5 Things I've Learned As A Female Working In Construction
December 9, 2015
I am on the eve of completing my first year in the construction industry, and it has been an eye opener. I will preface this by saying I do not perform manual labor on a daily basis, I am a safety and compliance officer. Basically, all of the laws, rules, and regulations the city, state, and nation have written - I have to enforce. However, this does not mean I don't get my hands dirty. If we're short-handed and there's a big load of materials to unload, then I'm right alongside the crew unloading. But more on that in a minute. I have come a long way from my first day on the job, and hopefully, my experiences will help and encourage more women in this fascinating field.
1. The sexism is every bit as rampant as you think it is.
The very first time I stepped onto a job site, I was accompanied by a project manager who was giving me the initial tour. The foreman asked what in the world I was doing there. When the PM told him that he was giving me a tour, the foreman replied, "Doesn't she want to wait to see it when it's done?" He figured the PM was just showing some girl the site as a novelty. I responded, "Actually, I'm here as your new safety rep and I'm going to do an initial evaluation as to the hazards, both real and potential, to see where we could make improvements." One of the crew made a crack about watching that I didn't break a nail.
When I completed my report and called everyone in for the meeting, literally the first question was, "What's a gal like you working in construction?" It never dawned on anyone that I genuinely love the field, and I am incredibly fortunate to make a living doing something I am passionate about. After outlining the concerns and issues I witnessed, (which also meant laws being broken) I also handed out my action plan to remedy it. First on the list was personal protective equipment (PPE) training, specifically respirators. Here's the thing with respirators, they aren't pretty, they're messy, and they're sweaty. But they also save lives. When the time came for fit-testing, which entails making sure it fits properly, lets no air escape, and that you can do certain things like bending over while breathing normally-and comfortably- even though I'd long since been tested, I showed them how it was done, to make sure we were all on the same page. "Careful, you might ruin your makeup." Um, actually, you don't wear makeup when you're in a respirator because the chemicals contained therein are harmful to the plastic seal, which causes degradation and thus lessens the efficacy, and jeopardizes my safety. So I'm not wearing makeup. Bob.
2. I have had to prove myself thrice as much as any man.
Here's something that I didn't think at the time was relevant, but turned into an issue. I am a bit of a girly girl. I love to dress up, I do my makeup and hair every day. Now obviously, I wouldn't dream of wearing a skirt or jewelry onto a job site; but I do have my hair and makeup done. Apparently, because I "looked like Barbie" it meant I was clearly not going to mess up my coiffure. Wrong again. Construction, no matter what aspect you are involved in, is messy. You will get dirty, you will get sweaty, and you will deal with it. I've had to take environmental samples from truly disgusting areas, places that my crew wouldn't touch. Could I have called in a subcontractor to do it? Yeah, but for one, that would've eaten into the budget. Secondly, I'm trained & certified to do so, and lastly, it sent the message that I wasn't afraid to plunge into the abyss. I have spent hours in a sweaty respirator, nitrile gloves, and chemical resistant clothing to evaluate a room full of products that had been abandoned for 10+ years so I could determine the stability & reactivity, and if there were any immediate toxic fumes I needed to be aware of. I've unloaded hauls of materials with the crew, helped demo walls with sledgehammers. On a construction site, unless it's a skilled job, there is no such thing as ‘not your job.' I am not above pushing a broom, swinging a hammer, or unloading lumber if it helps my team out. Again, if it is something that an electrician should do- I stay away. However, if it was a man in my role, he would not be expected to do this. It would be assumed that he's worked his way up from the trenches and therefore doesn't have to do this anymore.
If a male didn't know the specific building code, he could say he'd look it up later, but he knew it had to be done this way and nobody would bat an eye. If I say, "We have to remove that ladder from service because it's got a bent rung. Not only is it unsafe, it's against code." I had damn well better be able to recite that code from memory. (I can, by the way. It's OSHA 29 CFR 1926, Subpart X.) Because in the beginning, there was always some asshat who'd either look it up, or ask me to look it up to prove that I wasn't making it up.
3. Your skin needs to be tough as nails.
Lets face it, on the whole, construction workers have a crude sense of humor, and they tend to curse a lot. If you cannot handle the work "f*ck", then you're really in the wrong business. As for the jokes, I learned when to let it roll and where to draw the line. "This bolt is bent, Jerry." "That's what she said!" Meh, whatever. An eye roll and a groan is enough to quiet them down. "Lets get this load tied down." "I'd like to tie down your load." That - not cool. I'd tell that person firmly that I won't tolerate that type of remarks, and then go about my business. Can I go to HR? Sure. But if you go running to HR every single time, it does not make for a productive site. Really, this goes for any job. Can you go to HR because Bob/Becky said something rude to you? Yes, you're well within your rights. But in practice, it's better to address that person privately. If the attitude persists, then off to HR you go.
Here's another uncomfortable truth: everything can -and will- be perceived as a weakness. I occasionally get migraines. I mean light, sound, and smell will make me hurl migraines. They can come on suddenly. I left work one day because of that. "She left because she had a headache. Well I guess the next time I have a headache, I can just leave too." No, it wasn't a headache. It was a migraine- there's a big difference. I made it a point at our next safety meeting to bring up migraines, and the dangers associated with ignoring them. (It's rare, but people do pass out from the pain. Not a good thing when you're operating a miter saw or a back hoe.) That shut 'em up. One time I got my fingernail bent all the way back and I don't care what gender you are - that hurts. Cue broken nail remarks. Everyone expected me to whimper and fawn over my nail. The damn thing was partially lifted off the nail bed, this wasn't just a broken nail. I sucked it up, in full view, put some Neosporin on it with a bandage, and carried on. Had it been Carl hitting his thumb with a hammer, he would not have been given one iota of shit if he left for the day to go to urgent care.
4. It took drastic measures for me to really be taken seriously.
Construction is a dangerous industry, and as a result, OSHA regularly inspects job sites unannounced. (They cannot legally give you advance warning.) We had a subcontractor that was not following the OSHA regs and, as a result, was putting my crew at risk. I told everyone about it, and since "Nothing bad has happened yet, and we've been doing it this way for years. We're fine." (That's an incredibly common attitude.) Welp, sure enough, they mess up bad enough to get cited, which lead to my firm getting inspected. It is rare for a firm to get inspected and not get cited for something, so I was prepared. Turns out a few of my guys had been swapping respirators and bought cartridges they hadn't been cleared for; which is a huge no-no. I was able to mitigate the fines down, but they were still hefty enough for the top brass to perk up. All of a sudden, they're asking why my policies weren't followed. They're asking why I wasn't listened to. That was the beginning. When I called the crew together and pointed out the potential health hazards they were exposed to, all of a sudden, they're paying attention.
Now, when I say we are doing X or not doing Y, we are training for Z, they might not like it, but they do it. Why? Because they know that at the end of the day I have their backs, and I have one goal: I want them to leave work in the same condition they showed up in. If management pushes back, because of lost time or money spent, they know I will be right there not only citing codes but defending the safety and health of my crew.
5. Being one of the guys is the highest compliments I could ever get.
Once my stripes were earned, they were earned. I knew I had been officially accepted when, after they were comfortable cracking jokes around me, working through the pain, and getting dirty, I was invited out after work with the crew for beers. After months of going through the ringer, and proving that I wasn't going to be run off the site by some BS attitude that women should be behind the desk, to be clapped on the back while swilling cheap beer was a huge compliment. It meant they'd accepted me as one of their own, as one of the team. They'd stopped seeing me as a woman, and as a coworker. Now obviously, there's no denying I'm a woman. I've got two bags of fat attached to my chest, and unless there's something I haven't been told, I'm the reason why there's tampons in the break trailer. My point is they stopped seeing the two ‘X' chromosomes, and started seeing me as a professional, as a fellow crew member.
Now, if someone makes the mistake of trying to brush me off and I'm not there to say anything, they've got my back. One such exchange I overheard when they didn't realize I was there, "Say what you will, but she's smart as shit. She knows what she's doing, and so if she says we're using fall arrest, then damn it, that's the end of the discussion. Christ, you should be so lucky to have someone who gives a f**k about your ass." Granted, not the traditional way compliments are handed out, but I'm not in a traditional field.
Is it worth it? Oh gosh, yes! I work with honestly, some of the most hard-working, dedicated, and loyal guys around. Once I turned their point of view on end, at least for these guys, I upended their bias. I get to watch things being built from start to finish, and I love that I work outside, moving around. More importantly: I make a living doing something I am passionate about. That makes it all worth it.
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