Episode 63: Getting your hands dirty

Their world is talking about sports and getting through the day in construction, and they’re outside all day. And so they’re looking at all the eye candy...and you realize every woman that walks by is being observed and objectified.
— Renee Mercado

What could be more male than a construction site? Only 9 percent of US jobs in the industry belong to women, and even fewer involve manual labor. So what drove Renee Mercado to spend her days outdoors, managing a crew of curious and sometimes suspicious guys?


Renee Mercado

In this show we talk about what drew her to this work, the sexist comments she hears on a regular basis, and how she feels she's making a difference in a man's world.

Further reading: JARC, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, awarded Renee Mercado her welding certificate. They provide various training programs for women entering the trades.

This piece from Britain's Daily Telegraph is about efforts to get more women into constrution in the UK.

The National Association for Women in Construction has statistics on women in construction in the US.

This episode of the show is sponsored by Doodle. Check them out at Doodle.com. They take the hassle - and the email - out of planning a meeting.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, a lot of women steel themselves when they walk past construction sites. We’re waiting for the wolf whistle or crude comment that often follows us down the street.

So what’s it like working with those men – in fact, managing them?

“The first thing they see is that I'm a woman, and the second thing is, am I going to sell them out or throw them under the bus when something goes wrong, and it's really important for me to get them to understand that no, as long as you're being honest with me there's no reason for that.”

Coming up.

[Drill sound here…]

Construction jobs pay well but few women do them. In the US women hold 9 percent of construction industry jobs, but that figure includes positions from administrative assistant to executive. The percentage of women who spend their days shoveling, hammering or drilling is even smaller. The same goes for the UK.

Renee Mercado is a field inspector for a utility company in Chicago. She’s worked in construction in one form or another for about 18 years. She started off as a painter’s assistant. Today, on this job, she’s overseeing the aftermath of a large pipe installation…workers are filling in a trench around the pipe.

[Drill sound here…]

When she was growing up Renee was really interested in math and science. She had aspirations to go to college. Higher education was pretty new to her family.

“My father is from Puerto Rico. He's maybe a fourth grade education from the island. He came here when he was fifteen and basically worked in the hospital kitchens. So essentially he was just a cook. And then my mom is from Chicago and she has, you know, some college but essentially she mostly did sort of administrative work for banks. My parents were divorced very young and I really had a lot of very strong female support system growing up. My grandmother worked in factories and she had a hand in raising us. So I was always sort of brought up with the sense of you can do anything you want to do.”

But she wasn’t that motivated in high school – she says she was bored a lot. She’d worked in retail during those years and soon after she graduated and started getting bills she decided college was too expensive. She kept up the retail work. She was working for Whole Foods a few years later when she decided she’d had enough. She’d always loved working with her hands – she used to help her dad work on his cars – and she answered an ad for a painter’s assistant. Later she learned about masonry, and carpentry…and her career took off.

Today her job is to ensure each construction project the utility company takes on goes smoothly – and that all the rules are obeyed.

She loves the work.

“Every job is different. Every budget is different. They all have different details you have to pay attention to. So it’s not always real cookie-cutter. And I’ve always enjoyed the idea that there are unexpected things. And then being in the field and seeing something from a dirt lot, and all of a sudden you have a hand in constructing something out of nothing – I just really took to it.”

She says despite the low numbers of women in the industry, a few women have been instrumental in helping her along the way. In fact her first boss was a woman. But in the last few years with her current job she’s felt isolated. She spends some time in the office, and her new supervisor there is another woman. But most of her time is spent outside, on site with a crew of burly and often suspicious men. She says she’s never been more conscious of her gender…

“When I started to kind of make it on the scene a lot of the guys kind of looked at me sideways -- it was more about trust, you know, can I trust you to be on my side when I need you on my side? So a lot of that was sort of feeling each other out for you know, what is what is my intent? And my intent is to get the job done right. And whatever we need to do as a team, let's do that. And if I can help you I will. But you need to be honest with me and you need to not bullshit me, because once you start doing that I can't fight for what you need. I can't convince someone of what we need to do.”

Whether it’s taking an issue back to her boss or convincing a customer to part with their money. But once she’s convinced the guys she’s not a threat, and knows her stuff, she says things go pretty well. Still, every day she says she’s walking into an environment these men have owned…

“And not that they are disrespectful. You know they respect me, they respect my presence but they're also testing it, especially the younger guys. So there's sort of like, you know, cat-calling women, sometimes you know their world is talking about sports and getting through the day in construction and they're outside all day. And so they're looking at all the eye candy, as far as they're concerned. And sometimes it's a little shocking because you realize every woman that walks by is being observed and objectified, and even if they're not saying it you can see it, everything stops for a moment.”

Renee says not only is that a big problem for her – and she does talk to them about it – but the thing that really confounds her  -- something she finds really hard to explain to the men she works with – is look, that could be me walking down the street.

She’s careful when it comes to what she wears to work – and how she accessorizes.   

“When I come to work I wear jeans that can get dirty, they're not, you know, the most flattering. I mean I do care about style. But you know I'm not really dressing for me and I'm dressing for the you know the possibility of having to get into a hole or whatever so I'm not like real prim, let’s say. But I wear dark glasses or mirrored glasses so that when I’m working or I’m walking up, especially with a new crew, I can kind of scan the crew and see how people are already sizing me up as I walk on the site.”

She says the glasses let her tread a fine line, one she says a man in her role wouldn’t have to tread: they allow her to be a female supervisor without incurring resentment…

“A lot of these guys spend the day complaining about their wives or girlfriends or commiserating on that sort of thing. So I feel like I feel like I have this understanding like I wouldn’t want someone, a woman, hovering over me watching everything I do, but that’s what I have to do for my job. So I wear the dark glasses so I can look interested in something else but actually I’m watching everything they’re doing.  I’m paying attention to everyone.”

And she says while they mostly respect her authority and her dislike of sexist comments…

“Some guys are challenging, they're challenging it and then they start talking about people's bodies and I have to tell them you know unless you want to listen about men's bodies then I suggest you stop talking like that you know in the same sense you don't want to hear me talking about men's bodies in the way that you talk about women's bodies. So I'd like it if you just stop talking like that.”

AM-T: "How do they react?"

“I've had a couple different reactions. One was, ‘Oh come on, you know I'm just joking,’ and I'm like well I'm tired of you know, I'm tired of you talking about stuff like that because at some point you know I thought well maybe he would just let it go but then it just got worse and I was like, no, I mean I have to stop it, he just doesn't understand. And it happens more with young men than it does with the older guys, you know. They're not like that, they don't, they're not like that in the way that some younger guys can be and sort of like this is how we are and you're here in our world . And so, you know, this is what we talk about. And it's like no, that's not what everybody talks about, that's what you talk about, and you’re inappropriate.”

Because of all this casual objectifying she’s established some rules for herself – and not just when it comes to clothing.

“I don't bend over onsite. If I if I drop something, if I need to get closer to see something that's happening in a hole below me then, you know, I squat. I would never want to bend over and look over my shoulder and see somebody looking at me bending over, you know, somebody that I have to work with every day. So it's just something I've always sort of innately done, understanding that I'm putting myself in a vulnerable position by doing that so I just eliminate it by squatting or you know I'll sit and look, but I don't bend over on site.”

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I mentioned the construction industry pays well. That’s part of the reason some organizations in different countries are trying to encourage more women to give it a try. The pay gap in construction is far smaller than the overall pay gap between the sexes – in the US women in the trade earn on average 93 percent of what men do.

Renee says her salary is lower than it could be right now because she’s working for a utility company rather than a construction firm. But her industry took a huge hit during the recession and she was out of work for a while. She earns more than 60 thousand dollars a year – she says the next step up at her company will be around 75 thousand.

Renee says mixed in with the gender stuff there’s another cultural issue that sometimes crops up when she’s working with a crew. Men immediately spot that she’s Latina – and some of them make assumptions based on that.

“Mostly the ones that can't hide their surprise are Latin men, when I walk on site, and so they're just really curious. But the first thing they try to do is speak to me in Spanish, and sometimes I have mixed feelings about it because I get it, we're of a same people, we should, you know, show that camaraderie. But sometimes I feel that that should be through the work and not necessary language and I'm not – I understand what they're saying to me when they're speaking but I also don't want them to communicate to me on a professional level in Spanish because I want everyone to understand what we're saying when we're talking, We are in a place where English is the first language and it's important for us to be able to discuss the work in English because at some point I'm not going to be able to tell you what I need you to do completely in Spanish. And then sometimes that puts a lot of guys off, like they get really offended by it. I've even heard them talking about in Spanish to somebody else you know, ‘I understand why she won't speak to us in Spanish.’”

And she does use some Spanish but she’s not fluent herself. Her dad was the main Spanish speaker in the house and he left home when she was little.  But there’s more to her discomfort than lack of fluency.

“Part of it too is, I am really conscious about levels of intimacy on site at work and that's a level of intimacy. I mean that's a level of speaking to someone differently from how I'm speaking to everyone else, and to some degree going back to the idea of you know the world that these guys live in when there's not a woman around. You know, it's bragging, it's you know, ‘Oh no, she was looking at me.’ I mean there's all that so they're also vying for my attention. There is a competition for who learned what about the new inspector, or the new girl inspector is the way they see it.”

She says she may be small in stature but she is 41 – hardly a girl. And you can hear a little bit of that curiosity even in this short snippet of conversation about energy drinks. Renee is with a 20-year-old construction worker and there’s a drill going in the background…so you may have to raise your volume a bit…

Worker: “Do you drink energy drinks at all?”

Renee: “No, just coffee and water.”

Worker: “Coffee, yeah…How does cocaine differ from caffeine?”

Renee: “Um, cocaine’s illegal…”

Now that was a pretty innocent exchange – I think – but she says the guys also ask about her personal life – where’s she going tonight? Who with? And she says it’s completely different in the office, but with the all-male crew she is reluctant to give details.

“It comes back to that that objectifying, I don't want them to…I guess I'm very controlling about it. I don't want you to wonder about me and my boyfriend. I don't want you to wonder you know about me and my sexuality. I don't want you to - if I don't have kids you know then what does that mean? It’s…it’s…and the more I think about it the more I think well you know maybe I'm just a little over, you know over- thinking this stuff, but you know it's really about specifically when I can tell that someone isn't just taking a general interest, they are looking for information.”

And she says she doesn’t want to make herself vulnerable by handing it over. She wants to remain an authority figure – the person she is at work.

That said, she doesn’t mind admitting to mistakes.

“So I pretty much am not ashamed if I’m wrong. I admit it. And I will openly tell them, I was wrong, and now I know that is not what the answer is, or I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong information."

She says that stance is pretty unusual in the construction industry. She does think the men are coming to see there are good things about having a woman supervisor.  And they’ve learned she doesn’t need to take their hand to climb down into a hole. She can spend days outside in Chicago’s brutal winters like the rest of them.

“I think that that speaks volumes in changing the mindset, and you know when I ask them to be respectful than they are, they definitely try to be, and I think they catch themselves, they are learning about their own ideas of what a woman can do and also not only in terms of the physicality, but how to work with women, how to communicate.”

She says she’s a planner. So she asks questions about the job in hand. But the guys she works with haven’t been used to this approach and sometimes they’re suspicious of her motives. If she says where are you going to be with this on Thursday, their response is, hey, it’s only Monday.

“If I'm looking ahead and I'm looking outside of the box because sometimes they get tunnel vision, it’s not to flood you with information or anything like that, it’s to protect all of us later you know looking at the bigger picture. And so I think that they're realizing that I'm not I'm not asking to give them a hard time about not meeting that milestone, I'm asking because, let's see what we can if we can clear a path. And if you know we run into something, I can at least get it set up so that's not in your way later. And I think that that's something that that I can see guys learning about me, because at first it sounds like I'm just questioning and I tell him you know, my job is to question everything, so I'm going to ask a lot of questions. But I'm also doing it to see how I can help as opposed to, trying to trap you. So I think I think I’m changing the environment a little bit.”

Renee Mercado. You can see a photo of Renee – with her usual accessories – under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.  And as usual I’m going to post some show notes there as well including a link to a Chicago-based organization that trains women in various trades. Renee speaks very highly of them.

Also don’t forget to check out my sponsor for this episode at Doodle.com so you canstart to take the hassle out of meeting planning.

And if you’re on social media and you enjoyed this episode please think about sharing it with other people on Twitter or Facebook – it really helps spread the word about the show’s existence.

And finally, this show was a lot about a woman in a man’s world. But a few of you have written to say you work in female-domination environments. And they’re a lot less supportive than you expected. I’m planning an upcoming show on women working with other women. If you have strong views on the advantages or disadvantages of this and you’d like to tell your story email me at ashley at The Broad Experience dot com.

Thanks to April Laissle for her help on the podcast.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.