The Female Dilemma: Dealing with Unwanted Attention in the Workplace
Having recently changed jobs and joining a construction team that has been running with a project for 2 years brings on a whole new challenge, not just as the newbie, but also as a female in an industry that is dominated by men. To say that is stressful would be an understatement.
Already living in South Africa as a woman is dangerous and challenging when we look at the number of women who are murdered daily and those who disappear, never to be seen again. It makes it hard to trust any man and makes it even worse when that man is new in your circle and you don’t have any information from anyone on the kind of person he is. As a result, everyone is eyed with a little bit of suspicion.
Being based on site and in a place that is so far from your home base that you can only go home to touch base once a month can be incredibly difficult; personal doubt creeps in and at the same time having to deal with the unwanted and unnecessary male attention from co-workers and labourers on site. These host of challenges would make you think about wanting to give up and lose out on the site work because you convince yourself that there’s enough work in the site office to keep you busy during the work day, but deep down you know that your fear of the males on site keeps you in the office, thereby limiting as much interaction and unwanted attention as possible.
My experience is that most men in construction see women in one of three ways;
- A clueless little mouse who doesn’t know anything about the industry and will require babysitting. Never mind the fact that you went to an interview and outclassed the men that you were pitted against.
- A doll who only got the job because she’s a woman and who thrives on male attention. I mean, why else would a woman choose to be in an industry that means that you are surrounded by men for 10hours in a day?
- If you happen to be assertive and they see that you know your job then it means you want to be a man. You cannot just be a woman who knows and loves her job.
How are we as women supposed to navigate growing our careers, being wives, mothers, girlfriends, daughters, but most importantly as employees, without feeling like we are second class citizens because we are women? How do we manage not to be afraid of the men that we work with? How do we deal with the unwanted attention and unnecessary abuse thrown at us because we are women?
I have learned to do a couple of things to help me navigate some of these muddy waters and I will share with you how I deal with these:
- I really don’t make friends. I know it sounds weird but hear me out. I do not make friends, I have co-workers that I talk to at work; we grab lunch together, we chill at the braais, but my co-workers are not my friends. I do not hang out with my co-workers outside of work. I don’t talk to any of them about my personal life. I have found that this helps me in avoiding a situation where that co-worker can find himself comfortable enough to make his moves on me. Avoiding them outside of work at all costs makes this so much easier, and the greatest thing about this is that they will keep asking you to join them, but if you say no enough times then they eventually stop asking and you never have to come up with excuses anymore.
- I always make eye contact when making an important point. When we are speaking about work I will always maintain eye contact to let them know that I am confident in what I am saying.
- I never ever make small talk with the construction teams on site. This way the guys never have an opportunity to be inappropriate with me because they do not have the chance to be.
- I treat everyone with respect but I also make sure that I am not a walk over. I know my worth and I walk, talk and show it daily.
Women on site are subjected to all sorts of abuse and unwanted attention from their co-workers be it labourer, foremen, operators and all the other men on site. We are subjected to this abuse because we are born female and we choose to work in a male-dominated industry. Unfortunately, we as women have to learn to deal with it and just do what we are paid to do because, unfortunately, as much as we want it to change it will never change until the men in the industry stand up and change it.
As women, we can scream, cry and beat our chests about it, but until the men decide that enough is enough, until that day comes, we will continue to be too scared to go out for drinks with the guys on Friday night. We will continue to sleep with our doors locked in the commune and we will continue to be that girl who likes her own company.
My best advice is DO YOU, always DO YOU. Always do what makes you completely comfortable without ever compromising who you are.
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