What is it like working in construction as a woman? This is a bit controversial as every one of us has had our own unique experiences. There are a ton of different factors that go into how our experiences will play out. Our positions or trade, the job sites, our provinces (or states) and cities, and most importantly our team.
For myself, my experience is not typical. I’m fully aware of this. I came into construction as an owner. This gives me a level of respect that someone entering as an apprentice will not be given. It also puts me in a position where I have to be careful to keep that respect though. It is easy to lose it on multiple levels.
Side note: I work in non-union construction sites in Canada. So my experiences and advice are based on those factors.
I’m going to start with the first thing that comes to mind when people think about working in construction as a woman. Sexual harassment. I have never experienced this, but I work in management and with my husband, so it would be weird if I did. I have seen it though. There are some tradesmen that are on a whole other level than the rest of us and don’t follow social norms. The nice thing about working in construction is you can tell them to f*ck off, and no one’s gonna write you up. Unlike office jobs where you have to follow certain procedures, construction sites operate differently and literally no one will bat an eye if you lose it on someone for being inappropriate with you. In addition to that, the majority of men on site will step in and defend you.
Most men in construction are great. They’re husbands and fathers and they respect women. They automatically feel like they need to protect you. I worked on a site where there was a guy that was creepy. Anytime he worked close to my unit one of the other tradesmen would change what they were working on and position themselves between us. This is very normal and I’ve heard a ton of similar stories from other tradeswomen.
The stereotype of construction men whistling at women is no longer a thing. Most sites have strict rules on sexual harassment and you learn about them in your site orientation meetings. I’ve been on sites where males are not allowed to look at a female for longer than 6 seconds.
Sexism is alive and well in the construction industry. If you’re working in construction as a woman, you will absolutely experience sexism.
Women have to work harder than men to get respect. We also have to work harder than them to do what they can do as we’re built differently. Most of us can’t lift as much as men can and our wing span is significantly smaller. This can cause issues in crews as there are some men who will get disgruntled that the female in the crew isn’t keeping up or is getting paid the same as them and doing less work. In their defence, they would feel that way if it was a smaller male too, so I do understand where they are coming from, even though I don’t necessarily agree with it.
Additionally, being in any position of power as a female will mean that your ideas aren’t always taken seriously. When this happens to me I have to remind myself that they don’t take each other’s ideas seriously either. Meetings on site are just one giant dick-measuring contest. Each trade believes they are the most important trade, and each foreman believes their idea is the best idea. Our gender unfortunately makes it easier for them to discount our ideas and opinions.
Working in construction is different than any other industry. There’s a sense of comradery in construction that you won’t feel anywhere else. My husband always jokes with the crews that they’re like a gang. And there’s some truth to that. For the most part, once you’re in a crew, they’ll look out for you no matter what, and you’ll look out for them. You become a family. As a female, you’ll be protected by them and may find you start to mother them a bit.
Everyone comes to me for help. I know their secrets, their problems, and their goals. I’m one of the first people they talk to when something great in their life happens. I’m also one of the first people they come to when they need help putting the pieces of their lives back together. Most men aren’t comfortable talking to other guys about their problems, so they usually find the female in the crew to do that. If you’re not a natural nurturer like I am, this will get annoying quickly.
Things to Avoid
From my personal observations and experiences, these are the things I avoid doing to maintain a decent amount of respect while working in construction as a woman.
- Stay away from pink. It puts a bullseye on you. No pink hardhats or tools, no pink gloves, just no pink. I dress the same as everyone else on site: baggy work pants or jeans, loose t-shirt, sweater, and my hard hat is blue like the rest of my crew. No, I’m not saying if you love pink, or dress in tighter clothes that you deserve to be ostracised, No one ever deserves that.
- Don’t get offended easily. They swear, spit, tell jokes you may not like, and more. The majority of them are not going to change because a female is present.
- Don’t assume. Not everything is about you. I have walked around the corner more times than enough to hear a guy say something along the lines of “you stupid c*nt” to a pipe that isn’t fitting into where they want it to go. It’s easy to assume they’re speaking to you, but more than likely they’re just yelling at their work.
Things to do
- Ask questions. There is nothing men like more than talking about their work. Obviously, ask your journeyman tons of questions so you know what you’re doing, but ask other tradesman questions too. Not only will this round out your knowledge, but it will give you a chance to be heard in site meetings. My ideas are taken more seriously because I’m aware of what the other trades need to do because I listen in meetings and ask questions.
- Work HARD. You may not be able to lift as much or have the same wing span as your male counterparts, but you can make that up by working consistently hard.
- Be your own advocate. Just because you have the right to not be sexually harassed at work, doesn’t mean you won’t be. If you notice some dude staring at you, ask if he needs something. I personally find asking “are you looking for someone”, or “is there something you need” is the best approach. If they’re being creepy, it calls them out and stops it. If they’re just looking at something and you’re in their line of vision (again, don’t assume… it may not be about you) then you know why they’re doing that and are no longer creeped out.
- Follow me. I have a ton to say about working in construction as a woman. I have tips on what you should do for self-care , great lunch ideas, and what you need to have to work on-site. I’m also planning on writing more about work clothes recommendations, winter skin fixes for construction workers, must-haves, and anything else anyone wants information on.
If you have any tips or experiences on working in construction as a woman, I would love to hear about them in the comments section.