5 things I’ve learnt as a woman in the construction industry

“Careful, you might ruin your makeup”

I’m on the eve of completing my first year in the construction industry, and it’s been an eye-opener. I’ll preface this by saying I do not perform manual labour on a daily basis: I’m 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 doesn’t 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’ve come a long way from my first day on the job, and hopefully my experiences will help and encourage more women into this fascinating field.

1) The sexism is every bit as rampant as you think it is

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The very first time I stepped onto a jobsite, 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 doing working in construction?” It never dawned on anyone that I genuinely love the field, and am incredibly fortunate to make a living doing something I’m passionate about.

After outlining the concerns and issues I witnessed (which also meant laws being broken), I 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 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 they contain are harmful to the plastic seal, which causes degradation and thus lessens the efficacy, jeopardising my safety. So I’m not wearing makeup, Bob.

2) I’ve had to prove myself thrice as much as any man

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Here’s something that I didn’t think at the time was relevant, but turned into an issue: I’m a bit of a girly girl. I love to dress up, I do my makeup and hair every day (if you’re wondering why I’m contradicting the point about makeup messing up the respirator, I wash it off first). I wouldn’t dream of wearing a skirt or jewellery onto a jobsite, 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? Yes, but for one, that would’ve eaten into the budget. Secondly, I’m trained and certified to do so, and lastly, it sent the message that I wasn’t afraid to plunge into the abyss.

I’ve spent hours wearing 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 their stability and 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 demolish 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’s something that an electrician should do, I stay away. However, if it was a man in my role, he wouldn’t be expected to do it. 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 man 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

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Let’s face it, on the whole, construction workers have a crude sense of humour, and they tend to swear a lot. If you can’t handle the F-word, 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.

“Let’s get this load tied down.” “I’d like to tie down your load.” That is not cool. I’d tell that person firmly that I won’t tolerate those types 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 mitre saw or a backhoe.) 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. I sucked it up, in full view, put some ointment on it with a bandage, and carried the hell on. Had it been Carl hitting his thumb with a hammer, he would not have been given one iota of grief if he left for the day to go to urgent care.

4) It took drastic measures for me to really be taken seriously

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Construction is a dangerous industry, and as a result, the safety agency regularly inspects jobsites unannounced (they legally can’t give you advance warning.) We had a subcontractor that was not following the regulations and, as a result, was putting my crew at risk. I told everyone about it, and got told “Nothing bad has happened yet, and we’ve been doing it this way for years. We’re fine.” (That’s an incredibly common attitude.)

Well, sure enough, they messed up badly enough to get my firm inspected. It’s rare for a firm to get inspected and not get pulled up for something, so I was prepared. Turns out a few of my guys had been swapping respirators, and had bought cartridges they hadn’t been cleared for – 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’re doing X or not doing Y, 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

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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 wringer, 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 started seeing me 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 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.
These days, if someone makes the mistake of trying to brush me off and I’m not there to say anything, they’ve got my back.

When they didn’t realise I was there, I overheard them defending me. “Say what you will, but she’s smart as hell. 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 fuck 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 yes. I work with some of the most hard-working, dedicated, and loyal guys around. Once I turned their point of view on end, 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’m passionate about.

Less than 3% of women work in this field. Lots of them drop out. Which is, excuse my French, bullshit.

Construction is such an awesome field. It’s so rewarding, so amazing. My 7-year-old daughter asked for Lego for Christmas so she could be like Mama. That’s what makes it worth it. We need female builders, construction workers, architects, scientists, mathematicians – break down the walls. Smash the glass ceiling. I’ll be demolishing it with a smile on my lipsticked lips – it’s my job, after all.


This post originally appeared on Reddit and has been reproduced here with permission.

Main image: iStock/Susan Chiang