Erica Lay, project manager at BAA, draws on her on-site experiences to offer some advice to girls in the industry
Am I the typical construction woman? Hardly. More concerned with Gucci sandals than CAT boots; I got barred from my own site once for wearing flip-flops. Well, actually, I'd just popped in to check up on my way to a Sunday afternoon barbecue.

I'm 23 and a project manager. I've been building for five years and have just completed year three of my five-year part-time BSc in construction management at the University of Westminster. My current employer is BAA; I'm working in the Terminal 1 Future Concepts Southern Extension Team.

In this piece, I hope to give you an insight into what it's like for me, working in the construction industry.

I found myself working in construction by accident. I joined Harrods on completion of my A levels as a career trainee. There, I experienced several different jobs, including two months in technical services, shadowing, which is when the lightning struck – I'd found a job I could actually see myself doing: project management. Soon I was running my own shopfitting projects.

The team I worked for were superb; they let me off the reins and guided me through the projects from a distance, so I was able to learn quickly. I was also encouraged, supported and given responsibilities. And I was taken down the pub every other night. Which was nice …

So what's it like being the only woman on site? Interesting. Some assume I get work done by looking girlie, and to be honest sometimes that works. I've often heard phrases like: "Well, just for you, darling/sweetheart/angel, I'll get that done." A smile and a "thanks" sometimes gets more out of them than demanding results.

Please, don't get me wrong – I don't wander down on site fluttering my eyelashes; that doesn't work and I wouldn't want to be accused of setting feminism back 50 years. As long as that line isn't overstepped and they don't try to walk over me, then fine. I may work in construction, but I'm still a woman, and I do like to have the odd door held open for me. I don't expect to be treated like a man, but I do deserve respect, which most times I'm given.

It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as it is, without having a reputation for crying out about sexual harassment

When you walk onto your own site and get stared at like a piece of meat, you have to be confident enough to stare back. People ask me if I ever get used to it, and quite honestly, I'd have to say no.

But when a new site opens I make sure I show my face from the start so that the lads know exactly who I am, in order to avoid too many embarrassing comments.

Last week I realised one lad had followed me into a site area and was grinning madly at me. I had taken a bit of grief that day, so this was uncalled for, but he was really gawping at me. As I walked past him, I winked and said, "What's up with you? Never seen a pair of tits in a suit before, son?" His mate nearly fell off his ladder laughing.

On my first shopfit site, one guy targeted me as soon as I walked through the door and started to make fun of me, to the amusement of his audience. Fortunately, he left himself wide open with his poor jokes, so I was able to retaliate – to the even further amusement of his audience. In the end, he admitted defeat, and every time I visited site afterwards we got on famously. I guess on first impressions, if I charge in and don't smile I'm perceived as an uptight, stuck-up bitch – which I'm not. I like to have a laugh, but do take my job seriously. A balance has to be reached, and I think I'm getting there slowly.

Joking aside, it can get a little frightening at times. Sometimes having an innocent joke with the guys can be taken the wrong way. It seems some men are still of the mentality that if I talk to them, I'm flirting. On one occasion I kept receiving unwanted text messages and phone calls from a contractor. I wouldn't want to get any senior management on either side involved; it's hard enough to be taken seriously as it is, without having a reputation for crying out about sexual harassment. The way I see it is you have to be strong-minded to do this job; you can't be weak, otherwise people will walk over you. As a last resort, "fuck off" usually does the trick.

Women in construction