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. 


48 comments:

  1. You're courage. God be with you & Take care :)

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  2. "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."

    That their behaviour is tolerated, at best dismissed, does nothing to make the workplace safer. Thanks for the post. Sad, but not surprising, to hear that so little has changed. I've been in the trades almost 30 years, on the floor (not management) my strategy was to move workplace often, focus on developing my skills as a woodworker, as I found that the only one I could rely upon was myself. More and more tradespeople recognize that a diverse environment is a safer environment, but management and labor organizations set the tone, and until they decide it's of value, the trades will continue to see valuable individuals leave.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I do find that I also could only rely on myself, which is quite alienating and dangerous in a construction site. We should all feel like a team, but even if one team member is disrespectful, it ruins the entire camaraderie.

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  3. BTW----an interesting link, you might be familiar with these workshops...http://places.designobserver.com/feature/why-architects-need-feminism/35448/#last

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  4. great post! thank you!!

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  5. As a female forester, I experience the same kind of work environment. The negative commentary and attitudes are very difficult to deal with on a constant basis. Thank you for articulating this issue as well as stating that not all men are as sexist as others.

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    1. Thank you for reading! I appreciate all the support I received from men and women, but for too long I was afraid that writing about this would seem as male-bashing. It really isn't, but the issue of sexism in construction sites must be addressed or it will never change.

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  6. Hi! I am Sarah from Singapore and I've been a Site Supervisor for 3 years now. It's pretty interesting to know about women in our industry from the different part of world. And I really enjoyed reading your article. =)

    Do visit if you wanna know more of what I did on site: http://notepadsandscrapbooks.blogspot.sg/2012/10/women-in-construction.html

    Cheers, God bless! Take care. =)

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    1. Thanks for your comment Sarah. I loved your blog! It really is very cool to connect with other women in similar situations. Thanks for reading.

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  10. This is an excellent post, thank you.

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  11. Hello,
    Interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you.

    Exaro Utility locating services California

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  12. Your points are spot on, Patricia. Women deserve to be respected not just in a male-dominated place, but in any industry as well. Be it discriminatory remarks, sexual harassment or bullying, women should not be afraid to stand up because it is their right to be treated equally.

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  14. I find this article very true, but as a construction worker (roofer) and seeing multiply job sites I have seen one women in my 6 yrs. I believe that women have the right to do what they want but it is hard work and even then some males have troubles dealing with the work. Im not saying dont give women a chance but it is in that type of environment. I understand harrasment but it depends on how you take the jokes and comments if there were a bunch of men in a bar and women were around what do you think they would we talking about. same goes at work where majority of workers are guys. good points

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  15. Great post, Patricia! I currently work as the resident civil engineer for grade separation projects on behalf of the railroad - and have for about 6 years now. I find your commentary quite correct. I didn't complete my degree in civil engineering until I was in my mid-30's - by that time, with an extemely strong sense of self - much stronger than it was when I was 18!

    That being said, I've experience my fair share of pandering, harrasement, stonewalling, etc ad infinitum. I've found that by applying my street-savy smarts (aka - witty, smart mouth) to any situations I found to be "distastful - take your pick!), I've been able to turn even the most dour situations to my advantage. Most of the men onsite are used to the type of joking/competitive railing that most women either find alienating or insulting. The men throw a jab, I throw one right back.

    Some of the men are so concerned about being thrown into a sexual harrassment situation that they do not bother to speak to me at all - but these men are typically at the bottom of any decision making barrel - so I don't feel anything one way or the other about their attitude towards me. Others, once they see that I'll talk shit right back at them, relax and our working relationship advances. In fact, after one particular bad row with one of the senior engineers at the very beginning of my career in this field - this man tore into me in front of our entire group at a project meeting - inwardly, I was humiliated - outwardly, I responded to his attack smartly and professionally. Immediately after said meeting, this man took me aside, told me he intended to test my mettle, was impressed and became my mentor.

    I am constantly reminded by incidents like these that the solution lays not solely with the industry to make changes to accomodate women, but that we must change the way we socialize our daugthers and the way we look at ourselves! If we continue to encourage our daughters to be meek, quiet and passive and we, too are meek and submissive, then yes, discriminitory practice will continue. But, if we raise our daughters to be female AND TOUGH (and I don't mean raise our girls to be boys), we will certainly see the shift in these fields to accomodate more women!

    Remember ladies - you can't be on the jobsite, expecting the shining knights to hold your tools and plan sets, like they're courting you, then get mad when they do!

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    1. As an architect who is only on the job site once a week or so, I have experienced the same. I have to agree with this comment: once I show my sass I go from the "young girl" to "professional in charge" on site. As I close in on 40 I wish I had learned to embrace my feminine power earlier instead of trying to be "one of the guys" on every job. One is empowering while the other is ingenuous.

      It's not much different back in the office where women are still the great minority. I'm not sure how we encourage more young women to become architects, engineers, and contractors but until we do, I have chosen to educate my male peers through example.

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  16. Well. It must be right. I've never had any of my family members experienced harassment. There is just this concept that plays around my head. Or should I say, this thing makes me feel that life is really unfair. On issues of sexual harassment, the harasser is mainly and almost always associated with man while the victim is of course the women. That is why I am also thinking that most of an attorney of sexual harassment's client are females.

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  17. I guess our society is still not ready to leave its sorry state of stereotyping and branding one's capabilities based on his gender. It is true that there are specific jobs men are best at. Construction work is the best example since it requires physical strength many women don't possess. But that doesn't give them the right to harass women who have chosen to be in that field. I am totally pleased that you didn't let this experience weigh you down, and that you are still able to finish your internship in that site. To top it all off, you acquired knowledge both in academical and practical sense.
    Janay Stiles

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  18. Simple response. Try being a Male nurse.

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  19. Hi! I have been a Site Supervisor for 3 years now. We are interesting to know about women in our industry from the different part of world. And I really enjoyed reading your article. =)

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  20. I recently started working on construction sites and I never feel welcome. As a result I am not very friendly, I am reluctant to talk to others. I am afraid if I am too nice men will take it as an invitation to flirt as a result I find I am always very short with people and sometimes quite rude. I guess I am confused with how to behave, in what I am quickly finding to be the most un-female friendly work environment possible. I never would have imagined it would be this uncomfortable.

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    1. Hang in there! It will get better, but you have to be tough. Focus on your work and with time you will see that your work ethic will guide you. It won't be easy, but please do not stay silent if you are a victim of verbal assault or intimidation tactics. If you need help coping you can always contact me.

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    2. It may take a while to find your voice, but I agree with Patricia. Do not be afraid to call them out if you are uncomfortable. My experience has been that many men on construction sites don't even know when they are being intimidating, too forward, or insulting.

      Many of my best mentors were contractors who I "educated" with a simple statement of my discomfort. They ended up taking me under their wing and teaching me, not to mention chastising others in front of everyone else for their behavior.

      If you don't feel comfortable speaking up right away, find a friendly co-worker and talk to them about what you are going through. Even one experienced colleague can make a world of difference in your work environment. Feel free to reach out to me as well.

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  23. Hi Sarah and Patricia, very genuine posts, true from the heart...I'm from India, sailing in the same boat...I've been in construction for the past 5 years...have been experiencing a lot of what you said...really pressurizing to face the male world! Many a times, I get frustrated and lose my calm or keep shifting from one job to another...Work-pressure is interesting...but, working in pressure, having to-be-watchful and self-conscious always is irritating!! My wishes to you for a long career in construction...I dream of the day when there will be an all-women site!!

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  24. I've found this short article most evident, but because a construction worker to see multiple project sites I've come across one women within my couple of years. I have faith that ladies have the authority to do what they need but it's effort as well as then some males have troubles coping with the job. volvo colombia

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  25. Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!





    working environment

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  26. So we particularly assume that women can also be great in getting their own master's degree in construction management.

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  27. It's somewhat disappointing, but also comforting to know I am not the only one who has to deal with this. I work as a controls engineer, and am often on plat or construction sites. I have been in the same uncomfortable situations, but I spoke up. BIG MISTAKE. I was blamed, and was told I needed to dress down (baggy pants and shirts) and the attention I was getting was no one's fault but my own. I deal with things as I can and keep quiet about it now.

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  28. Hi Patricia,

    I'm an architect from India. I completed my Masters in Construction and Project Management in 2008. Since then, I'd made up my mind that I will become a construction manager or project manager some day...Hence, I've been working on field. I come across civil engineers who always advise me to shift to design or quantity surveying or any other desktop job, esp. in a country like India. I Get such advises every other day, which is very irritating. The motivation I build up out of my hard-work just falls down when people keep advising me the wrong way. Sometimes, I get confused if I'm doing something wrong by doing field-work, am I doing something that's prohibited for women, what's so wrong about being on field, etc. Such advises come from my family members as well. That's when I feel, "Who am I working for, Whom am I struggling for?"

    Is it wrong for an architect to study construction management, then, why did my school enroll me ever? I feel like slapping everyone who keeps giving me advises every day. In what way is my interest in fieldwork going to bother them? In what way is my success or failure going to bother them?

    I want to know if its the same in other parts of the world. I'm planning to move out of India, I've already shifted between 5 companies in 5 years. Its falling bad on my resume, whenever I'm interviewed. I'm finding it difficult to seek for a job opportunity on field. Do you know of any organization or job portal that's an equal opportunity provider?

    I just want to come out of my confusion and decide on my next step...I'm totally confused as to what to do in future...Isn't construction not suitable to me???

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  29. Hi Patricia, I'm in the field of construction for the past 5 years, finding it really difficult to sustain. I felt re-assured after reading through your post....that I'm not alone in this world. There are many others who are fighting it out in this male-dominated world. Can someone guide me on how to become a member of NAWIC? Does NAWIC help women find jobs?

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  30. Construction site safety should always be priority #1 for any type of construction project.
    -Jon

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  31. Informative article, precisely what I wanted.

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  32. This is a great inspiring article. I am pretty much pleased with your good work.

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  33. This is my own personal experience. I am a retired Union Millwright. I was the first and only woman in my Local for 18 years and the only woman Journeymen for 22 years. I got in the local in 1985 and was exposed to the old time Millwrights that believed a woman's place was in the home. They were tough on me at first but once I showed them I wasn't there for any other reason then to earn a good wage anf to take care of my family most of the men's attitude towards me changed. There wasn't anything on the job that I wouldn't do. When a man cursed in front of me, and some apologized, I told them not to concern themselves with that there wasn't anything I hadn't heard before. I didn't ask for anything different on job sites like private lunch room or even trailer to change in, my only exception to this rule was using the ladies room instead of the mens. There were times that I had to use the mens room and would have my partner wait outside to ask other men to wait while I was in there. If they waited fine, if the didn't oh well. I didn't sweat the small stuff because the work itself was strenuous enough.
    I am not rediculing women for claiming sexual harassment I am just wondering what they expected when they went into a predominantly men's field what they were going to hear and experience. I guess once I showed the men I was not easily deterred and worked along side of each man as his equal, things changed for me.
    I worked with women that came on the job in clothing unfit for a constuction workers, ones who would not work outside when it was cold, women who got offended when someone cursed or told on off color joke, or just some how set themselves apart from the men. I did want to be like a man, I just wanted to work with the men and not make a huge deal out of the fact I was a woman.
    I had to deal with more sexual harassment in an office envirorment then I had to in constuction.

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  34. All the things in this blog are Very true... and the right thing which i was searching for my research... Thanx patricia...
    Thumbs up for this post.

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  35. Extremely well written post. I'm sad to see that not much has changed in the past couple of years, although I'm not quite sure how we can change this. I applaud you for sticking it out, because in my mind at least, it's trail blazers like you that will make it bearable for women in the future.

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