I’ve been working on the shovel a lot lately. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, or enjoy more than a poke in the eye, but I’ve been doing it to gain hands-on experience in something totally foreign to me. (And to earn some cabbage.)
My dad’s a landscaper you see, so we’ve been scaping the land together. It’s been a great bonding exercise. We meet at the kettle each morning, scratch the tummy of our overweight dog, pack our hot lunch (which we normally eat cold because neither of us want to go into the awkwardly small smoko room and use the microwave to heat up our hot lunch), get in the truck and hit the job site decked out in fluoros.
The idea of being the only female on a construction site didn’t worry me too much, I guess I’m no stranger to standing out like a bulbous thumb at a finger food party. I mean, travelling in India with strawberry blonde hair, for example, provided me with more attention than I received from a lifetime of birthday parties. In fact, the thing I was probably most concerned about was having to wear bootleg trousers.
But how much credibility do you think my Dad lost rocking up to a male-only construction site with his little girl; his little princess whose coordination with gardening tools isn’t dissimilar to a drunk elephant using a needle and thread?
We both questioned it, of course. But I think deep down we knew how ridiculous it was that sexism even crossed our minds. Because it’s 2016, right? Why on earth couldn’t I get in and manoeuvre it with all the boys?
I assumed the task at hand was going to be cinch anyway. Because I’m strong, like animal; I deadlift, bro. But I had no idea how quickly I would be identifying with the term ‘back-breaking work’. It turns out you can’t just pick up a shovel and start shovelling, despite how big your guns are. Tools have weight behind them. And if you’re using the bastards without the proper technique, you end up wasting energy and scooping air. So I found out I was going to need a lot more than brute female force to be a landscaper’s right-hand woman.
As much as I hate to say it, I’ve become quite accustomed to the feeling of inadequacy in the workplace now. Landscaping, and other labour-intensive trades, are dominated by men partly because of the hard fact that men are physically stronger than women. Men are able to master technique a lot quicker because they are putting less percentage of their energy into handling the weight of the tool. And they also have more body weight to put behind the force and impact of these tools. I’ve literally been losing my balance picking up steal bars and jumping around on spades like they’re fuckin’ pogo sticks. (Pardon my Frenchman, we swear in construction.)
The earth is hard, man. You can’t manipulate it like a lady. You gotta be rough with it; it’s just your big old bag of bones against well-founded earth ground. You have to show it who’s boss. Which is a hard thing to learn without looking like an actual nincompoop at some stage. And this is when the insecurities of being a female on a construction site may creep their incy wincy way into your demeanour.
Sometimes I’m pretty conscious of the guys watching me. I know they’re not “perving” because like I said earlier, bootleg trousers, but they are definitely thinking some sort of thoughts about the fact I have a different hormonal makeup to them. So occasionally, when they are trying to be nice and help me, I misread the situation and get a little sensitive.
The other day Dad had to run off, so he left me to shovel dirt onto the edges of a wall; a job which, had we had the machinery to do so, would have been done more efficiently by said machinery. A guy walked past with his mate and a bit of a grin and said to me, “I’ll get a machine in to chuck that dirt against the walls tomorrow if you want.”
Obviously I thought he was making fun of me. Obviously all the boys had been watching me for a while now thinking there was a much easier way to get the task done without leaving it up to the strength of a female blogger.
I quickly turned to him and told him that it was okay because I liked using the shovel to manually chuck the dirt against the walls and if he did it with his machine, how could I possibly enjoy the epic ab workout I was experiencing?
When I got home and told Dad he said I definitely should have taken the guy up on the offer and it was unlikely he was teasing me and that he would take the guy a “slab” the next day and retract my rejection of the kind offer.
And I said to Dad that next time he decides to leave me alone onsite, he has to put up a sign warning people not to tease me so that I will know I am not being teased if anyone chooses to engage with me again.
Sometimes Dad has to take over a task he’s put me on because I’m just not quite up to speed. And a little piece of my confidence wedges itself into the sticky clay in the ground and I go and water a plant. It’s tremendously annoying that I can’t complete tasks, which in theory sound simple. My body just won’t perform the demands of my brain.
But I know I have to be proud of what I’m doing. And despite my old man’s mild frustrations at watching me make tasks harder for myself than they have to be – thanks to my blatant lack of experience in the field – he is a proud old Da, I reckon.
We’re working on a government educational institution, a rural TAFE. And to be honest I think my presence is doing them nothing but favours. Every day, young female students making career choices walk past and see me pretending to not give a shit what people think about the fact that I look like a goofball on a spade amongst the skilled male workers. And sometimes they witness me actually not giving a shit what people think too.
IF YOU WANT TO ASSIST CHANGE, YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE.
Dad and I are about two weeks off completing the job and some of the guys are starting to make light small talk with me. And my word, they do say some daft things. But you know what, I think it’s because I scare them a little too.
How to be female on a construction site? Just do not give a shit.