A guy in a hardhat calls out to a woman walking past a construction site, “Hey, ya looking hot.” The woman shoots back, “Get a friggin’ life, you moron.” Sitting amidst 5 male co-workers, the catcaller slowly rises to his feet and soulfully says, “You know what? Toxic masculinity is a set of velvet handcuffs and gender norms have the hidden key.”
This is the conclusion of a Saturday Night Live sketch with Charles Barkley playing the woke worker who opens the eyes of his construction brothers as he muses on why women’s clothes have the best colors. The guys explore the fashion choices they would have if only they were women. “My closet is a sea of tans and browns. “Why do women get to echo the seasons in playful ways?”
Just a joke or have guys in construction really changed?
In another, much more serious, video that made the rounds of social media recently, five men who work in construction in Texas discuss how the #MeToo movement has affected their work lives. Their stories of how their female co-workers are treated are stereotypical and not pretty. Lewd pictures of women drawn on walls, sexist and abusive comments. They have all seen it. One acknowledges that women “sometimes have to work twice as hard to get the job.” Two admit to behavior they are not proud of when they were younger. The discussion is thoughtful and sensitive, but none see themselves as part of the problem. The HR guy thinks it’s not really harassment if the woman plays along and he brings a witness whenever he talks to a woman. The ex-Marine thinks life is the way it is and it’s impossible to change the construction workplace but, in the same sentence, says “together we can work it out.” He echos a sentiment often expressed by men when he says, “I don’t know what the MeToo movement is but my big changing point was my daughters…” Women of the #MeToo movement have asked if men really need to have female relatives in order to overcome their own sexism? When one guy questions the legitimacy of harassment that happened years ago (“…depending on how bad it was… It’s his word against her word, right?”), another defends the right of women who have been shamed into silence. “With the MeToo movement that’s the whole point of it is, ‘you’re not crazy. I know you were scared back then.'” The discussion concludes with these younger guys saying the construction workplace has changed and that the problems of the sexist and hostile workplace are dying with an older generation.
This is a feeling expressed by many tradeswomen working in Boston today. While threats and danger still exist (see our February post on the murder of Laborer Outi Hicks), the everyday working life of Boston’s tradeswomen is very different from what it was a decade or more ago. The number of tradeswomen has tripled in Massachusetts and not being the only women on a site is a common work day experience for tradeswomen today in Boston. These changes may indeed also change men. A study of the military in Norway found that the best way to get men to change their attitudes about women working in male-dominated environments was to have men work with more women. Women were assigned to some Norwegian miliary boot camps and not to others. Researchers concluded that living and working with women “causes men to adopted more egalitarian attitudes.” (Research– often the big duh!)
These changes were anticipated twenty years ago when the women of the HASWIC (Health and Safety of Women in Construction) work group made this recommendation to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:
“To address the problem of workplace isolation of female construction workers, employers, apprenticeship programs, and unions (where responsible) should assign female workers in pairs, or more when possible, especially those who are relatively new to the construction trade.”
More women on sites has made the work safer and less stressful for women. It has also made it normal for women and many of the men. In a video on dealing with gender bullying produced by the British Columbia WorkSafe program, longtime Electrician Kelly Keinleitner says, “Do I have to be the female journey? … I don’t think there’s gender in trades other than two– apprentice and journey. That’s it.”
Construction, at least in Boston, is less and less a “man’s world” and more and more a world of highly qualified and proud construction workers.