What's it Like to be a Woman in Construction?

This is the first in our series of posts by women working in the construction industry about the issues they face. Please see the introductory post for why we are running it.

This post is by Su Butcher who has worked in construction since the late 1980's. She has a consultancy which advises construction companies how to sell to architects, in particular using digital methods. She supports COMIT by live blogging conferences and is on the Executive Team of the UK BIM Alliance.

Image source Department of Transport licensed under Creative Commons

About eighteen months ago after a brilliant conversation at a COMIT conference, Jason Scott asked me if I would write an article about my experiences being a woman in construction. It is only now that the Harvey Weinstein revelations are all over the papers and drifting across social media like a menacing cloud, that it finally seems like the right time to talk about it.

I didn’t intend to enter the construction industry as a career; my parents knew I was good at science and maths, and they thought I might like to be a doctor, or perhaps take a degree in physics, or at a stretch engineering. However, illness intervened briefly, and I had to interrupt my A level studies to spend a year recovering from glandular fever, after which a career in medicine was apparently no longer feasible. This produced a blessed rethink – I would have been an awful doctor - and, recognising that I was also quite a creative and visual person, my careers advisor’s early computer software recommended art restoration or architecture. I entered the Liverpool School of Architecture and Building Engineering a few months before my 21st birthday.

Fresher’s week was a real eye opener. There were five women in my year of 34, two of the women were mature students, and we had the school’s first wheelchair using architecture student. Two early incidents set the tone for my architectural education.

The first was an architecture student’s get together in the bar at the halls of residence, where a representative of Marley Roofing pulled out a video cassette (this was 1986) to play us. It was an advert for the Marley Strip-n-Fix roofing system and consisted of an attractive young lady taking her clothes off in front of a tiled roof.

The second was my first architectural history lecture (in fact the first lecture of my degree) with Quentin Hughes, a much loved and very elderly lecturer famous for articulating what made the architecture of Liverpool so special. His lecture presented a woman academic’s studies on how human culture evolved from tree dwellers, to beach dwellers before they became farmers. It also included about a dozen full frontal female nude photographs (mostly taken by David Bailey) and a photograph of Idi Amin followed by a photograph of an ape.

Now it would be amiss of me not to point out that on both of these occasions the audience did not simply sit there and take it. The Marley rep was, if I recall, swiftly despatched to whence he came, and a delegation of students went to the head of school to protest about the content of Quentin Hughes’ lecture. The outcome of this protest was simply the conclusion by the powers that be, that ‘Quentin is just Quentin’. Today that sounds a little more hollow even than it did at the time. Boris is just Boris after all, and Jimmy was just Jimmy as well. It was clear to us though, both male and female students, that we had entered an industry where being female, black or disabled was going to be a disadvantage.

There were a lot of incidents during my time at the University that reinforced these first impressions. One was when a recently elected President of the RIBA came to lecture us about his career and showed us several of his projects. When asked about his enthusiasm for putting large staircases on his buildings (including social housing) he decided that we were trying to catch him out, and that our disabled colleague was a plant. He was of the opinion that architects didn’t need to design for accessibility because technology was going to solve that problem.

Another was when I was encouraged not to get to know the lecturer who later became my mentor because he would continually comment on what women were wearing, not the men. And then there was a female student whose fellow students gave her an award for ‘well rendered front elevation’.

When I finished my first degree I took up a year out post with a lovely practice of architects in the city centre and (bless them) they gave me a sheltered housing site to manage. Before I went on site my boss made sure there were no girly calendars in the site office – indeed they were so progressive they put a clause in their contract to require it.

After ten months attending site, on my last visit the site QS apologised that there were no women’s toilets on site. He explained that this was because the additional cost would wipe out their profits. I hadn’t even thought about it, I was already too busy trying to be as male as possible.

So, what has the Harvey Weinstein situation got to do with my rather ordinary and not very shocking experiences in construction? I haven’t been assaulted (well not at work, anyway) or raped. I’ve been very lucky in comparison with the experiences of other women, it appears.

All these experiences are small, perhaps rather inconsequential in and of themselves. Almost not worth commenting on. But over time they build up to an understanding amongst women like me in the industry that it would be a lot more convenient if we were men.

The real reason why it is difficult for me to even mention this topic is because as soon as we do we identify ourselves as women, and therefore as other to those with conscious or unconscious bias. As long as you don’t talk about it, there’s a possibility that people won’t notice.

This was brought home to me two years ago when I attended the CIOB Construction Manager of the Year awards as a guest. I blogged about the experience at the time, how a string quartet of scantily clad young ladies wound the drunk, almost entirely male, audience into a frenzy by leaning provocatively over their tables and doing the cancan. I also told of the sexist and racist comedian at the construction computing awards that same autumn. I took a step out into the air and called myself a woman, and more, I said I was a woman who was unhappy about how women in construction are treated.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Apart from one troll, I received support, encouragement and enthusiasm from women in construction and across the world who identified with my concern and told me their stories, both about how much they loved working in construction and how they had similar experiences and wished it were different.

But you might have noticed I haven’t written about it again, because in all honesty, pointing out that I’m female is weirdly uncomfortable in my work. I’d rather keep my femininity to my personal life, it just makes things easier for me and some of the people I work with. I do, however recognise the huge sacrifice women who work in the areas of discrimination, equality, cognitive bias, accessibility and LGBTQ rights make. Particularly because I’m not yet ready to walk in that glaring light every day myself.

So, when you’re reading the stories of women speaking out and ask yourself ‘why didn’t they say something?”, remember that like many of us, it isn’t just fear of losing your job that keeps you quiet, it can simply be that doing so actually makes doing your job a lot harder.


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