Tips for Female Designers Navigating the Jobsite

As a woman, have you ever felt uncomfortable walking on to one of your jobsites?

You’ve done a stellar job designing a new kitchen, you’ve had an excellent relationship with your client – yet somehow the whole thing is getting soured when your project is actually being worked on.

The builder thinks you should stay away from the job – he knows how to build things, and you should just leave him alone.

He always talks down to you, and makes you feel, well, just unwelcome.

You’re feeling hurt, demoralized and angry.

The crew isn’t much better; they look at you in a way that is clearly not professional. Or perhaps someone makes an inappropriate comment about you in another language when you’re walking up the stairs to check out the tile job in the master bathroom, not realizing that you actually speak the other language yourself, and understand what was said.

It’s a sad truth that, for the most part, the jobsite is the domain of men: From the foul language to the messy porta-potty, the mud and mess, the dust and noise – it’s where men can be “boys” again.

The guys are building their fort, and when it comes right down to it, most of those “boys” don’t really want “girls” around when they’re at work.

So how do you, as a female design professional, deal with all of this? Can you change the sexist pattern that exists on far too many jobsites?

Yes, you can, and you need to. There are so many more talented women in this industry than in years’ past, both in design and in the building part of things, and it’s time things are done differently!

Before Work Starts

It all starts with your relationship with the people who are actually going to be building the work.

The challenge here, whether you’re a male or female designer, is to create a feeling of teamwork. You need to be on the same side as the builder, and that needs to be made clear at the outset – before any demolition takes place, before any hammer hits a nail.

Perhaps you can get together on the jobsite with your builder a few weeks before construction is due to start. Plan a short meeting for just you and the builder. It’ll be a good time to go over plans and specifications anyway, to review how the contractor or installer sees the work proceeding, the schedule, the costs – and any bumps he may see in the road ahead.

This jobsite meeting is also a great opportunity for you and the builder to set up a few “ground rules” – especially ones that concern you as a woman on the jobsite.

Explain that you will need to visit the job to work out details, materials and finishes with him, and want to be sure there are no problems here. You have your job to do as a designer, he has his job to do as a builder. Together you can really make the project sing, but it’s good to be clear about the roles right from the start.

This is also a good time to make it clear that you want to minimize any of the old sexist stuff right from the start, and that this needs to be communicated to everyone on staff, including subcontractors and crew. Everyone needs to remember that you’re all in this together, and the goal is to make a great-looking job and create a happy customer.

At this pre-project gathering, you may want to set up a weekly get-together – perhaps with the builder, designer and client.

This way you’ll have a regular time to review the work, look at schedule and cost and figure out which decisions have to be made to keep the project going at a good clip.

This weekly meeting can also be a good time to make sure all three parties are on the same page – and if there are any jobsite sexist issues to be resolved, it’s a time to clear the air. If you’re getting whistled at when you appear on the jobsite, this is the time to bring it up. And it has to stop!

During the Work

Once the project has begun, these weekly meetings can be really helpful, so don’t blow them off, even if you’re “too busy.” The last thing you want is to be sidelined as a designer – and as a woman you need to hold your turf, and keep your stake in the team. With most guys, the default tendency is just to take over, and if you’re not there, that may happen fast.

How you conduct yourself in these meetings is a big deal, too. Even if things are tense and combative, try to be a good listener and ask questions. It may prevent further conflict and negativity, which are major obstacles to getting the work built successfully.

If things are getting really difficult in your conversations with the builder, and he seems out of control, try to detach yourself a little. Here’s an image that may help – it works with out-of-control clients, too.

Imagine there’s a thick but transparent glass door between you and the person ranting across from you. You can see their lips moving, but you can’t hear what they’re saying.

While aggravation is part of any job, men often judge women differently for emotional outbursts – even justifiable ones – and as a result, often respond by being rude, tuning out or becoming patronizing. So if you want to maintain effectiveness when feelings are running too high for comfort, it’s a good idea to excuse yourself and take a quick walk outside or to another area of the house – pretend you need to check out a detail or that you’ve forgotten something in your car. Take a deep breath or two before coming back to the meeting!

A Few More Tips

Some things are obvious, but let’s mention them anyway. Dressing professionally matters. It’s also a good idea to dress appropriately for a job site visit. Your 4" heeled pumps may be great for a party, but they can be dangerous on the job site – and the framing guys will be shooting nails through their fingers when you walk through that new upstairs hallway.

If cleanliness is an issue for you, you may want to use the bathroom before you go to the jobsite. Usually the on-site portable toilet is not that pleasant a place. Many don’t even have running water to wash up in. And complaining about the state of the bathroom will only magnify the sense of you being an outsider.

You can visit your job at lunch or break times, but if you do, make it a rule to be considerate and not bother people during their break or lunch. Wait in the car until they’re done, or bring your coffee in and spend a few minutes with them – and if they’re still on break, don’t talk about work!

Better still, turn up at morning coffee break with a bag of pastries or bagels. You’ll be welcomed and cheered – and it’ll be much easier for you as an outsider (and a woman) to be accepted onto the jobsite.

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