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A right to respect

A quick look around the recent Interbuild exhibition suggests that little has changed over the years when it comes to using women for the hard sell.

As construction journalist David Taylor pointed out in the exhibition's daily paper, such shameless exploitation is still perceived as a brilliant marketing ploy. He describes how one exhibitor was planning an assault on the world record for the number of topless girls in a bath, while at the same time industry gurus were debating how to rid construction of 'sexism, racism and subcontractorism'.

The scantily clad women gyrating on various stands seemed happy enough to regard what they were doing as harmless fun, but what effect does this sort of behaviour have on women engineers?

'I do think that women put up with a lot, ' says ICE Fellow Helen Stone, co-founder of equal opportunities campaign Change the Face of Construction, 'even if it's not as much as when I started in the industry 30 years ago.' Treating women as sex objects, whether at trade shows or by displaying girlie calendars is, she says, inappropriate in the 21st century. 'There's a general requirement now, among many men as well as women, that we show respect for people in general.'

But not everyone is willing to show such respect. Some still see women as fair game for offensive comments and other forms of sexual harassment.

'Too many women suffer from sexual harassment and bullying at work, ' says TUC general secretary John Monks. 'We know that those employers who do not tackle harassment at work pay a high price - in lost productivity, low morale and high staff turnover.'

And it isn't a small scale problem. Tina Stephens, author of Bullying and sexual harassment at work, published by the Institute of Personnel & Development, says that as many as one in five people have suffered from either or both, while the Equal Opportunities Commission receives 50 calls a month relating to sexual harassment alone.

'This is just the tip of the iceberg, as most women don't report these incidents, ' says a spokewoman.

Victims might be more inclined to report sexual harassment if their employers had a clear policy on how to treat such cases. While many larger firms have taken this step, most smaller companies have yet to take the initiative.

This is typified by the experience of one NCE reader who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. Her story makes disturbing reading for anyone working in the construction industry:

'As a young graduate I worked on a medium-sized construction site. One morning, when it was my turn to fill the kettle in the mess room at break time, one of the gangers, with encouragement from many of the others, indecently exposed himself.

'I just walked out. I'm not sure what I was meant to do, but I didn't think it was particularly funny. Noticing cool relations a few days later, the foreman asked me what had 'gone off' with the ganger and I told him.

He said that he would 'have words', but he left the site soon afterwards. I mistakenly thought he would have mentioned the incident to the agent.

'What followed was a period of continuous bullying, so concentrated that I was scared to go to work. The events culminated a few weeks later, when the site agent told me there had been complaints about me from all over the site. I replied that I knew there was only one complainant, and that was because he had taken his trousers down.

'The site agent said he wasn't aware of this, but went on to tell me - in an extremely heated discussion - that not only had I deserved this, but I had also encouraged it. I left the site that evening with no intention of going back.

'The following morning I discovered the site agent had lied to the contracts manager, saying that I was unable to work with the other engineers. The real complaint, although taken seriously when I later explained it, had not even been mentioned. I was moved to a different site because I had 'had trouble' with the ganger. The ganger and the site agent who had condoned his behaviour got away with it.'

Situations like this can be dealt with more easily if a confidential grievance procedure and complaint system is in place, says Helen Stone. 'This is something we're recommending to companies under the Change the Face of Construction banner.' In fact, she points out that it will be one of the recommendations in the 'toolkit' she and colleagues are currently devising for construction firms Even when female employees are subject to less direct discrimination, sexist attitudes can hold them back. Many women find that simply being young and single can cause them problems at work in traditionally male dominated areas.

'Your credibility is at risk, and it's difficult to get the respect you deserve, ' comments one engineer, who works on an oilrig for a UK-based petroleum company. 'Older male colleagues will undermine you, and, because they have no respect for your deadlines, they will hinder your progress.

'You have to believe that you are even better than them, just to get the respect you deserve, ' she adds, 'whereas they get it just by walking into the room, even when they are much less experienced.'

Key points

What is sexual harassment?

While different people have different views on what actually constitutes sexual harassment, the fundamental principle is that it involves conduct that is unwanted, unreciprocated and offensive to the recipient. Whether or not the harasser intends to cause offence is irrelevant.

It covers a broad range of behaviour, from the relatively trivial to the overtly criminal, including displaying pin-ups and other sexually suggestive material, lewd remarks and verbal abuse of a sexual nature. In its more extreme form, it includes physical assaults such as unwanted touching and even rape.

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