Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Women, Harassment, and Construction Sites

Courtesy of UMass.
It is no mystery that there are few women who work in the construction industry. For years the sector has been overwhelmingly male dominated, with women making only 9.6% of the construction industry workforce. The industry, while remaining male dominated, has been increasingly facing a crisis due to the lack of available qualified workers. As the demand for labor surpasses the supply, construction companies expand their recruitment efforts, including a formerly untapped labor source, women. Construction jobs allow for upward mobility directly linked to years of experience and ability to do the work well, making it a desirable career choice for many. However, while sex discrimination is illegal, many construction sites have anti-women attitudes, making construction jobs less desirable and/or torturous for women.

The United States Department of Labor Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health reported in 1999 that 88% of women construction workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work. I searched high and low for more current data, but no extensive study has been done since then. Most recent information I found would just claim that things are "getting better" for women in construction, and while I don't deny that there are more women in construction fields, I am not convinced that sexual harassment and bullying is a thing of the past. Progress is great, but a hostile environment affects a person's ability to do their job correctly. I know first hand because it happened to me.

I studied Civil Engineering, and most Engineering students know that in order to improve one's chances of getting hired when you graduate you should have at least one internship or apprenticeship during your undergraduate studies. Internships give you some real life experiences that are just impossible to get from a classroom. During my sophomore year of Engineering school I applied and was hired for an internship as a Construction Manager Assistant for a major construction management company in New York City. My work consisted of being in a construction site and maintaining the project schedule by monitoring project progress, coordinating activities among the different trades, and resolving problems. The finished product was to be a high-rise residential building overlooking Central Park. To this day I am grateful for all that I learned while in a construction site. That experience has helped me along in my professional career in more ways than I can imagine, from dealing with a team, to learning how to schedule major projects. However, being one female out of a total of about 10 women in a site with hundreds of men, was quite alienating and frustrating, at times.

The first day of my internship I arrived with three other interns, two young men and one other female. After being briefed on job site safety we were asked to visit the project's head foreman, who called in two of his construction managers who would become our mentors. The first manager that arrived looked at all of us and immediately stated "I'll take the two boys" and feeling a need to apologize, looked at me and the other female intern and said "sorry ladies, I don't deal with women on this job." Shortly after another manager arrived, upon seeing us two waiting he said "are these the interns? I was expecting a couple of guys." Since we were all that was left he had no choice. He led us to a Field Engineer, a recent college graduate and the only other woman on site that day, and told her to "take care of us." Apparently, he could not be bothered with being our mentor.

Throughout the summer the two male interns were given jobs overseeing major tasks relating to mechanical equipment, electrical work, and concrete pouring, while the other female intern and I were asked to check if the finished apartments were painted, the marble was installed in the bathrooms, and the light fixtures were properly centered. It was easy to see that as females, we were given the tasks that required the least amount of effort and intelligence. After all, who goes to Engineering school to learn how to watch paint dry? It was aggravating to be doing such boring work; we wanted to be involved in actual construction tasks so as to truly learn engineering techniques applied in the field. After a few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to ask our mentor to give us more interesting work, we decide to seek help from the only female construction manager on site. She was a 50 year old Puerto Rican woman named Milly, who used to be a secretary for the company and fell in love with construction. She paid her way through night school and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After finishing her degree she was hired as a Construction Manager overseeing all the mechanical trades.

Milly became our mentor and made sure that we were always learning something from the tasks we were assigned. She also encouraged us to work separately because, as she would say "you'll probably be the only woman on any site, better get used to it." As expected, the work that we were given required us to constantly be around the tradesmen working, as opposed to before when we were mainly in empty finished apartments. I can only speak for myself, because I never asked the other female female intern how she felt or what kind of treatment she received, but it was at this point that I became the target of a lot of sexist, rude, and inappropriate remarks from some of the men. Many times as I walked on by, working men who would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle. Several times a day I had to say "no thank you" to men asking for my number or requesting to take me out on a date. On a few occasions I got called a bitch for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks. Some men felt the need to give me "get fit" advice and make comments about my body, often pointing at my lack of physical strength as a sign of why I did not belong on a construction site: never mind that technological advances and strict safety codes has made the use of physical strength obsolete in most jobs. Once, I found myself in the middle of a storage room with one construction worker (whom I had never seen before that day) blocking the doorway and refusing to let me leave unless I accepted his request for a date.

I worked on the site for a year, after which I decided the stress of a workplace where I constantly felt harassed, belittled, and intimidated was not worth the effort. The constant fear that someone would make me feel uncomfortable or make a rude remark was making me lose my concentration, and on an active construction site, that is an actual safety hazard. I requested to work with the Project Managers who dealt with the Engineering consultants from the main office and only went on site for field meetings. Today, I am better equipped to deal with everyday sexism, but at 18 years old I was not. I never did report any of the many incidents of sexism and harassment that I endured. I was reluctant to do so for fear of being tagged as a complainer who could not handle the job.

Writing this was one of the hardest things I've had to do. I still love the construction industry and promote it as a great career choice for men and women who enjoy being active on their jobs.  For every man that demeaned me, there were dozens who uplifted me. For every man that made a sexist comment, there were scores who respected me and valued my work. For every man that harassed me, there were hundreds more who protected me as their coworker. The issue is not that all men refuse to work with women, the issue is that a few men who do not, make the working environment hostile and dangerous for women. Those few that harassed me had the power to ruin my day, alter my mind, and destroy my self confidence. We need to increase the number of women in the construction industry so that we are not a rarity. We must also encourage labor unions and construction employers to include sexual harassment training as part of their health and safety plans. Women deserve to have access to skilled trades, and they deserve to be respected as a fellow colleague. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

All Immigrants Are Part Of Our American Values

Property of 
My immigration story is not unique. I came to the United States at the age of 5, with a green card and on an airplane, into the arms of family members who were already "assimilated" to an American culture. I use quotation marks because as much as my relatives pretended to be all-American, they could never truly blend in. Their skin color, accent, and penchant for wearing a crucifix gave them away. Those relatives arrived at a time when the term "melting pot" was used to represent the American way of life. You came here to leave everything behind and never look back; that was the "old World." Here, you had to learn English, learn to blend in, and be grateful for the country that took you in. But my family was pleasantly living their day to day life. They had purchased homes and opened businesses, and their children were getting educated.

By the time I arrived with my parents and my younger sister, it was 1991. Long gone were the days when immigration was circumscribed and European immigrants never had a chance of returning to their homes. They left with the implicit knowledge that they would never go back to their European cities and villages. Immigrants today, whether legal or illegal, face challenges that did not exist in the past. For over 100 years the United States had an open policy, so that the toughest challenge immigrants faced was getting here. If the immigration policy that exists today had always been in place, most immigrants who came to this country between 1790 and 1924 would not be allowed in. The new wave of immigrants that included my family were racially/ethnically different; fitting in was not as simple as it seemed. Mobility and technical advances allowed us to be constantly connected to our countries and culture. We could make a phone call every day and save money for a flight back home. The "old country" was not left behind, it was part of our new selves. But throughout the years all immigrants have shared a common goal: to work hard for progress and opportunities.

When I hear negative stereotypes about immigrants today I wonder, when did we all become so entitled? Perhaps this has always been the attitude about immigrants in the United States, but I remember very well learning about waves of immigrants coming though Ellis Island and being welcomed. I read "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus and internalized the verse "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." During trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty I felt like I had a connection to the families arriving to a new country, lost and confused, but hopeful. It was a shock to find that the immigrant dream was just a nice story, because today there are no welcoming arms.

I did not choose to come to the United States, my parents made that decision for me, so as a child learning about American history I would question my parents. Why would my family leave their heritage and only home for a foreign land with no guarantees of the life that lay ahead? Moreover, why pick the United States? All they could say was, freedom. The United States offer freedoms that the rest of the world envies. My grandparents came to the United States after the protests and US military occupation that overthrew a 30 year dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Years later, my parents were still trying to free themselves from a country that was plagued by consequent political upheavals. From the perch of our pampered lifestyles in the United States, we forget that many live in deplorable situations and only wish for an iota of the American dream. We are so isolated from world situations that we forget that much of the world still lives in conditions the Founding Fathers came to America to escape.

I share my story, not because it is unique; I am almost certain that I had it easy compared to so many that come here without the support of their family. My story is a story that is common, but as ordinary as it is there are not enough human faces attached to our stories. We must show that immigrants today are as important to American values as the immigrants that arrived via Ellis Island. Everyone living in the United States has an immigrant story, though for too long forgetting that story was part of assimilating. Today, we are only spoken about in statistics that silence our true stories. If we can feel compassion for an Irish escaping a famine, an Italian fleeing poverty, or a Jewish immigrant fleeing religious persecution, we can most definitely feel compassion for a Salvadorean escaping a civil war, an Arab fleeing political oppression, or a Mexican in search of an escape from poverty. Our stories our powerful, but only if they can be heard.