Women’s Experience in Construction Series
The Woman I’ve Built
“When I was 13, my dad bought me an architectural drawing course and a drawing table, like those used by cartoonists or draftsmen. I used to handcraft cottages and other little things by hand. I really enjoyed the activity, but back then I dreamed of being a novelist, or a poet – she says, with a smile in her face. See, I always thought of myself as an artist, not a construction worker, or at least that is what I used to think. However, a relentless passion for drawing and designing unexpectedly grew in me to a point where it effortlessly ended up taking most of my time and energies,” explained Angie Martinez, a Puerto Rican female construction worker and engineer who has been in the industry for over two decades.
“These early childhood experiences were pivotal to my decision of pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering. I was shocked when I got to the classroom for the first time; I was the only woman in my class. Engineering was widely regarded as a man’s occupation and I was an outsider. Despite that, I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. That’s how it all started!”
Angie worn many hats in her career of more than 20 years in the Construction Industry. Starting as an Inspectors Assistant she quickly escalated the rungs of the professional ladder to her current position as Operations Manager at Lunacon Construction Corp. Considering that her two main passions, design and drawing, are preeminent subjects in a vast set of disciplines, it is fair to wonder why she decided to branch out into Engineering and Construction.
“I had already been working for an engineering firm for years, then the opportunity came up and I decided to move on to something new. It was the perfect chance to experience the whole process and be on the other side. When drawing or designing on a plan you usually follow a top-down approach. By abstracting details, you look at objects from atop. On the other hand, when you are building, you have to start by creating a base. Construction is the logical continuation of Civil Engineering design. That blueprinted house you see on a plan is materialized by construction into a tangible space which people will inhabit.”
“It has not been easy being a woman in the construction industry. There are few women working in this field. Back at the beginning of my career when I started, the majority of men I worked with did not take being managed by a woman lightly. As shocking as it might be, still in 2019, there are many men who do not accept professional advice from a female coworker. In the worst cases, they might mistake an assertive stance for an offensive one. Furthermore, even other women act surprised when they find out you work in the construction industry. See, prejudices are very resilient!”
The argument for gender equality in the workforce is usually illustrated by two main indicators, the percentage of females vs. males participating in the total workforce, and the ratio on female vs male income. As of January 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that female involvement in the Construction and Extraction industries amounts to approximately 9.9% of the sector’s workforce.
Mimicking the gender disparity often found in other areas of the workforce, the same agency reports that on average, female employees make 91 cents per each dollar their male counterparts earn, even when considering equal activities and responsibilities. These statistics paint a dire picture of the current state of affairs, but they don’t create the entire picture.
Despite women having made significant strides in this sector, Martinez thinks we still have battles to win. “I believe women are held to a higher professional standard than men when applying for technical positions. Usually, a female applicant has to provide extensive supporting proof of possessing qualities that would be taken for granted be it a male applicant. Yes, you still have the possibility of being hired but a heavier burden of proof is laid on your shoulders.”
As a supervisor and the only woman in her team, Angie’s technical abilities were often met by her companions with disbelief. At times it felt as if they did not think she would meet the expectations or felt challenged by her presence.
“I was in charge of reviewing a concrete smelter. The man who handled the concrete sleeve was pouring it carelessly. So, I ask him to be more careful, because he could damage the work. When I turned around, I overheard the employee saying: ‘I don’t like women telling me what I have to do’. I replied that if he doesn’t like it, he had the option to leave, and it would take responsibility. I knew, that if he would have left, I would have gotten into a serious problem. The work would have been affected, but my professional respect was at stake. He stayed.”
However, the implications can be more complex and further damaging. The most stereotypical character in catcalling scenes and displays of public sexual innuendo is often the construction worker. What happens when you are one of these same construction workers who is also a woman?
“At the beginning, I would blush but at some point, I just got used to it. 20 years have gone by and I have gotten used to my male co-workers talking about their wives or girlfriends. It is pretty much a daily thing. I really don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s not offensive to someone else.”
Despite her forgiving attitude, Martinez herself was a victim of workplace sexual harassment some ten years ago. “He was carpenter working on one of the construction sites I was supervising. He started by complimenting me but swiftly moved on to heavily explicit sexual language. I talked to the supervisor at the Department of Human Resources, and the employee was fired.” There is a very narrow line between complimenting a woman and harassing her.
More than just a construction worker, Martinez is a woman that struggles to find a balance between her professional passion and her own personal life. “It was difficult for me to balance these two areas, but over the years I have learned how to do it. I found out that if you dare to take control of your own life and improve yourself, you can build on it and make your own dreams come true.”
Gail Blanke, President, and CEO of Lifedesigns said: “Walt Disney told his crew to ‘build the castle first’ when constructing Disney World, knowing that vision would continue to serve as motivation throughout the project. Oftentimes when people fail to achieve what they want in life, it’s because their vision isn’t strong enough.”
“Yes, it is hard to maintain the respect of your co-workers,” confirms Martinez. “It is a challenge to finish the projects on time and keep the customer satisfied. But we definitely have the capacity. We have demonstrated that we are hardworking. We only need to remember every day what this means for us. My career has given me a chance to test the limits of what I can achieve as a ‘person’. It should stand as a testament to other women that the only thing we must not build are our own limits.”