How to manage the risks of being a woman in construction: Using the 6 principles of Health & Safety.

It’s the half-way point of our questions from Becky and this week we have changed the question slightly as we feel it will still provide the right answer. First a recap of what we have looked at:

  • If the industry is so hostile to the idea of women being in construction, why would / should women choose it? (How to manage the risks of being a woman in construction)
  • If men don’t like the construction industry, why would women?
  • What do women have to gain by going into the construction industry instead of another industry that is already accommodating to her needs?
  • What are the risks and what are the potential gains?
  • Is it worth it in the end?

For the actual reasons why women should choose construction, look at this earlier blog; in this post I am going to focus on the things you should consider when making that choice and the tools you can use to manage your own career better.

Being an ex-site manager I thought it might be useful to look at this though the eyes of the Health & Safety principles.
Eliminate 

Reduce

Isolate

Control

PPE

Discipline

But first to the reasons why they are needed.

Let’s get this clear, it’s not that the industry and everyone in it is hostile to women. More that, as we highlighted last week, isolated groups or individuals can have a serious impact. On top of that there are less “hostile” actions such as sub-conscious bias and over-protection that can impact significantly on individuals’ careers.

Your role in the sector will dictate not only the types of challenges you might face but also the extent of the effect that they are able to have on you.
For example, if you are discriminated against in an office environment and work with other women in a similar role who are understanding and supportive and you are aware of the internal procedures to follow you are likely to feel supported.  Especially if the role also provides you with a good work life balance with regards to working hours (less than 37.5 hours per week), challenging work and routes to promotion.
If, though, you face discrimination on an isolated site where you are the only female (substitute gender here for any minority) and don’t feel there is support from your colleagues because they joined in a little and you‘re unaware of internal HR procedures because you have so little interaction from them, you might not feel as supported.  Particularly, if you are also working long hours (<50hrs per week average), have work that does not challenge you and have been unable to progress you career.
These are, of course, two extremes; the point being that the industry is not hostile to everyone all the time, but it’s handy to recognise the situations that are likely to be most difficult.  You can then decide if you are prepared to risk being put into these situations or not and manage around it where possible.

When I worked in the sector I felt that the fact that I was a woman was unimportant; it was my ability to do my job that counted. As my career progressed I realised that simply wasn’t true; just because it didn’t affect my ability to do my job, didn’t mean that other people wouldn’t see it that way and treat me different anyway.

This is why I would say it’s not that you shouldn’t work in construction, it’s that you should go in prepared; so let’s use health and safety tools to help us do that: –
Eliminate – First do a bit of reading – find out some of the experiences people have had in the sector and decide what you would not be prepared to risk. Eliminate the roles with high occurrences of behaviour that you would find unacceptable and keep the ones with smaller amounts. People have different tolerance levels so remember to pick what’s right for you and no one else.
Reduce – Now look a bit deeper – which companies provide strong support and are as a minimum aware of these issues? Try and pick a company that at least acknowledges you might have a different experience to men.
Isolate – Or in this case don’t – build yourself a network that you can relate to. Inside or outside the organisation; this does not have to be women or be all the same thing. You might have a senior male manager as a mentor, some male site managers that you have a drink with once a month and a formal externalnetworking group for women that you go to three times a year. What’s important is that you take a proactive stance by putting this network in place. NB  if you have  a networking group  you would like to see on our links page just drop us a line and let us know.
Control – Make sure that you talk to your managers on site about your expectations – tell them what you want from the role and where you want to go. If you think you can discuss with them what should happen if behaviours occur, keep it professional and positive and explain you’re sure things will be fine but this way everyone is on the same page. Also keep a diary if unacceptable behaviour happens; you don’t need to use it but its there as a back-up in case you do.
PPE – Dress smart and professionally – your clothes say a lot about you, even though they probably shouldn’t. If you want to progress, dress for where you want to go. Obviously, roles like site engineering or trades will murder a good suit before the week is out, but when you go to meetings in Head Office, or for other site roles that don’t have you wading around in man-holes, dress up.  Show you are a professional first, a builder second and a woman third when you are at work.
Discipline – If unacceptable behaviour happens, know in advance how you are going to deal with it.  This might seem negative, but it will give you a proactive plan and help you to feel in control of the situation. Be aware of your HR policies and try and get to know your HR team well, so if an issue occurs you have a friend to speak to not just a colleague.

You’ll find there are a lot of companies who genuinely want to increase their numbers of women and simply do not know, or understand, some of the challenges they face. Make it your mission to help them; don’t be ashamed of your gender or difference and don’t let others let you be demeaned, or demean you. Most people (myself included) say crass things because they don’t know any better; if all women in the sector started educating it a little I think we’d find ourselves, men and women alike, all a little bit better off.