Monday, July 9, 2018

Out of the Muck

This could have been titled, "How I Survived my Near Career Death Experience."  Other possibilities include "Finding my Inner Raging Bitch" or "Me Too at State."  

After my experiences at the end of my three years in Kazakhstan, I did not have much fight left in me.  With two years to go until mandatory retirement for age, I chose to return to an office in Washington where I had once served a number of years ago.  To provide some cover, let me call this the Muck Operations Center or MOC, a nod to friends with whom I worked on NASA missions for so many years.  Just as at NASA, this MOC functions 24/7, 365 days a year.   It involves shift work and working on holidays, but it's the type of work that one leaves behind at the office.  It's what I call "good, honest operations work" at a time when a progressive liberal like yours truly is best staying away from policy if only in the interests of preserving one's sanity. 

In this MOC it's the Muck Officers (MO) who do the lion's share of the work.  They are the ones on the line doing the 24/7 muck processing support.  As to me, I returned as Senior Muck Officer (SMO).  When I had served there previously, there had been only one SMO who was nothing more than the first of equals among the Muck Officers.  The SMO did all the same work and pulled all the same rotating shifts.

Things had changed since then.  Now, it turned out, there are two SMOs, both of whom function more as supervisors than as Muck Officers.  I was surprised at the change, but so be it.  All I needed to do was ride out two years.  Surely I could do anything for two years, couldn't I?

After settling back into this office, I came to realize that the SMO position was somewhat superfluous, a buffer between the Muck Officers and the front office management and frequently a mouthpiece for directives coming from management.  It's the Muck Officers who continue to do the real work.

If there was one thing I remembered from my time as a Muck Officer, it was that the work is labor intensive with much repetitive manual processing.  Even then I had put on my IT hat and thought that much of the work was screaming out for automation.  With 25 years behind me as an analyst and programmer on NASA projects, I had a vision for a software design that could save a Muck Officer as much as an hour or more of valuable time during peak shifts.  Just think of it, an entire hour that a human being does not need to be immersed in muck!  Now back as SMO, I decided the time had come to turn that vision into reality.

By December 2017 I had put together design and build plans and had developed a beta version for my own testing.  I held a meeting that included the front office.  I was given the go ahead to proceed.  An external review by State IT personnel would take place sometime in the spring, but in the meantime I had a blessing to deploy the software system to those Muck Officers who were willing to be beta testers.  Between January and April I progressed through several beta releases, updating and distributing documentation at each step, and I had almost all Muck Officers clamoring to be beta testers.  I found myself staying after hours and coming in on non-work days to push the work forward.  I saw this effort as my gift to an office that had been good to me in the past and that had given me a haven at this difficult political time.

But in mid-May I was rudely awakened from this idyllic view.  I had been away for two weeks for medical reasons.  I was working the evening shift on my first day back.  Not surprisingly, my first task was to dig out of two weeks' worth of accumulated e-mails.  At about 8pm I came to the message that changed my life.  It was a "Mandatory Guidance" issued by the other SMO and signed by the front office.  It instructed Muck Officers to return to manual methods pending an investigation of the methods developed by SMO Robyn McCutcheon.

I was stunned.  I searched in vain to see if there had been some attempt to contact me to prior to issuance of this "Mandatory Guidance" or to explain to me afterward why it had been issued.  There was nothing, not a word of explanation to me.  Moreover, the guidance had been issued just two work days before my return.

A suspicion that had been lurking in the back of my head jumped to the foreground.  From the beginning, the other SMO had professed again and again that he did not have time for me to bring him up to speed on the design and development.  He had always averred to being too busy.  "Some other time" was the refrain.  And now he had convinced the front office of the necessity of issuing this "Mandatory Guidance" with no warning to me.

The suspicion crystallized:  I had a colleague who, even in the area of muck, seemed to have issues working with intelligent women.  Isolated instances over the months now strung together in my mind, not all of them involving me directly.

I took my concerns to front office management and was equally stunned by the response.  Within days I was cast as the trouble maker and was being ordered just to do my job, shovel the muck, and not contest the "Mandatory Guidance."  I responded that under the circumstances, I no longer wished to work in the office.  Once voted "Muck Officer of the Year" and recipient of a Meritorious Honor Award for my efficient muck work, I had torn off my smiley face and revealed the inner bitch with whom I was quickly getting in touch.  I opened an EEO case even knowing that proving anything in such circumstances usually goes nowhere.  It's a case of "he said -- she said" in which I would be told by my soon to be erstwhile colleague that there was nothing related to my gender in the crafting and issuing of the "Mandatory Guidance."

So as my front office started talking about disciplinary action, I began writing my letter of resignation from the Foreign Service.  I had wanted to resign last August after the refusal of Sultana's visa and had only stayed at the behest of colleagues and friends and to maximize my pension.  I already knew I had enough to live on if I were to throw in the towel.  Why not?

I almost did.  This is where my hymn to cisgender gay friends begins.  One in particular stopped me.  I followed his good guidance, finding a therapist who supported my application to use Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to get out of an increasingly tense office situation and use the time away from the muck to plan my future calmly.  It gave me time to throw out a request to Foreign Service friends in hopes someone might know of an office with an immediate need.  I began interviewing, and in the end, I found such an office that needed someone for a year's tour as quickly as possible.  We shook hands on the deal.

Still, nothing is automatic in the Foreign Service.  To get out of the Muck Operations Center, I had to submit a request that would be reviewed by a "curtailment panel."  Given that I knew my MOC management would oppose, I didn't think the odds were in my favor.  I had my resignation letter written and ready to go just in case, and I made sure the "curtailment panel" knew it.  The panel met two weeks ago, and I was as surprised as anyone when the panel approved my request.  I start working in my new office in mid-July.

So what do I take away from this experience?

First, being taken seriously as an intelligent, capable woman at State is as difficult as being taken seriously as a woman anywhere.  I don't think anyone had even bothered to read the stream of design and user documentation I had been issuing regularly since December.  The only people who cared were the Muck Officers themselves who were the ones with the most to gain.  (I also now look back with gratitude to the many talented women engineers and managers I worked alongside during my years of NASA work.)

Second, after my rape experience on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine while returning to the US last year (My Journey . . . Home?), I am thin skinned, to put it mildly, when my fate is being decided by men who treat me as though I'm not there.

Third, I may not have the fight left in me to go against an entire bureau that has decided I'm a trouble maker, but I do have the strength to make principled demands and, if they are not met, not to compromise.  In this case I had demanded the rolling back or, with my help, revision of the "Mandatory Guidance."  When it became clear that this was not going to happen, I made the decision to leave.  With help and support from friends and colleagues, I was able to do this without resigning outright.  They know who they are, and they have my deepest thanks.

Finally, living by one's principles does have a price.  In my case it's a month of leave without pay while I was on FMLA.  Also, the position I'm going to comes with a somewhat lower salary, but the salary is lower for a good reason:  no shift work and no more muck!

I regret that the Muck Officers I worked beside will not benefit from the automation I was giving them, but I leave with my dignity intact and hope that I will be an example to other women at State.  There are times one must stand on principle no matter what the career consequences may be.

* * * * * * * *

The ending words from Kiri's Piano written by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan describe beautifully my feelings at the end of this difficult period:
Kiri knew what I did not that if we must be free,
Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity.