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Casual Sexism in the Construction Industry

This isn't about great wrongdoings, as Jason Scott from COMIT says in his article introducing views from women in construction: "I’m talking about the constant, low-level, casual sexism that can just suck the joy out of work for so many of our female colleagues." I know what he means. The less intense, more frequent, often unchallenged comments and behaviours are harmful to women and harmful to the industry.


A few months ago a new work contact, a senior professional in the construction industry, set off my alarm bells. My boundaries were being crossed. Nothing major, but enough to make me think that I should address it, now, not later. So, I asked him the question: "You're slightly crossing the work relationship line, don't you think?".

I was met with astonishment, anger, and a diagnosis. His defence: I was the problem. Apparently, in asking that question, I was angry, blunt, aggressive, not accepting of people's differences, not embracing diversity and clearly not a very nice person. Ouch. Far from the uncomplicated "Sorry, I didn't mean it that way" reaction that I was expecting. My intention was to establish the boundaries of a working relationship that was professional, clear and safe. In other words, if I hadn't said anything then I would have felt uncomfortable/guarded/anxious in every conversation/meeting henceforth.

I don't think the reactions I've experienced and witnessed, to called-out behaviour, have changed much, if at all, during my twenties, thirties and forties in this industry. The intention may well be friendly, joking, above-board, but the accumulative experience for women in the industry is not. It wears us down. We can live with it, brush it off, claim thick skin, but this is a level of indifference exacerbated by cultural norms and a lack of role models. It is not, however, acceptance.

I long ago reached a level of confidence (age, experience) to call out inappropriate behaviours at work, to speak up for myself or others. Not everyone can and will feel this way. But, for those men and women that do speak out, perhaps we need to voice it clearly, and at the time of the event, if we are to change a culture. And the wrongdoers need to listen and react proportionately if we are to make any progress. No women is a callous, bossy, man-hating bitch with no sense of humour just because they don't want you to call them 'honey' at work.

Here are a few real-life examples (courtesy of my 'women in architecture' friends and colleagues) of low-level, everyday behaviour that has become the unfortunate constant in our careers:

"She was a young quiet intern and I didn't know a lot about her. She came to me one day for advice: "He [our boss] leans over the back of my chair and over my shoulder - trapping me. I don't like it. What can I do about it?". I didn't really know what to say."

+ What factors would stop you from speaking up?

+ If you were asked to intervene would you know what to say or do?

"There was an architect in our office who liked to hug women, some of whom were not comfortable with it. I could see it turning into a complaint so I took him aside and cautioned him. He was defensive, mad. "I'm just friendly!". That he was, but not all women in the office saw it that way."

+ What is your definition of "friendly?" in the workplace? What is "too-friendly"?

+ Think of some of your own 'boundary-crossing' behaviour - how could it have been perceived differently by others?

"The project team leader, 20 years my senior, drunkenly rubbed himself against me at the pub. I was mortified, I'd thought of him as a father figure. I couldn't look him in the eye for weeks afterward. His obvious guilt and my obvious shame actually meant that we got over it (we had to: the team were wondering what the hell was going on!)."

+ How does your team go about discussing appropriate and non-appropriate behaviour?

"There was a document controller who commented on the colour of my knickers when I was bending over at my desk one day. My boss saw and overheard the comment as he was walking past and we met eyes as I stood up. He did nothing."

+ What is your responsibility as a leader, colleague, friend, bystander?

"This guy made a comment about my breasts resting on my desk, as I was leaning forward from my chair. I wanted rip his head off. I think I did have a loud rant to the girl next to me….I was soooo angry!"

+ Do you have the words / behaviours / confidence to voice your boundaries at the time of concern?

"My senior colleague and I went to a client pitch where I’d had to put together a presentation. It went well. We left the meeting and took the lift down….which is when he said: “You're so hot right now, I could just f*ck you!”. I kid you not! I kept that to myself for a long time. It was only when a few girlfriends, who had also been working with him, came out with their OWN stories, did I actually tell them mine."

+ Does your silence fuel a work culture that condones inappropriate behaviour?

+ Does your work culture condone inappropriate behaviour by labeling it as "joking", "playful", "friendly" or "having a laugh"?

We all have boundaries. We've all stepped over someone's line and I'm sure we've all silently watched someone else step over the line. When our boundaries are violated it's not uncommon for people to get upset, get defensive and even for you to ruminate on it for weeks afterward. These actions may be perceived as slight but they do affect our wellbeing at work. If you are in the moment when you have witnessed a boundary being crossed what do you say? Here are some ideas:

  • "No"
  • "Stop"
  • "I'm finding that inappropriate"
  • "Let me tell you what I saw just then"
  • "I am upset by what just happened"
  • "I am not comfortable with that behaviour"

And, if you're on the receiving end of some of comments, here might be some responses for you to try:

  • "Oh, I have offended you"
  • "I'm sorry"
  • "I see that you are upset"
  • "Ok, I can respect your views"

It is not acceptable to say:

  • "Get a sense of humour!"
  • "But, I was just being friendly"
  • "It was just a joke!"

Above all, we need to respect ourselves and others. We need to be prepared for boundary violations to come our way and we need to communicate our feelings at the time of concern. Calling out unwanted behaviour is a chance to learn more about the people you work with, not a chance to cut them down.

+ What can your company do to facilitate a conversation on acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours in the office and onsite?

+ Can your team discuss acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours and individual boundaries? 

+ Have you given much thought to how you react when people cross your boundaries? What options can you give yourself? Can you practice these? 

Read the series of articles on the COMIT website here: Whats-it-Like-to-be-a-Woman-in-Construction

If you'd like a facilitated conversation on this topic at your company, then please give me a call.