
PATRICIA: I was born in the Dominican Republic, and came to the United States when I was five. There was a lot of movement that first year in the United States. I have two younger sisters: my middle sister was two, and my mom was pregnant with my baby sister. So my mom was very heavily pregnant, and my youngest sister was born a month after we arrived here. We first went to Upper Manhattan, then to the Lower East Side. The city used to be a totally different place; we couldn't afford any of those places [now]. Then we moved into East New York/Brooklyn, and that’s where I grew up. Most of my experiences as a girl in New York City involved learning English, translating for my parents…
I must say that I didn’t really understand New York City back then the way that I do now, because my world was just East New York. That was all that I ever knew. And even when we left it, we would go to Washington Heights or the Lower East Side and the Bronx. When I was a kid, people would say, “Oh I used to go here and there, to camp or whatever,” and I was like…“I never left my neighborhood, ever. At all.” I had to grow up very very fast because my parents didn’t speak English and I was the oldest sister, so I was the one who had to do all the paperwork. So I knew about an insane amount of bureaucracy by the time I went to college, and I realized that [for other people my age,] that was not the case. People were like, “I don’t know how to apply for health insurance,” or “I don’t know how to write a check.” That one was weird. I had been doing those things for my parents for a long time, so I felt incredibly mature at a very young age, but also naive because my world was so small. I think I’m better because my world was so different. Not that I’m better than other people, but in general —in terms of thinking that I was so naive and then realizing that I wasn’t at all. I had this knowledge that some people will never understand. So it was a big disconnect for me in college between me and my classmates. Now I think I’ve caught up.
SOPHIA: How did growing up in a house of four women impact how you understood and felt about being a woman?
PATRICIA: Well I understood that we lived in a patriarchal structure —like always. Even if it didn’t exist when I was at home with just my mom and my sisters, it existed outside of my home, and it existed with my cousins and uncles etc. I understood it. But I always felt so above it, because in my house, it didn’t happen. Our house was our domain, so I never felt like there was something that I couldn’t do.
I don’t know if my mom would use the word “feminist” to describe herself, but she definitely lived her life as a feminist. She was so strong and she was very vocal about how you don’t need a man to do anything. Very vocal about it —almost to the point where I’d be like “Mom, shut up. I got it.”
I’m pretty sure that a lot of it was scorn towards men, but I definitely did grow up thinking that it was okay that I didn’t like to wash dishes and I liked reading books instead, which was a huge issue with a lot of my extended family. They would tell my mom, “You have this girl, you need to teach her how to do housework! Eventually they’re gonna have to get married.” My mom was like, “Oh come on, I hated doing those things, why would I tell my daughters that they have to?”
When I remember living with my dad, he was definitely very patriarchal. Still is. He would ask us stuff like “Go make me coffee.” My mom would definitely be like, “Don’t ask them that way. They’re not your maids, they’re your daughters.” She would definitely point that stuff out, so I very much still do that [myself]. To the point where I probably get involved in situations I shouldn’t be. Like if I’m in somebody’s house and I see a man talking to a girl like that, I’ll be like, “She’s not your maid! I will actually say that and then be like “Ooh, not my business.” And I’ve had people tell me, “Leave my wife out of your feminist bullshit,” or “Leave my daughter out of your feminist crap!” I try to be like, “It’s not feminism, I’m just saying you can get up and get your own food, but okay.” I’m learning.
SOPHIA: Before college, can you talk about your experience deciding that you wanted to go into engineering? What people and institutions did or didn’t support you? How did or didn’t you support yourself?
PATRICIA: I didn’t know what an engineer was until probably junior year of high school, which is really really late, ‘cause that’s when you’re about to apply to college. It had to do with my upbringing, because no one was a professional. We knew nurses and maybe even a lawyer, but not even a lawyer that’s making a ton of money. That was a big deal. So I had no idea what I would do in college, and had a very murky idea of what it was. Like, I thought it was just like high school again. I started researching online, and discovered you have to pick your major, and sometimes there are specific schools for them…I had no idea!
Around that same time, I had this science teacher, and it came up that I was thinking about engineering. He said, “I was an engineer in Korea and i think you would be really good at that.” He gave me a little synopsis of what you did and I thought it was incredibly interesting, so I was like, “Oh I guess I have to apply to the engineering school at Columbia, because that’s what you do.” And at the same time I got accepted to go to a program in Germany for two weeks to stay with a family out there who were engineers. They definitely informed and encouraged me more. So it had to be like these random white people who were my first examples of what an engineer was.
I came to back to apply to engineering school and realized I didn’t have enough classes in mathematics and science. My school didn’t offer calculus or physics, and you needed that. I realized that I had to take SAT IIs —I had no idea that there were subject tests. So on my own I had to ask this teacher to offer me free tutoring on the weekends so I could pass the SAT IIs. It was intense. That was the first time that I felt like this could be something I’d be really good at, and if I didn’t pursue this opportunity, no one was going to give it to me. It was very eye opening. People don’t give you all the information that you need —which I didn’t know before. I really thought that, especially in education, your teachers would tell you what you needed to know. Somehow I got accepted, and here I am! Nothing happened magically, I became an engineer. That’s another story. Too long to tell.
SOPHIA: I read the piece the Washington Post did on you, and it mentioned but kind of glossed over the topic of unnamed feminism. Can you talk about how that manifested in your house growing up? And then what the difference is, if any, between named and unnamed feminism?
PATRICIA: I think part of it is the vernacular. I don’t think that the word “feminism” was used very much in Latin America. Not in the mainstream way that it’s used in the U.S. I think in the U.S. you can see it and talk about it, so whether you practice it or not you’re aware of it. I don’t believe that it’s a term that is used as widely in Latin America, unless you’re specifically in these women-centric queer-centric circles, which most people are not. But I think it’s changing. Even in Latin America it’s becoming very available to a lot of people, but it didn’t used to be like that. Community building was relating to childcare, to poverty, to domestic violence. Which is feminism. But I think that my mother and other older women in my life see feminism as specific actions that you target, rather than a movement and words that you talk about just for the sake of it. They ask, “What is it that women in my life need?" They need jobs, they need money, they need independence, they need childcare. And that’s where they pursue it. There was never a time in my life where my mom did not have somebody in our family who would offer childcare for her and my mom would absolutely be available for childcare for other people. My house was always full of my cousins. That’s what you do. Later on when my mom was working and my dad was no longer in the equation, my sisters and I were always in another aunt’s house. It’s a communal type of care-taking.
That’s why I say it wasn’t named. My mom wasn’t out there with a sign saying “Feminist!” She didn’t have t-shirts or lapel pins, but she practiced it whether she was aware of it or not, and I think that that kind of feminism is so much more authentic. Because it’s not claiming or just saying it. You do it because you know it’s right; you do it because you know that’s what women need. And I appreciate that. I had to almost like relearn that kind of feminism, because I think in college and after college, when I got involved in the New York City feminist community, it was very much about the word. It was like you claim it, you wear t-shirts, you put it in your Facebook header. It’s something to be proud of and there’s so much attacking. Like, “Oh, you don’t call yourself a feminist —why don’t you?” I definitely participated in that. And then I was like, “Wait a minute, what am I doing actually?” What’s the point of me saying that I’m a feminist if I’m not really doing anything to help anybody? I had to almost relearn it. I love the word, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t, but if it’s not followed with actions, then it’s meaningless.
SOPHIA: I listened to the conversation you had on Latina USA about body image issues with Latinas, and it didn’t seem like they’ve personally impacted you too much. Has it always been that way? How have you seen this issue manifest with other Latina women and girls?
PATRICIA: I think that looking at body image and Latino culture...there is an ideal. To pretend that there is no body image issue in Latino culture is wrong. It’s just that it’s different from the body image that is a standard in the United States. For us, it’s a voluptuous figure. Definitely small waist and flat stomach, but then big butt, big boobs. It’s as unrealistic as being 6 feet tall and having a thigh gap. I had this body image ideal at home, which was definitely like “You’re too thin and you need to eat more…but don’t get too too fat.” But it was the weirdest thing. Food was always encouraged. And having that very thin magazine model look was absolutely not the standard. Anybody in my family would be like “Uh…why would anyone want to look like that?” Which is a whole other story, because I don’t condone saying that. But that was what I grew up in. Yet, [the ultra-thin look] was what you saw on TV, that’s what you saw everywhere! So even though your family is like, “Please never be that skinny, you need to have some meat on your bones —but not too much,” success felt like fitting into that thin, white-centric, straight hair kind of model. And I just never knew exactly which one I should aspire to.
So never in my life have been the “right size.” And I have been so many sizes. So many people seem to be one size, and they’re about the same forever, and that has never been my body. I change from summer to winter! It’s a huge rollercoaster of emotions, and I thought I was past that, but it definitely came up again when I was getting married because wedding dress shopping is intense. I found myself wanting to be thin, and I had to fight that hard. I had to stop reading magazines, I only read wedding blogs that were feminist. I had to find weddings online that were with bigger women or just like queer and Latino. It’s embarrassing that I had to Google it, just so I could figure out what it looks like to be a bride who’s not a white, skinny blonde woman, because that’s what is shown. These [bigger, queer, and/or Latina] brides are beautiful, if I find them beautiful, then I can find myself beautiful.
But I definitely still had body hang-ups during my wedding. I vividly remember my photographer taking pictures while I had to take off whatever t-shirt I was wearing…I was going to say “robe” but I wasn’t wearing a robe ‘cause i’m not classy! I was wearing a t-shirt that said “We are the girls your mother warned you about.” She was about to take out her camera and I was like, “Just don’t show my fat parts.” And she was like, “C’mon, man.” And I was like, “Fine, do whatever you want, I don’t care!” Before you know it I got naked in front of whoever was there. I tried to be chill bride but I was not a chill bride. Or I was as chill as I could possibly be given the circumstances. Because people drag you! You’re infantilized a lot during your wedding, I will say that. People treat you like you can’t have any bad news, and I’m like, “Just tell me if my hair looks ugly!” Since when have I been a delicate flower?
SOPHIA: The future for women and girls in STEM fields has changed a lot since you were younger. What do you feel is easier for them, and what’s harder, if anything?
PATRICIA: I wasn’t very aware of STEM fields when I was a kid, and that has changed, I believe. I feel like now, regardless of your race, your socioeconomic status, etc., a lot of young girls are exposed to STEM very early on in school. There’s a big push for it and I’m grateful for it. Whether that translates into more women entering STEM fields in college, or graduating as engineers or pursuing or staying in the field…[I’m unsure]. Going from the moment where you learn about the field to actually pursuing it, doing it as your career, then retiring, is a long journey.
And nobody knows this yet, but I just quit my job this Friday. And I laugh, because there’s this big push [to encourage women to enter STEM fields,] and everybody’s like, “You can do this! It’s available for you, you can make money, you can create things. You can do all this stuff!” But the industries, they haven’t changed at all. Not talking about tech because tech is a whole other monster, but in terms of mathematics of science of engineering, it’s still very traditional. They’re still male-centric, they’re still very conservative. You don’t see a lot of women in upper [level-positions,] and there’s not a lot of mentorship available.
A year ago, in that Washington Post article, there’s this picture of me with a caption that talks about me not wanting to become that statistic —where 50% of women in STEM quit their jobs mid-career. I was like, “I’m fighting that, I don’t want to become that. I literally sent [the article] to my friends with that caption circled, and then literally a year later…I quit by mid-career. I said that and I meant it, but I realized that when I said that, I was just doing it because I felt like I had to prove myself and that I needed to be this hero. I needed to be a role model for young women and young professionals who are entering and scared of what’s to come. I was going to be like, “It’s hard, but you can do it.” But…I don’t want to do it anymore. I have so much more to offer, and I was really unhappy.
I think that people don’t really understand what unhappiness in your job feels like. It’s not like you don’t love what you do, it’s just that there’s so many external factors that are fighting against the passion that you have for that work, that love, that desire to keep going. It just becomes a daily battle and it wears you down a lot. It was difficult enough to leave because I saw my career as part of my identity and my activism, so if I’m honest with myself, it had been in the back of my mind for a long time, but I thought that if I left it, a huge part of me would just disappear, and I would give up on a huge part of my identity. But I realized that my identity is so much more than that. And the experiences I gained as an engineer are still with me. That is still who I am.
I already do a lot of speaking engagements and a lot of writing, and I want to continue doing that a higher capacity. I also want to move on to consulting, hopefully with universities, but also with engineering companies, so that they can work around their company culture and recruit more women and people of color. Recruit, but also retain them. To use myself as an example, there were so many missed opportunities to make sure that I could be successful [in my company]. And my employers just did not see it.
SOPHIA: Can you talk more specifically about what those hurdles were for you and what that felt like? And if people could have made an effort to make you more successful, what could they have done?
PATRICIA: One specific example is that they never really saw me as a person that could be in charge. I felt that they saw me as somebody’s assistant. When I was given projects, they felt very minor; I really wanted them to assign me big clients and multi-million dollar projects, and I don’t think that they ever saw me as capable of that. So I was like, “Am I doing something wrong? Am I not giving enough? Am I not good enough for them?” And I really don’t know, because I didn’t get any feedback about it. When I did bring it up and say I wanted more responsibilities and bigger projects, it was always like, “Yes, absolutely. We need to do that for you,” but nobody ever actually did.
We were pursuing international work and I was very in favor of it. Some of it was in the Middle East, and I was like, “I’ll go if you need somebody out there.” Because you need people if you’re pursuing work in an unfamiliar market. You can’t do it via email. So I was like, “I’ll be willing to relocate,” and who the hell says they’re willing to relocate to the Middle East? I was passionate about it! And they didn’t really take it seriously. They were always like, “Ok yeah, sure.” So I was like, what am I doing wrong? Am I not being proactive enough? Because I was literally saying, “I will be willing to relocate. Send me there. Put me on that.” And I kept blaming myself for it, thinking that there was something I was or wasn’t doing to make them think that I wasn’t capable of that type of work.
The same thing happened when we were expanding to Latin America. I was like, maybe this will work, because I speak Spanish! So I’m like, “Guys, I speak Spanish, I would love to be put on this project.” And I was told “Oh, I didn’t know you speak Spanish!”
PATRICIA: I said that, and they were like, “Oh, maybe you can help us with translating documents.” It was a lot of little things like that that led me to realize that I wasn’t growing anymore, and I need to grow on a personal level, so I moved on. It’s not at all slamming them, I think it’s just how bias works in the industry, where they have a hard time seeing women, but specifically women of color as leaders in the industry, because literally almost all of them are white men. That’s a hard bridge to cross, because I’m never going to be like them. There’s nothing I could do to make them be like, “She reminds me of a young me.” And that’s how mentorship works; it’s human nature to want to invest your time in young people who remind you of yourself. We all do it. I’m not saying that that’s a wrong thing. It’s just that that’s exactly why you have to fight against it. It’s not going to happen naturally unless you specifically target it —unless you specifically are like, “We need to promote and invest in women of color.” You need to say it if you’re going to do it, and they’re not saying it. So alright —if you’re not, I’m leaving.
SOPHIA: How have you grown to understand feminism having lived both in poverty, and now in a corporate feminist world?
PATRICIA: Ah! Don’t say that!
SOPHIA: The issues women face on either end on the class-spectrum especially tend to be very divisive in feminist groups. People that do welfare assistance, for example, are always like, “Other people’s issues don’t matter nearly as much.” And then people who are writing books about “How to get from CFO to CEO as a woman” are obviously not thinking about welfare.
PATRICIA: I’m grateful to have had those very different experiences in what is to be a feminist. But the way I see it, we still do need to focus on the people who are the most marginalized. So I don’t care if I ever become the CEO of my own company and become a multi-millionaire. Sure, that would be great. Do I want more people to achieve that if that’s what they want? Of course. But on a societal level, realistically speaking, how many of us are actually going to become that? Very few. But all of us are living day-to-day lives, just trying to pay our bills and pay our rent, and maybe buy a first home. For people who have children, just making sure they have good schooling and good healthcare. That is universal. The way that I see it, when we focus so much on feminism with top-level concerns like becoming CEOs, boardrooms, and pay-gaps for people who are already really wealthy, we’re really performing trickle-down feminism. Not to say that those issues aren’t important, but it doesn’t really work that way. No woman that is making six-figures as a CEO is actually giving most of her income to poor women. They just don’t. I wouldn’t! It’s not how life works. You make it for yourself; it’s in your bank account. It’s an individual success. But when you do uplift the millions at the bottom, those people grow up to raise strong, independent children to be successful, and then they’re buying more things...That’s the kind of thing that you really do notice and which makes a big impact.
Even though I hope that I don’t come off as being a corporate feminist —that sounds terrifying— but even if I do, if I don’t remember this for myself, somebody reminds me to remember where I came from. Those people need me the most.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
PATRICIA: I’m very much a proponent of uplifting each other, but not in a wishy-washy, just-saying-it kind of way. If you have resources, or if you have a platform, don’t just take those things for yourself. Really share it, but also be willing to give it up. Privilege is the hardest thing to give up. Sometimes it will cost money. If I get a speaking engagement to talk about black Latina women or something, could I talk about it? Sure. Am I the best person to talk about it? Probably not. And it’s an immense privilege for me to get something like that, because I have a bigger platform. But I can pass that on to a black Latina, and be like, “It’s paid, this is what you do, this is how much they’re offering.” It’s money that I could have gotten for myself, but what kind of feminist would I be if my only concern was how I can become more famous and make more money?
I think it’s a really hard one, because when you bring it up to people, —especially freelancers, white women, or any kind of person that has privilege— they’re like, “Well, I have bills too!” And you do. I’m not saying that you’re going to give up all your work, but if you’re not passing on information and jobs to other women, then nobody is going to seek them out unless it’s for something incredibly niche. For me, that’s a really easy way to pass the baton, share the wealth, and help build community.
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