January 31, 2014 by Abby Ferri
Where my girls at?? This post is aimed at you. Don’t worry guys, it is for you too, if you are willing to think outside of the hard hat a bit.
Since day one of my career as a safety professional in (mostly) construction, the question I’m most commonly asked is “what’s it like being a female in your field?” The question is asked in multiple ways, so I’m paraphrasing because sometimes the question comes off horribly!
My short answer – it is great! I know the asker is always looking for more drama in my response, but it REALLY has been great. I’ll explain why, and hopefully you can glean some lessons off of my experience that you can put to work for you – female or male – general industry or construction.
1. People expected that I didn’t know anything.
This was because I am female AND came straight from college, two strikes! I’ve walked onto projects not knowing a single thing about the work, we ALL have – that’s part of the learning process. It is only magnified by the fact that construction is a dynamic field with new building methods, terminology, and tools always emerging. My big secret when you’re in that new situation? Ask questions!
As a female, I could ask all kinds of questions that a male in my position may have been looked down upon for asking. I learned quickly that men love to talk about their jobs. I continue to learn so much in my career by simply asking “what are you doing?” The answers have helped me craft detailed activity hazard analysis documents, specialized training programs, and allow me to confidently communicate with jobsite personnel, superintendents, project managers, and executives.
The males in my field are assumed to have a working knowledge of the tools and processes of the trade because they’re men. At the beginning of my career, I assumed this general male knowledge too. That perspective changed when I found myself teaching a group of 25 crane operators the basic parts of a crane!! Remember the old phrase “never assume, it makes an ass out of u and me?” If you are to succeed in safety, you must live by this. NEVER ASSUME. It’s literally dangerous. If you must assume something, assume that no one knows anything. Or as we say in construction, “common sense isn’t so common.”
I’m not suggesting that you walk around arrogantly thinking everyone is a dummy! Approach each situation as a teachable moment to save embarrassment on both sides. Practice this often so that you can learn your natural approach that works for you.
Those of you who come from an academic background vs. having come up through the field ranks can have a disadvantage. The field personnel may see you as less knowledgeable. You’ve got to listen first, and then offer corrections or education. If you don’t listen first, you will be perceived as a bookish know-it-all and be immediately written off. Take some time to learn and show appreciation for those who have been working in trenches, literally, their entire career.
2. Everything was brand new.
When I attended my first safety committee meeting of the Associated General Contractors group in San Diego, I think there was one other woman at the table. This was just over 10 years ago. Even though these were modern times, a woman on the jobsite in a safety role was still relatively new. When everything is new, you can do exciting things.
I lived by the phrase “if you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” Because I was new to the jobsites, the crews expected there would be new ways of doing things, so they were more receptive to new policies. I had to work to maintain their initial reception, but not having the initial pushback for the sake of pushing back in most cases was helpful.
For either gender, you must maintain that dynamic by following through. When the guys would ask me for help, like getting them face shields that fit their hard hats or ensuring better access to gloves that wear out quickly – I followed through and that endeared me to the workforce. Whether it was things or information, always follow through. If you can’t get it or don’t know the answer, tell them the truth and then get back to them. Always.
3. Show that you care.
The men on the jobsites looked to me as someone who cared, like a mother figure. This is the foundation of why being a female on the jobsite is not that bad, caring for the safety of others is a mostly natural position for a woman. I’d often say “I actually care about you guys!” during safety meetings and training. It’s a funny thing to say, but it really is how I feel. I will always fight for those in the construction industry, they are often overlooked or taken for granted. I care about you!!
If you don’t naturally care about the safety and well-being of the personnel at your site, this may not be the right job for you. If you aren’t viewed as a caring person, male or female, you must find what your natural approach is. Safety for the sake of education, pride, or other motivation – I’m not going to judge, use what works for you.
I’m looking forward to your feedback on this subject. I’m already planning a Part 2.1!!