Women are often stereotyped and categorised into the types of jobs they ‘should ‘or ‘shouldn’t ‘do – this going as far as even determining the kind of working environment that they should be in. Fortunately, we are seeing most women breaking those stereotypes and getting “down and dirty”.
While some women put on their heels, suits, pencil skirts and dresses, there are women out there (like myself) who put on their safety boots, jeans and safety vests to go work on a construction site. But today I am not going to talk about my experience, I will be exploring other people’s experiences.
Below, I chat to two women who have chosen the path of donning their boots every day and enduring the long hours that the construction industry requires. I chat to Tebogo Masemola who is a Quantity Surveyor for Eskom at Medupi Power Station (Client) and Boitumelo Mokwena who is a Quantity Surveyor for Basil Read at Medupi Power station (Contractor).
There is also a notion that the people who work for the client have it easy while the contractor does all the sweating, so I will be getting perspectives from both sides.
Interviewer: Bombeleni Maswanganyi
Tumi and Tebogo – when your peers were choosing finance, economics and auditing, you decided on Quantity Surveying, what informed this decision?
Tumi: My main reason for going the construction route was based on the many different skills I would acquire as a Quantity Surveyor. Although I had initially aimed to be in a PQS environment, being a contractor has been good to me.
Tebogo: I’m one person who is always up for challenges, so when I did my research about the Industry, I realised there’s a stereotyped mind-set that the construction environment is for males and that they are the only ones capable of executing the work. So I challenged myself in joining this male-dominated industry and that’s how I ended up in Quantity Surveying.
Do you thing the stereotype is slowly changing or there is still a long way to go based on your experience?
Tumi: The stereotype is slowly changing. Women are respected as professionals and our input is taken seriously in the industry; women are performing the same roles as men, if not better.
Tebogo: Well, based on experience, I’d say slowly but surely things are getting better and there is great growth for us as women in the industry; as we are encouraged, supported and promoted to take more responsibilities.
There is usually the notion that it’s tough for women in construction when having to deal with men who still believe you don’t belong there, have you had such cases? Most importantly, how have you dealth with the unfortunate incident of men making advances or trying their luck?
Tumi: There are slight challenges as a woman on site, but altogether the professional roles women carry on construction sites are more and more respected by men. I think because there are more women flooding into the construction industry, the more it’s becoming a norm that women are just as capable as men.
Although some men do try their luck, I make sure that they understand very quickly that I will not be disrespected in any way; or I simply ignore them to send a clear message that I do not entertain such things.
Tebogo: It is definitely tough as you have to always prove that you are capable of doing certain tasks. I had an incident where one of our male managers came to me and said “are you an administrator as I need help with stationery” – so it just shows you that there is still a perception that women only know admin work. The other tough part of working in this industry is racial segregation; just because I’m black and female, they think I’m not capable of doing the work.
Of course, men are clearly not always used to having females in that particular work environment, hence they tend to try their luck even though they see you wearing a ring on your finger.
What has been the experience working for the contractor – the good and the bad?
Tumi: The great part about being a contractor is that you get to perform some of the roles of the client on sub-contractors; so overall your skill set is broadened. Another good experience is having pay weekends off (i.e. last Friday of the month). The downside would perhaps be going to sites that are remote and far away from home for years on end.
What has been your experience working for the client, both good and bad?
Tebogo: One of the good ones of course has to be the knocking off early every Friday and being off every last Fridays of the month. The bad experience has to be not being fully exposed to functions as there are limitations to certain decision making as we have commercial managers that oversees and makes the final decisions in most occasions.
Statistically, women usually leave the construction industry once they start having their own families, due to the strain of moving around from project to project (which can often involve moving locations). Do you anticipate this being your fate?
Tumi: I would start by saying that being a statistic is not always a bad thing because at the end of the day it’s about what you value. I would probably try my best to make my family life work, despite being on site – however, it is ideal to raise children in a stable environment where they wouldn’t have to start a new life and change schools every 2 years, for example.
I would choose construction, perhaps not only in the contractor side, but the client and consulting/PQS sides as well.
Tebogo: With the love and passion I have for construction and the built environment at large, I don’t see myself forming part of the statistics of women leaving the construction industry. I love construction. I have a two-year-old daughter; therefore, I make it clear to the employer that they must be willing to accommodate my daughter as well as I don’t want to miss out on the stages of her development.
Could you take us through what dressing up and subscribing to work attire in construction means for you as a female?
Tumi: I do not get time to dress up; I work long hours, six days a week on a site that is dusty/ sandy and requires certain safety gear; which in my opinion do not work with my beautiful dresses. (Laughs) I wear semi-formal professional clothes; I’m not trying to be the model of the site, but I do not want to be the slob either; so I guess I just dress for success.
Tebogo: Working in the construction environment doesn’t mean one must look dull, ugly and trapped in safety boots and helmets. Looking good makes me feel good and definitely puts me in a good mood. So you will understand why I wake up at 4:30am daily to start work at 07:00am. Since I’m on the client-facing side, I don’t go to site daily and thus I get the opportunity to dress up, smell good and feel my best!
If you could change one thing in construction, what would it be? Conversely, what is the one element that you’d want to remain the same?
Tumi: I think the steady improvement of the industry is incorporating the necessary changes such as gender equality.
Tebogo: I believe the construction industry is fine as it is, however the one thing I’d love to see change is the racial segregation and the mind-set that women are not capable of taking over this industry.
Any last words or advise to women who want to be in the construction industry?
Tumi: Remember that we are part of the process of empowerment of women. It’s important that we continue to let our work speak for us and not let our looks become a factor.
Tebogo: In this industry, women need to realise that criticisms are prerequisites for our greatness. Always have the courage to grab your dreams and never let the mind set of people stop you from getting what you want.