Sharon Gordon has spent 23 years in the industry and has gained the respect of her male colleagues. But, as she tells Sarah Richardson, it ain’t been easy …
Everybody makes a bargain with their job, and everybody’s bargain involves a loss and a gain. The demands construction makes of workers at the sharp end is well known to anybody who’s been on a site at eight on a February morning. The compensations are the camaraderie and the sense of being up to a rough-tough job, of doing man’s work.
But what if you happen to be a woman?
A diversity report for the Construction Industry Council (CIC), published in May, found that 13.5% of construction’s workers were women, compared with 46% in the working population as a whole. And that includes white collar professions such as architecture and quantity surveying, where women make up a much higher percentage of the workforce than contracting.
But the industry is part of society and reflects its attitudes and assumptions. So, the only professional body with anything like sexual equality is the Landscape Institute, because, presumably, of its congruence with gardening. When it comes to site work, dealing with the behaviour often exhibited by groups of men – laddishness, aggression and a quest for dominance – must play a part in determining the industry’s bargain with a woman who enters that environment.
To find more about how extreme these pressures can be, Building spent a day with Sharon Gordon, a 39-year-old contracts manager for Osborne. During her 23 years in the industry she has had to deal with colleagues who have bullied her, residents who have sexually threatened her, and employers who have made it clear they don’t believe she is up to the job. She has also established herself as a force to be reckoned with on the sites where she works.
Sharon is a little over five feet tall, smartly but casually dressed, with gold hoop earrings, and impeccable groomed. She is also black, which puts her in an extremely select group: according to the CIC report, the ”black, Asian and ethnic minorities” make up 2% of the workforce.
The working day begins in a site hut in the middle of a notorious Camden estate, which is being upgraded to the government’s Decent Homes standard. The hut is an office and a canteen, and the burning issue that morning is the mysterious disappearance of the spoons. A steady stream of men come in looking for one.
“Are you here for the day, or is it a flying visit?” asks one.
“Why?” Sharon asks, “Don’t you want me?”
“Ohhh, don’t ask me that,” he says, looking her ostentatiously up and down.
The exchange sets the tone for much of Sharon’s chat. “You have to both be a woman and not a woman, if that makes sense,” she tells me once the worker has left. “But most of the banter isn’t personal.” Sharon is generally addressed as “love” or “darling”, but she doesn’t mind that either. “They’re all my loves and darlings,” she says. “When I started, people tried to be really PC, but I prefer it like this. I don’t take offence.”
How did I get here?
The banter hasn’t always been this benign, particularly when Sharon started out in the industry. She began as an apprentice electrician in 1986 after her school found her a placement with Islington council. Sharon, who had an interest in electronics, quickly got the hang of the job and was encouraged to apply for a traineeship. The council took on two girls and two boys that year, but Sharon says the progressive attitude of her employer was not shared by her colleagues.
“The men on site tried to see which girl they could break, and if they didn’t, they’d say you were a lesbian. Two years in, I had a terrible day. They sent me to five cafes for their tea order, and I went home and told my mum I wasn’t doing it any more.” Sharon’s mum, a chef, wasn’t having it. “She said: ‘You finish the course, then you can leave’.”
Sharon stuck it out, but it wasn’t easy. “The men would tell us: ‘You’re taking these jobs away from our sons.’ It was the eighties, I thought things had changed for women, but there they hadn’t at all.” The men would take delight in giving her the most unglamorous jobs. “I got filthy dirty, covered in soot. But every time I was told I wouldn’t be able to do something, I’d do it. I used to have a thing about beetles and spiders, but not any more.”
Sharon completed the course, and began her progress from reactive maintenance worker to contracts manager on Decent Homes programmes. On the way, she has worked at Kier and Balfour Beatty, and has sat a number of tests in the industry’s school of hard knocks. At Balfour, for example, she was given three months to get one of its divisions its NICEIC accreditation, even though her predecessor had tried and failed to do it in a year. She did it with two days to spare. “I asked what I should do next and they said enjoy it, put your feet up. That wasn’t for me, so I left.” Another contractor, which she declines to name, told her frankly that she’d hit the glass ceiling, so she left and got a better position elsewhere.
Sex and violence
I’ve realised that I can manipulate men – and I do. I don’t mean I’m overly flirtatious, I just behave ordinarily. I enjoy the fact that I’m a woman rather than hiding it
Women who show aggression tend to be regarded as emotional, if not hysterical. But of course the construction industry, with its recognisably military, or perhaps mercenary, culture tends to communicate through barked commands and finger-in-the-chest bollockings. So how does Sharon handle that side of the job?
One method is calculated blandness. “When I started taking apprentices to jobs the resident would speak to them because they were the man. That annoyed me – particularly when they answered back. So I’d tell them, if you know so much, you go in there and do the job yourself. When they couldn’t, I got more respect.”
Business relationships are dealt with in a businesslike way. Back in the site cabin, Sharon’s phone rings. It’s a call about a contract on which she’s having problems. She is clipped and to the point. “It’s a difficult one, that: I’m thinking of suspending one of the subcontractors.”
But what about the type of men who had resented her existence when she was taking their malicious lunch orders? Her first line of defence is her technical competence: once she’s in a flat she gives a brisk but authoritative commentary on areas she doesn’t consider up to scratch. Also, the industry is fairly hierarchical, and direct challenges are unpleasant, but obviously out of order. “Once we were all out on a Friday, and one guy who had a chip on his shoulder about me had too much to drink. He started having a go and then went to swing at me.” She pauses and smiles. “But of course, the other guys stepped in and told him off.”
The other difficult question for women is the extent to which they can express their sexual identity. One problem here is that men have been known to confuse patronising comments, or indeed crude innuendo, with flirtation, and in a predominantly male workplace this can take on a competitive character. Some women try to pre-empt this by wearing more unisex clothes than they would in another job. Not Sharon. Apart from her personal protective equipment, her clothes, hair and make-up are no different to the average office worker.
She was a tomboy as a teenager and a fairly militant feminist in her twenties: “If a man said I looked lovely, I’d threaten to report him.” These days she has a more sophisticated strategy. “I’ve realised that I can manipulate men – and I do.” The skill, of course, is not to take things too far. “I don’t mean I’m overly flirtatious, I just behave ordinarily. I enjoy the fact that I’m a woman rather than hide it.” The men seem to know this too, and enjoy their role in the game – while Sharon has been ’fessing up, Shaun, another worker on the hunt for spoons, winks at me behind her back and shakes his head sadly.
As with the belligerent drinker, there are cruder dangers to being a woman in Sharon’s position. In previous jobs she has had her share of bad experiences in flats on the estates where she’s been working.
“There’ve been a few times I’ve felt uncomfortable,” she says. This is an understatement. “I’ve been locked in a flat by a resident who was approaching me in a sexual way.” Then there was the time that a tenant met her wearing a towel, and then sat on the sofa. “I knew something wasn’t right, so I said I needed to pop to the office and thankfully my boss agreed to come back with me. The man was naked when we arrived.”
The problem of combining family life with working life are pretty much universal for women, but construction, with its deadline-driven, 12-hour-day culture, drives a harder bargain than most. Sharon’s daughter, Saffron, is 10, and Sharon has been a single mother for the past six years. That means the school run in the morning and relying on her parents and Saffron’s father to handle the afternoons. “She’ll stay at her dad’s tonight because I have a 7am start. I need to plan things. Mum and Dad have to know where I am all the time. It can be invasive, but I need to do it. I don’t plan my weekends, though.”
Saffron sometimes complains if she isn’t there, “but I tell her, just give mum a couple of weeks and it’ll be okay”. And it seems she is aware that Sharon’s job is prestigious: the virtues of toughness, self-reliance, knowing how to handle yourself are as much feminine as masculine qualities, but few industries allow women to display them so visibly. So, Saffron is proud of her mum. “When I worked at Kier she used to come in with me a lot, and she knew all the men there. She’s going into school and saying: ‘Mummy’s a builder; I’d like to be like her’.”
Saffron’s father was more of a problem. Sharon moved to a new job when six weeks pregnant, and didn’t stay long: Saffron beat her delivery deadline by two months. While this was happening her new employer was making redundancies, and she felt compelled to return to work within two months of the birth. This may have saved her job, but her partner resented her decision. Nor did he like the amount of time she spent with men. One Friday, he turned up unexpectedly when she was having an after-work drink. “It was just me and 20 men, and he started trouble. It was not long after that we split up.” Sharon’s current boyfriend is the first that doesn’t have a problem with her working with men.
Despite the obvious difficulties, Sharon says she’d like to see more women in the industry. She says she only knows one other female contracts manager, and that many of the women she has met in the sector have now left “to become estate agents or mums”. She says more girls ought to realise the independence the industry can offer them. “My brother [now a carpenter] and I decided when we were young that if we started a day with no money, we wanted to be able to earn something by the end.” Now, she says, she earns more than many of her friends.
Sharon says the lack of role models puts girls off the idea of a career in construction. “I don’t see women going into schools and telling kids about the industry.” This, unfortunately, is a circular argument: why do few women go into construction? Because of its macho culture. Why does it have a macho culture? Because so few women go into it.
What is clear after spending a day with Sharon is that those who do carve out a career require a range of personal, social and technical skills that women in other professions may have, but don’t need in the same way. For most women, there are easier bargains to be made elsewhere.
The CIC report mentioned earlier commented that there are 62% more female doctors and dentists in 2007 than there were in 1997. One factor here may be the cracks appearing in the glass ceiling: there has been a steady rise in the number of women doctors who reach the rank of consultant (21% of them were female in 1997, 27% in 2007); by contrast, the best 50 employers in construction, as listed by Building’s Good Employer Guide, averaged precisely one female equity partner or board member apiece. So, next week we will be looking at the pressures on women at the highest echelons of the industry.