Toolbox Talk – The Dangers of Heat

Precautions for Heat Hazards

So, you did it.  You slept with someone at work.  Are you feeling liberated?  Great.  Hang onto that feeling, because it’s going to last for about another 14 seconds.

As women in a male-dominated field, we spend a lot of time talking about men who treat us badly or who make sexual remarks in the workplace.  Obviously those situations are not desirable and they take away from the positive perceptions those around us have of our professional capabilities.  But what happens when someone comes on to you and you accept? Isn’t it your right to decide how you respond to people in life?  Didn’t a bunch of women in the 1960s and 1970s blaze a trail so that we could have the same sexual freedoms that men have? Maybe.  But there is a yawning chasm of chaos between reality and idealism.  It’s important to know the risks before you go rappelling.

In 1994, there was a watershed moment for the relationship between women and construction workers, and it involved diet Coke and a man named Lucky Vanous.  There are a lot of women who still find meaning in the phrase, “It’s 11:30.” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do a YouTube search, but grab your drool towel before you start to watch). The idea that women could be the aggressor with a construction worker was revolutionary and went against the traditional stereotype.

For those of us in the industry, we were a bit amused at first, because the average construction worker is a little more Jack Black and a little less Chris Hemsworth. If you’re a 25-year-old female on a construction site, you absolutely can get 1,346 invitations and propositions a day (on average).  Approximately 1,250 of those fall into the “Ewwww!” category, 52 are of the “Maybe if the world was about to end” variety, 31 can be summed up as “Yeah, IF YOU WEREN’T MARRIED,” 7 are cute but look like your brother, and 6 have potential. It’s those 6 that are dangerous. Three of the 6 are really hot and can be as deadly to your career as forgetting to design for lateral loads for a transmission tower next to a retirement home in Kansas. Someone is going to get squashed and someone is going to cry. Both might be you.

Let’s be clear – lots and lots of people find love at work.  Lots of people find lust at work.  Most women and men are aware of the pitfalls of lacing your latte with the company cream, so to speak. But sometimes it works, and sometimes that pair of big brown eyes you first see by the light of your oversized monitor will one day show up again on the face of your firstborn.  HR will send a fruit basket and drink another double vodka, grateful that yet another potential lawsuit turned into a fairytale instead.

But you are not just another hexahedron in a cube farm with an adequate estrogen level. You are a female in a male-dominated industry, an X-chromosome in a sea of Ys. You struggle daily with getting the men around you to accept your intellect as equal to theirs.  A huge part of your battle is getting those men to stop being distracted by the sexual part of your being.  So what’s going to happen when someone finds out that the sexual part of your being is front and center at work?

The key to this discussion is realizing that most men (not all) will shift a woman into a mental category in order to perceive her as a competent colleague.  Your older, wiser mentor?  You occupy a “daughter” space in his mind.  He’s so proud of you for being smart and dedicated, and he knows that a serious woman like you doesn’t trouble herself with sex. Or at least that’s what he tells himself so that his head doesn’t explode.  Your fellow junior engineer who started at the firm when you did and weathered that ugly dam failure with you?  He sees you as his “buddy,” sort of like his sister.  He knows that you like boys, but he doesn’t want to think about it.  Because the minute he thinks of you as someone who has sex, he can’t avoid thinking about that part of you when you’re working together.  And then we’re back to distraction.

On a construction site, all of this is much more amplified.  Despite the fact that this is 2017, construction sites still tend to be testosterone driven, with very traditional male roles and behaviors embraced as part of the culture.  So the minute you walk out on the site, you are quarry to at least a portion of the men on the project. Some of the men will be convinced that you wouldn’t be out there if you didn’t want to have sex with all of them. Some will be appalled that a nice young lady like you is subjecting herself to such a rough environment every day.  And some will be really cute.  Just sayin’.

Your choice should be an informed one.  This is not Fantasyland.  Write that on your arm and repeat it to yourself often.  Despite the fact that you should be able to go out with that adorable rodbuster and inspect his rebar if you so choose, there will be consequences.  Some of the guys on the site will act disappointed in you.  Others will take your actions as a free pass to make a pass. And still others will stop acting like you have any credibility.  One piece of your being will eclipse all of the other parts for those men, and they will not be able to see all of the professional pieces they acknowledged before.  It’s not fair, but it’s where we are.  Two hundred years from now, 2017 will not be that time in history when life was equal for the sexes.

Your option for moving forward will be to keep doing your job and remind all of these men why they thought you were good at your profession to begin with.  But this requires tenacity and a strong stomach.  And you have to be committed to the cause.  If you are sensitive or get upset easily when you are the center of attention, then don’t even go there.  Look for your next squeeze at the smoothie bar or at your planned outing to the Renaissance Faire, and leave work at work.

Early in my career, I was working on a large construction site with hundreds of men.  Two months in, I started hearing about the people I was sleeping with.  It was very surprising, considering that I was working 80 hours a week and my social life consisted of watching the firefighters at the grocery on Sunday mornings.  But the rumors persisted (and grew), despite my best efforts.  One of the guys told me that no matter what I did to prove that I was a good engineer, I was still mostly a potential hookup to many of the guys out there.  Finally fed up, I went in to our trailer at lunch one day and addressed what I was hearing.  I told the guys that if they insisted on telling stories about me, at least make them interesting.  I didn’t want it to be said I was having sex with one of the roofers, I wanted people to hear that I had sex with a roofer during the day shift on the roof. I told them whatever you do, don’t make me boring. Amazingly, the rumors stopped. Which only proved my theory that you have to have nerves of steel and the personality of a charging bull to weather this environment, even when you’re not doing anything. If you decide to actually do something, you’ll need to add a hide of heavy leather to that mix. It’s your decision, but you have to own it when you make it.

Maybe it will be better in 2073.  Is it 11:30 yet? I’m thirsty.

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