Inappropriate language in construction, what it represents and why that affects the whole of the sector.

Chrissi3-300x202This week we posted a link to a survey carried out by CITB on language in the construction industry which then proceeded to generate a large number of comments for / against and slightly off tangent. Whilst I attempted to address some comments there I felt that I needed the space this blog affords to do it justice. So let’s have a look at the themes that developed over the course of the comments and see how they impact the wider industry.

There are more important issues – for example skills.

This argument doesn’t really hold much water – at what point is there not always something more important, be that skills, late payments, hunger, disease, death…..? This is usually a technique used to undervalue the worth of something which in this case is the way we treat people in construction.

Oddly enough though, in this case – where skills and training were used to display a more important issue – there was a failure to note the link between the two.  Contrary to popular belief, inappropriate language is not something that only affects the group it is aimed at; most people I know are uncomfortable with comments that are racist and sexist, especially in the workplace as they taint everyone in the industry. Additionally these values are increasingly important to those who are being taught in colleges and schools that this is not acceptable. So we must be careful as an industry that we are not putting off the potential talent that benefit most from training within those establishments and would go on to make our lives easier at work ..

“Sorry about the swearing – I know you hate it.”

I don’t. I swear a lot and often without repeating myself. I just know what’s appropriate in the workplace and what’s appropriate down the pub. Every time anyone who knows me reads something like this they laugh and say, “Well they don’t know you then, do they?”

But this is still an important comment – it’s a passive aggressive statement with a subtext of “if you don’t like swearing you’re too delicate to be on site anyway” or, ”if you like swearing how can you agree with these comments?”.

Firstly swearing has nothing to do with my ability to work on site, secondly whilst I do occasionally slip up and swear at work I believe that in a professional work environment people should feel comfortable in the workplace, and not because I’m cute and kind (my staff will point you right on that one), but because I want to keep my best staff – making them feel uncomfortable, intimidated and stressed is a really bad way to do that. The industry as a whole really needs to learn this lesson. 

Whilst the CITB are looking into this most heinous of crimes. Could they explain the current situation regarding the criteria for a construction managers position. Currently everyone on site has to have the relevant CSCS card to prove competence.

“The CITB are the cause of most of it too.”

The CITB are a big organisation, they have a lot of challenges but they also do a lot of good. As a sector, if we are unhappy with them we need to help them improve – attacking them and weakening their position will, at best, only result in the downfall of the grant and levy systems which would be disastrous for industry training and skill levels. – But that’s a blog and a debate for another day and for someone other than us.

“It’s just Banter”

When we deliver training on banter we split it into three areas: –

The good – this is where banter makes everyone happy, people are productive, good to work with, happy and love what the good banter brings to the job. Keep this – it’s amazing!

The bad – so people mess up…a lot. The world is complicated and things change. If someone doesn’t mean to offend and has just been a bit stupid, I think that’s ok – as long as it’s an environment where it’s ok to say “that’s a bit offensive, would you mind not?” You see, if you think it’s ok to make people feel bad at work, the problem is with you not the person you’ve offended. I’ve offended in the past – probably more than I’ve been offended if I’m honest. The trick is in owning it, not making it a problem – just saying “sorry, I’m an eijit, I’ll make you a cuppa.”

The Ugly – this is a lot of what we are seeing here; it’s not banter, it’s power, abuse and bullying. If your jokes need to be based on those in society with less opportunity, firstly, I hate to break it too you but you’re not as funny as you think you are. Secondly, no one should want this in their workplace, it is ugly and it’s unprofessional and it tells the world that we don’t manage people – we bully them.

Trust me on this, we have delivered training on the subject to hundreds of people that work on site and the majority agree that they love banter – just not the ugly stuff. The ones that don’t have a problem with the ugly banter have clearly already used it as a weapon to undermine others.  Let’s not have an industry controlled by that mentality – the majority don’t want it, they just think everyone else does.

“What’s worse – remarks on site, or the glass ceiling?”

For me, remarks on site are not the biggest problem though they are a good indicator. For example, if your car was leaking oil you wouldn’t scrap it – you would be suspicious that it might be part of a bigger problem and you’d fix it before it breaks completely or change it. If we have a sector that sees no problem with sexist and racist remarks what does that mean? Could it be indicative of general attitudes about women, black people or gay people in the sector? Fixing and changing is a long job but we’re on the case.

When I worked in industry I thought it was about me – if I worked hard, if I proved myself, then everything would fall into place – bless my cotton socks. You see, that doesn’t really matter – if my boss does not think women are as capable as men I will always have to work harder to change that view. The problem is women are not rising up through the ranks, more are coming into the sector each year and then leaving – the same for those from black minority ethnic backgrounds. So yes, the glass ceiling is worse; my managers were always a bigger problem with regards to discrimination than the trades on site.

Again this is a complex area where paternalism, power and abuse all play a part ,but we have written about it here in more detail.

“What’s worse site or office?”

The whole industry has challenges from Architecture to Quantity Surveying, from Groundworker to Setting-out engineer. The challenges differ with regards to many factors, including power, position and, even, attractiveness.

An interesting point was made about page three girls preferring site to office environments, but I would point out that this may (or may not) have more to do with class than gender. As a working-class woman I have always felt more at home on site than in an office. Sites are more likely to be home to the people that I grew up with, hung around with and went drinking with. Things have changed as I’ve got older, and I have become comfortable around people across the full social spectrum, but the point remains – as women, we are more than just a woman; someone who is Asian is more than just their culture and a sixty year old is more than their age.  These are not our sole identifying factors or attributes – these things inform parts of who we are but they are not the definition of us, and nor do they mean that we hold the right to speak on behalf of all women, Asian people or sixty year olds.

I’m not surprised by the findings of that CITB research. 61% have heard sexist remarks – how many have stood up and said its wrong? I’d probably agree a lot of it is said in banter, but one persons banter can be offensive to others.

“It doesn’t bother me – or others.”

I liked Sharon’s response to Ian here so I shall let her respond first:

My experience is that women in construction are thick-skinned and deal with the sexist remarks, it doesn’t mean we like it, it doesn’t mean things shouldn’t change, and it is probably a barrier to those less thick-skinned joining the industry. I would say in the office there is bad language, but I have never heard anything homophobic or racist, and it’s very rare to hear anything blatantly sexist. But as I said before it doesn’t mean these prejudices don’t exist, they are just more subtle about it.”

Ian, you have just made a very key point there – the assumption is that if you work in construction you have to put up with sexist remarks. Do you not think that is what puts off 50% of the population from working in the industry? I enjoy my job, I enjoy being involved in the construction of buildings – seeing projects from start to finish, being able to drive passed a building and say I was involved in the construction of that. Why should I have to put up with sexist remarks to be involved with that?

“The research is flawed.”

This I’ll agree with, but I’m not bothered by – the reason being is that it echoes mountains of other published research written on the subject, the assumption being that such a large volume of research can’t all be flawed. I’ve managed to read around 250 published reports (which we have linked to some in the research section of our site) and they all say the same thing if not worse. The AJ also does a study every year which reports similar findings.

“Does it matter?”

But the important point is it does matter. Not the remarks themselves, but what they are an indication of; the general attitude toward people in certain groups is indicative of something bigger and much uglier. Something which is, whether you choose to see it or not, the reason that so many people (men and women, black and white, young and old, gay, straight and bi) no longer want to work in the sector.

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