Top Tips On How To Survive The Construction Industry As A Woman.
Aug 17, 2022
For many women, a career in the trades is an empowering experience. You learn skills that you can apply to your day-to-day, you gain unparalleled confidence, and also a sense of pride that comes with a hard day's work. It's not always easy, though! Let's face it; the construction industry hasn't reached the point of true equality. The ratio of women to men has an astronomical gap, with women making up only 4.5% of the skilled trades workforce in Canada, and 9% in America. Though the mentality hasn't fully matured, there have been noticeable improvements over the years. I have been in the construction industry for 12 years now, so I wanted to take the opportunity to share my experiences, (hard) lessons learned, and the wisdom I've gained throughout my career. I wish I could have read a blog like this before I blindly hopped on a plane bound for Fort McMurray, and started my journey. I know what it's like to be entirely new to the industry, or even just the "new girl" at a job. It can be scary and intimidating, but you're not alone (even though you might be the only woman on-site). Behind the scenes, we women have a community, a commonality, and together, we stand united and strong! So if you're new to construction, or thinking about taking the plunge, here are 15 tips I've compiled to help ease into it. Some of the topics tie together, and some get me so fired up that I could write complete blogs on all on their own. Enjoy!
1. Set boundaries - I made this the first topic because our boundaries are crucial in every aspect of our lives. Our boundaries are both physical and emotional, and when we don't set them, we end up in avoidable dilemmas. Have you ever let someone joke around with you in a way that made you feel somewhat uncomfortable, and you let it slide? Then they took it a little further the next time, and even further after that, to the point where you were so uncomfortable in their mere presence? That's why it's so important to set these boundaries early and stick to them. I know this is easier said than done, but don't underestimate your ability to speak up! When you are at work, what you share about your personal life is entirely up to you. You're not obligated to divulge details that exceed the limitations of your boundaries. The same goes for how much you're willing to hear about another person. Having fun at work is great, but when it crosses the line and makes you feel uneasy, it's gone too far. A lot of men expect us to be "one of the guys," rather than part of the team. This rhetoric is their inability to accept and adapt to the changing landscape of this industry. Think about these things when you're entering this line of work, and do your best to establish and maintain your physical and emotional boundaries.
2. Don't be afraid to ask for help (and know when to deny it) Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. If you're on a construction site and you have a question, there's a 100% chance you should ask it. Since the consequences for not asking can be deadly, it's imperative never to let your insecurities get in the way. Your career as a skilled tradeswoman is a journey of continuous learning and growth. It doesn't matter if it's your first day at a trade, or you've been at it for 30 years, none of us know everything (and if you do, you might as well quit). Asking for help shows that you're investing in your career, you want to learn and that you care about the safety of yourself and those around you. On the contrary, are those who wish to interject themselves into your work and try to take over, even though you're fully qualified to execute the task. Which is when it becomes important to know when and how to deny it. Sometimes a simple "it's okay! I got it!" will do, and other times you need to turn up the confidence in your voice, and (politely) state your case. Your tone is everything in these scenarios! Since some guys will want to help just because they're nice and others because they have no faith in you— you will need to learn how to read the scene. Don't be afraid to express the confidence you have in your ability.
3. Socialize selectively You are being watched. Creeped out yet? Get used to it. When a woman shows up at a male-dominated job-site, all eyes shift to her. It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, your size, ethnicity, age, etc.; you stand out. What this means is there's always someone, somewhere noticing every action you make. Next, people start talking about what they think they saw, and before you know it, you have several rumours about yourself. Socializing selectively can help alleviate these rumours (to an extent). I don't know how many times I have been at work and found out that I was allegedly having an affair with a man just because someone saw me talking to him the previous day. This stuff gets old, and it gets old fast. I'm not saying that women should become mutes at work and give up all human interaction— heck no! Just be mindful of who you are conversing with, the frequency of communications and the settings in which they're taking place. Also, consider your body language in these circumstances and how it could be portrayed to an outsider looking in. Selective socialization isn't always an option, but I want to convey the message that some people have nothing better to do but create turmoil for others. Your awareness in these situations will be valuable. Also, if you're someone who starts these rumours, give your head a shake. (This topic is to promote mindfulness, not avoidance).
4. Remote camp work Not all women will experience remote work in their careers, but if you do, you'll likely end up at a camp. This environment has it's pros and cons. On the pro scale, you never have to prepare your food, it doesn't cost you a dime, and it's easy to establish a routine. The cons scale can be a little heavier (depending on the camp)— this ranges from black mold, unsanitary conditions, the food they prepare for you can often be inedible and, in some cases, gang washrooms (just to name a few). It takes some time to get used to this standardized way of living. You learn over time what works best for you; for example, I always bring my own pillow and a pair of plastic sandals for the shower. The thing about working from camp vs. working from home is you are immersed in your job 24/7. After work, you're still surrounded by the same people you worked alongside all day. Again, you will experience a gender imbalance, but camps tend to hire a lot of female staff, so it's a little better. If you ever get into a situation where you fear for your safety, find a security guard, and always have their number saved in your phone.
5. Keep up on your mental/physical health Self-love is a discipline, not a luxury! Maintaining ourselves both mentally and physically not only has health benefits, but it will help you in your construction career. Crushing workouts at the gym helps build our confidence and physical strength. If you've chosen a physically demanding career, it's crucial to maintain your stamina. The construction industry often involves long hours, up to and exceeding 12-hour shifts. Your ability to go full-force all day is imperative. Equally as important is your ability to get through those long days, mentally. I am a firm believer in personal development and preparing your mental state for various problems that may arise throughout a job. If you can face issues head-on, you'll be an asset to the team! The key is to be as positive as possible (in all areas of your life). If things get to the point where you're in a constant negative state, it's time for a self-assessment. Figure out what triggers your emotions, and how/if you resolve them. Of course, always reach out for help if you get to a dark place.
6. Take up space with your presence
Have you ever sat next to a man on a plane who takes your armrest, then opens his legs so wide that he's crossed into your (paid for) space? How did you react to that? Chances are, you crossed your legs, brought your arms in and made yourself as small as possible as you leaned away from him. Women are culturally expected to have a meek demeanour with soft-spoken voices and submissive body language. STOP THAT NOW! You want to use your physical presence to project confidence by believing in yourself, your ability, and knowing that your voice matters. While men tend to have expansive behaviour that, in turn, makes them feel more confident, we as women need to work on matching that behaviour rather than minimizing our behaviours, which makes us feel less confident. We can do this by using dominant body language with our feet planted, shoulders back and steady eye contact. Avoid crossing your arms (projects weakness or defensiveness), fidgeting (shows lack of engagement or nervousness), and rolling your eyes (a sign of disrespect). Breathe steady, speak with ease and avoid modifiers like "just," "sort of," and "maybe" as they undermine what you are saying. In a world where men can take up too much space, and women don't claim enough of it, remember that powerful body language equals more confidence, and confidence is your strongest asset in this industry.
7. The dreaded "for a girl" compliment
"Wow!! You're a crane operator?? That's pretty impressive for a girl!!" Queue the eye roll. The problem is that people who say these things mean well and they're trying to compliment us. But the fact that they would never deliver a similar dialogue to our male colleagues makes it sexist. Ultimately, this degrades women in the workforce and is counterintuitive to fighting for equality. I've been in the crane business for 10+ years now, and the shock value is still alive and well. When a well-intentioned individual presents you with this situation, we can implement a thoughtful exchange and teach them that we are, in fact, equals. Start by asking why it's impressive? Then explain that gender does not influence your ability to perform your job. Sometimes people need a learning opportunity. Sometimes people are stubborn, and you can't explain anything. So whether you're just starting or a journeywoman, remember, you learn your craft as anyone else would, you put in your time like anyone else, and you belong.
8. Know your rights
This one should be self-explanatory, but unfortunately, a lot of women struggle with this. So many of us have subscribed to the ideology that construction is, in fact, a man's world, and in an effort to fit in, we should forfeit our rights. News flash, ladies! We have the same rights as anyone else. We have the right to be treated with respect, the right to not be harassed, and the right to a safe workplace. In a unionized environment, we have the right to equal pay, along with a code of conduct and bylaws that protect every member's rights. The hardest part is speaking up when these rights have been violated. Voicing the desire for bigger opportunities, expressing concerns with a specific coworker, or straight-up reporting harassment can be some of the biggest hurdles women face. It's easier said than done, and it takes a lot of work to develop the courage it takes to stick up for ourselves. When you advocate for yourself, you advocate for all of us.
9. The obligation to refuse unsafe work— it's a real thing!
It's not just a cheesy slogan on safety posters; it's a life-saving mantra. Gone are the days of getting the job done as fast as possible and cutting corners. We are now protected by legislated safety code that, unfortunately, for the most part, has been written in blood. If someone asks you to do something unsafe, you are obligated to refuse it. No job is worth getting hurt over, or even worse, killed. Adopt a strong safety culture early in your career, and be the example others want to follow. The same goes if you see someone else acting in an unsafe manner— speak up. No one wants to know the guilt of someone else getting hurt when you could have said something. There's a poem with a profound message, called "I Could Have Saved A Life That Day" by Don Merrell, you can check it out here.
10. Document! Document! Document!
Do this from day one, at every job. Are you already established in your career? Start now. This habit can help you out in many situations, from inter-company mismanagement to building a case if you're experiencing bullying or harassment. Keeping a detailed timeline of your day-today may sound redundant, but it's quite easy. You just need to make small notes throughout the day of crucial details. You can document with an electronic notebook, or a notepad and pen you carry with you. That way, if any situation arises, you'll never be blind-sided. You'll always have a timeline to reference, with dates and critical factors, which can be extremely beneficial. It also shows a level of professionalism on your behalf.
11. High emotional intelligence Real talk…there's a huge double standard when it comes to showing emotion at work. If a man gets angry and reacts, it's just par for the course. If a woman gets angry and reacts, everyone assumes that she's hormonal and must be having her period. This double-standard is where maintaining a high level of emotional intelligence will benefit you. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is how you understand and process your emotions. It drives your attitude and reactions towards challenging situations and allows you to shift your perspective to see other people's point of view. How do you process and react to complex situations? If you are the type of person who lets their emotions take over, that's okay! Because emotional intelligence is something that you can develop and harness. It takes conscious practice to be mindful of emotional responses, as our thoughts and emotions are powerful. You will need to interact with challenging people throughout your career. If you can learn to slow down your reaction time and choose your response wisely, you will alleviate a lot of workplace stress. Of course, there will be times when we feel like we're about snap or break down, and this is where you do what all of us women do— go to the washroom and cry! Lock yourself in a stall, let it all out, then collect yourself and reevaluate. After all, we're only human.
12. Equal treatment, not special treatment
I find this topic to be a bit of a slippery slope with some women. The road to equality can't be paved with special treatment. You put in the grunt work, pay your dues, gain your own experience and at the end of the day, you hang up your boots, like everyone else. I once worked with a woman who had the foreman start/set-up her crane for her. Then later on, she would get a ride to a warm, ready to operate crane. Yes, she was fully able to accomplish this on her own, but she opted for special treatment that differed from the rest of the crew. I find this behaviour to be unacceptable. Don't pull the "female card" to take advantage of people. This will not only segregate you from your colleagues, but it shines a light of inability on women as a whole in this industry. We are here to work hard and show the world that there is, in fact, a place for women in the trades.
13. Be prepared for non-inclusive language
I have a high threshold of tolerance for non-inclusive language, as I have been subject to it for over a decade. I do, however, understand that the movement toward inclusive language plays a vital role in women's equality. A significant aspect of the tolerance here resorts back to being "one of the guys" and rolling with the punches. Often, the supervisor will walk into the morning meeting with a greeting of, "Good morning, gentleman," to which I don't think twice, and continue like usual. There are times when said supervisor will catch himself and quickly add on, "... and lady!" The dismaying afterthought— better than no thought at all, I suppose. I recently experienced a man try to stick up for me, and correct another man to use a more inclusive term, and it wasn't well received. I thought it was considerate of him to acknowledge me, though. The language used will vary in everyone's different work environments, and how you deal with it depends on your comfort level towards political correctness. This topic doesn't even touch on the derogatory terms used in the industry, and because I'm trying to keep this professional, I'm not going to use any examples. The bottom line is, expect it.
14. Take opportunities to build each other up
There's a common notion that a lot of us women feel, in that we feel like we have to work twice as hard for half the respect. So since there's already enough division in our industry, we don't need it amongst us women as well. It sickens me to admit that one of the most sexist experiences I've endured was from another woman. She told me I would never be a "construction girl," that I did not belong there, that the town I was working in hated women and that I would be raped there. This woman took one look at me, judged me, drew her conclusion and cut me down. We cannot behave like this. We've come so far in this line of work over the decades, that we can't afford to regress. If you see another woman at work, say hi, introduce yourself, be friendly, and make her feel welcome. We want women to succeed. We need women to succeed. The only way for us to achieve that success in male-dominated industries is to stick together.
15. Go big in your career!
Never set limitations on yourself. If you've made the bold decision to better your life with a career in the trades, never stop progressing! Don't stop at your Journeywoman ticket— get that Red Seal endorsement (Canada). Once you have the Red Seal, enhance your business/leadership skills and go for your Blue Seal. This industry is significantly lacking in females holding roles of leadership/management. The more you invest in your education, learning, hands-on experience, the better equipped you will be to help change the landscape of these leadership roles and take them on. Know what a good leader is, and strive to be that person, even if you're not in a formal position. A woman's ability to influence the people and culture around them can be profound, so never underestimate what you bring to the team. Set the bar high, and there's no telling what you can achieve.
If those tips were helpful to at least one woman, then this blog was a great success in my books. I am very passionate when it comes to advocating for women in the trades. It's a gratifying career path, with many perks. Yes, there will be tough times, but you've earned the right to be here, so never let anyone tell you otherwise. Be a team player, be an asset, be a boss!
Blog post written by the wonderfully talented badass crane driver
Please go visit her page and show some love! https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashleigh-kaliszuk-24a12789/