May 1, 2006

  Women At Work, Surrounded by Men

Can men in construction ever learn to behave professionally with female colleagues?

Ive always been curious about how women cope in the male-dominated construction industry. (About 11% of employed engineers of all kinds are women, according to recent government data.) So I started talking about it over Moroccan food with a couple of friends who had just landed their first jobs doing ADA inspection work for an established engineering firm in Manhattan. They are young, attractive, smart, and female, and are proud to be project engineers. Throughout the night, though, they continually joked about the treatment from men at their office.

Were some of the only young women in the office, said one And so during the company Christmas party, all the older men hit on us--to an inappropriate extent--because they just assumed we didnt work for them.

For the most part, I just keep to myself at work, said the other, who complained that the guy across from her cubicle would blatantly stare at her and then stupidly grin, making her feel uncomfortable all day. I definitely dont feel patronized by my co-workers, or hindered professionally for being a woman, but Im realistic about the fact that many men dont know how to interact professionally with the opposite sex.

She went on to say that one of her older, married male colleagues asked her out alone to get a drink by inquiring with a wink, "So how does someone get to know you?"

I just got a bad feeling, so I asked him, arent you married and dont you have kids? She said she brushed him off with a laugh. Maybe he didnt mean any harm, but I wasnt going to set myself up for a bad situation.

When I told these stories to Jeanne Sheehy, the marketing director for the Society of Women Engineers, she laughed.

I dont think thats a problem just in this industry, women have to deal with men like that everywhere, she said.

The problem most females face in the engineering world, she told me, is the feeling of isolation. Without other women around, female engineers feel like they dont have enough social contact, friends or support in an office. In response, SWE has set up many programs to help women cope with this type of office environment.

And while there may be instances of sexual harassment, its not an issue that SWE hears about often, Sheehy said.

Deborah Murphy, the president and CEO of Standard Supplies , also feels that its not so hard for women to thrive and succeed in the construction industry. Murphy climbed to the top of the ladder at her company, which had been predominantly male since 1947, but she doesnt see herself as a model.

But sex still seems to be an issue, and the stories of the young female engineers bring light to a greater concern. As women gradually increase in number in the engineering work force, what's being done to make sure that the men in the office are being trained to interact appropriately with them? And if young female engineers don't connect with their co-workers because they're afraid of being hit on, what will that fear cost them in the long run professionally? Young men can go to a bar and get a drink with an older engineer, talk about life and get inspired, but many young women might feel hesitant to do so because life experience has taught them to protect themselves from uninvited attention.

And while all the women with whom Ive spoken dont feel discriminated against when it comes to getting the job done, it seems that the social dynamic between men and women in the office still has plenty of room for improvement.

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By Carrie McGourty