Construction worker of 20 years SUZANNE KERVIN describes life in a male-dominated industry
HAVING been a bricklayer for 20 years I have witnessed both the good and the ugly side of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Since I was 17, incidents involving sexism, harassment and bullying were part of my daily battle, which I faced head on.
With the work of unions such as Ucatt, this has improved, although there is plenty of room for further work to be done.
I can recall incidents like the time I was quizzed in front of five male line managers about how I had sex with my partner — but it was me who was in the wrong when I challenged him back with the same question.
Or other cases like the abuse that lasted six months with one colleague, who referred to me as a slapper, a whore, a slut and a slag to my face in front of numerous other male colleagues.
This was witnessed by my line manager — who told me he’d called his own wife worse.
He also referred to me as “part-time” because he started at 7.30 and I started at 8 even though it was his decision to start 30 minutes earlier than our contracted start time.
I brought to his attention that not only was I a full-time bricklayer, I was also a full-time mum, and my day started much earlier than his.
When I brought this abuse to the attention of my bosses I was told that I was the cause of the confrontation, and mediation was the only way forward.
When I challenged my supervisor on this I was told to just get on with it.
On another occasion I went to the office to speak to my boss, only to have him rest his feet on my knees.
Workplace comments could also be unpleasant such as the allegation that I had left used sanitary towels and tampons all over the works vehicles and even that I was crouching on the seat to extract them.
Working in social housing, I have had problems with tenants. On one occasion a male tenant pinned me to his chest and demanded a kiss before I left his property. When I reported this to my female manager it was just laughed off.
It goes further than just sexual remarks and harassment.
Getting personal protective equipment has often been problematic. I was told I needed to purchase my own work boots as they didn’t have my size in the stores.
In general getting protective equipment that fits is a struggle as they are designed to fit men, not women, and ill-fitting equipment is nearly as dangerous as not wearing any.
I have also found it hard to be taken as seriously as my male colleagues, as though the input I gave was discredited due to me being “just a woman” and not a fully qualified tradesperson.
On one occasion I requested scaffolding — which was ignored, only for a male worker to fall from a ladder and end up in hospital.
On another occasion I was told to check tie wires in a 9'' wall by a manager even though I knew they don’t have them, and when I tried to explain this I was screamed at to “do as you are told and get on with it.”
These incidents are not uncommon in the modern workplace and this is why many women leave the industry early, most leaving before their late twenties.
My experiences have certainly not been entirely negative. I have worked alongside many male workers who encouraged and supported me. It is also becoming more commonplace to see women in the industry working on sites.
Fortunately things are improving, although slowly, through unions such as Ucatt fighting for equality and diversity in the construction industry.
Ucatt has recently introduced a women’s network and earlier this year it hosted its first women’s weekend school, which was a great success.
The new Women get Women campaign aims to double Ucatt’s female membership by its next national delegates conference in 2016.
To increase the number of women working in the industry I believe that Ucatt and a future Labour government need to ensure that all equality and diversity policies are pushed forward in the workplace and are not just seen as paper policies.
We need to encourage the young women of today to see that there are other career options rather than just becoming stereotypical beauticians, nail technicians or carers who are mostly on the minimum wage — that they can fulfil any role as well, if not better, than their male counterparts in construction.
Conditions and pay are coming into line with those received by male workers and the shoots of new growth for women within the industry are becoming visible.
Due to the long-term failure to train enough construction workers, as the industry continues to grow in 2015, skills shortages will increase.
These can only be dealt with if we train more apprentices, which must include more women.
Construction managers need to understand that the best man for the job may very well be a woman.
Suzanne Kervin is a Ucatt members and bricklayer from north-west England.