Over half the women in our survey said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace. It’s time to act.
“My manager actually laughed when I went to him about harassment I was experiencing. Why did he find it funny? Because so many other women had complained about the same individual.” This is just one of many shocking and frankly depressing accounts of harassment experienced by women working in construction.
Over half the women in our survey said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace. Perhaps even more troubling is that nearly two-thirds of them say harassment occurred within the last five years – putting paid to any apologists out there who might try to claim it is a problem of the past only affecting women with long careers going back to more chauvinist times.
Behind the statistics are some disturbing accounts of the suffering and lasting damage harassment causes. Women talk of offensive “banter”, “predatory and disgusting” behaviour, being groped in front of colleagues in an open plan office or at work social events, having sexual comments yelled at them on site, repeated and unwanted sexual advances from co-workers, refusing to have sex with a manager and then being overlooked for promotion.
One survey response in particular sticks out for its defiant rallying cry: “I’m sick of it all. Change must happen.” That says it all
What is perhaps most chilling is that these women’s struggles have so often been made harder by employers or line managers who didn’t seem to care, didn’t act appropriately and in some cases made matters worse. One woman recalls that after reporting a man who had cornered her and asked her to perform a sexual act, her employer failed to reprimand him and made her feel as if she was to blame. In another account a respondent describes fearing her career would suffer rather than her colleague’s if she reported his behaviour. Such concerns are understandable: one respondent says after she reported an incident she was made redundant and required to sign a “gagging” agreement.
“Routine” sexism is also identified as a major concern in our survey. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences women face, from being subjected to casual sexist comments and receiving taunts for being pregnant, to being ridiculed for not joining in macho drinking sessions as well as being condescended to and having their professional skills dismissed by male colleagues.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the frustration, anger and in some cases despair in these accounts. Many women say they have felt forced out of their jobs; others are considering leaving the industry altogether. Aside from the personal pain suffered, it is also incredibly sad to hear about all this wasted talent – careers thwarted or cut short in an industry that is desperate to attract skilled workers.
Several men in the survey criticise what they consider to be instances of “positive discrimination” and feel a 50/50 gender split in construction is “unrealistic”
Inevitably, we search for reasons, something to blame. Is it the self-perpetuation of male bias in the industry? Just 13.5% of the sector is made up of women, barely more than two decades ago. And that figure more than halves if you only consider women working in actual construction roles rather than simply for construction firms. Some respondents are clearly tired of the well-worn debates about the lack of women in construction. Several men in the survey criticise what they consider to be instances of “positive discrimination” and feel a 50/50 gender split in construction is “unrealistic”. One woman voiced an anxiety that efforts to counter perceived obstacles can backfire, with the result that the appointment or promotion of a woman could be dismissed as tokenistic.
But are women really expected to be acquiescent when faced with barriers that quash their talent? Yes, we need to point to positive stories, women who are doing well in their careers, companies with inspiring initiatives and some of the real gains women have made. But, as Dana Denis-Smith says in her blog, we also need reminding of how far the industry still has to go in tackling injustices in the workplace. The pay gap is an obvious example: last year Lendlease was the first major contractor to publish its pay gap data, revealing that women earn a third less than men. So far only 17 construction companies are listed on the government’s gender pay gap website; all show women earning less than men. ONS data also shows that the pay gap for some jobs, such as building trade supervisors, is as high as 44%. While these facts are shaming, knowing them is valuable. Progress cannot be made unless we know the scale of the challenge, acknowledge it and set about correcting the disparity.
That’s why it’s good to hear women speaking out in this survey. The new mood created by the #MeToo campaign should mean accounts like these are more likely to be believed in future. But we cannot stop there. Harassment, discrimination and bullying – of men and women – can only happen if people at the top allow a certain culture to permeate their organisations. It’s time those leaders – and let’s face it, in this industry as in others that mostly means men – introduce and promote zero tolerance policies, proper training for managers and clear complaints procedures. One survey response in particular sticks out for its defiant rallying cry: “I’m sick of it all. Change must happen.” That says it all.
Follow Chloe on Twitter @chloemcculloch1