Multiple jobs come to mind, but especially the ones during college where I worked on a construction crew, as a carnie for the County Fair and State Fair, door to door solicitations for the environment, and a puppet handler / sales person. You see I didn’t work because I wanted to work these jobs because they were my top choice. Rather if I was going to continue to go to college I needed to pay for college, which I did.
I wanted a better life. Although I was the third child of six, I was the first one in my immediate family to go to college.
Today I want to share the story and 7 life lessons learned when I worked as the only women on a Construction Team building in Western NY. These lessons are ones that still shape the work I do every day.
7 On The Job Life Lessons That Build Character
- Don’t let your ego get in the way
- You can’t force yourself onto the team – you’ve got to earn the trust, respect and connection
- Know why you’re doing you work (what’s the result you want, and what emotional connection do you have to it)
- Be kind
- Don’t overreact, take a few breaths before you speak
- Be patient, and diligent
- Be willing to do more than you are asked, without complaining
I took this job because it paid well, better than being a waitress which I also did for many years, but that was only because there were more hours and I could make overtime. My brother-in-law at the time got me the work. I was hired because I was a woman and they needed a woman on the crew to help build UNI-Marts in small rural towns of Western NY and PA.
Since I didn’t have any real construction skills I was hired as a painter – both interior and exterior. I guess they figured anyone could do that type of work. I don’t remember an interview and think I just showed up on site ready to go. I mean would they ask, “Can you hold a paint brush?” when they should be asking, “Are you ready to be with 10 – 14 men who don’t want you here?”
The problem during construction is that there isn’t always something to paint. My choices were to go home and not be paid or find something useful to do; this is where I’m quite resourceful. That summer I also learned how to hang false ceilings, put in linoleum tile (I became quite good with a blow torch), wash brick with acid, and adequate with taping drywall as well as I was happy to be a gopher.
I was quite idealistic during this time of my life and as you saw from some of my summer jobs listed above I tried just about anything and didn’t let my bristles get bristled. Live is an adventure and each with a great story.
Day one on the job set the tone. The onsite lead said, “low man ha ha woooo-man ha ha on the totem pole gets coffee for the crew – that’s you” – so I did it again and again. In fact I was happy to do it and made friends with the local store or coffee shop because it also meant I didn’t have to use the port a potty which with a crew of men didn’t smell the greatest especially towards the end of the week.
The first weeks if there was obvious painting I did it, but I was pretty much not included in any of the days plans and had to figure it out myself. Unless they wanted me to get coffee they wouldn’t tell me when it was break or lunch. I was often late for most of these times but that didn’t mean I got to stay on lunch or break longer either. It wasn’t a horrible situation, and it wasn’t the greatest.
The almost immediate joke was they could leave me stranded on top of places and pull out my ladder when they went on break or lunch. If this wasn’t available they would completely ignore me during any social break time – other than to take the coffee order.
I wasn’t quite sure how to react and tried a variety of options. One day when I was caulking the rubber lining on top of the building we were working on, the ladder mysterious disappeared just before someone yelled “lunch” and I couldn’t get off so I watched them eat lunch from afar. Yes I wanted to get down, and I yelled over to them a few times, they ignored me acting as if they didn’t hear anything. One of the guys Marty had the balls to say loudly, “did you hear someone yelling, nope it’s nothing.” And then they laughed.
Instead of screaming and yelling some more I stopped, took a breath and tried to figure out what to do. I literally couldn’t get down so I figured I’d just sit there quietly. Post break no later emerged. Then one of the guys came by after lunch I yelled down, I was so busy I forgot to bring my lunch when we went on lunch would you mind tossing it up? It was my way of feeling ok and to add I can take a joke. He didn’t bring my lunch, but the ladder re-appeared.
Although I did learn to better time my work where I couldn’t get stranded this wasn’t always possible.
Now others may have gotten really angry and quit. I already knew they didn’t particularly want me there and when I first started they let me know another buddy in the business (aka one with skills who deserved the job) would have been their preference. I was 19 and not willing to let them have the best of me by quitting and of course I really needed the money for school.
Then I tried a new strategy of ignoring the actions and our reactions. Once again, I was painting the mini roof by the gas pumps and again the ladder “somehow fell” immediately upon the words “break” being yelled and they left me there. I decided I wouldn’t yell anything, I’d just keep working acting as if I didn’t notice we had break. When they came off break I didn’t whine or complain. I asked for more paint so I could continue the work which of course meant the ladder was needed.
I got my paint, my food, and a drink of water and kept working thinking it’s not going to be an issue if I don’t put energy and make it an issue. I thought a lot about these guys, none of the regular crew went to college, most had been doing construction since they were teenagers, and this was it for them. I was the orange in the apple cart.
With my new tactic of no ego and not over reacting I was hoping the picking on me would get boring if they weren’t getting a laugh out of it. I wasn’t sure how much energy or real resentment there was for me being this “orange” in the cart.
Of course the site was always full of practical jokes – and it takes two sides to make a good joke work but the underlying meanness left as I shifted how I acted and embraced them as a bunch of guys and a crew with a job to get done. All I modeled and asked was for them to respectfully treat me as a person, who just like them is working to support herself.
Of course when the stories and words out of their mouths were extra spicy I’d put my fingers in my ears and yell things like “I can’t hear you Mr. Potty mouth my sweet ears are being damaged,” to which they’d crack up and mostly shift the language without being assaulted by a woman telling them not to swear. I knew I was growing on them and I mean really, it was the 80’s and a construction site, what would be expected?! What was the best I could do then and what I see now as brilliant immaturity helped create a boundary of this works, this is too much and if you want to tell “THAT” story it’s when the three of us are not working in the same small room.
It also helped that I worked hard and I supported them in their work by helping with set up, bringing supplies over, and cleaning up. I did whatever it took to make the job move forward without whining that it wasn’t my job. I saw that they were slowly shifting their tactics.
Towards the end of the third week something interesting happened that changed the dynamic. Some local guys decided to come on the site and started to really harass and yell at me things I won’t put on print. I was scared. I remember just standing there afraid not knowing what to do.
Remember, at that time there weren’t too many women around on construction sites so I was both an oddity and taking a man’s place. I know you’re probably already saying, but you were already being harassed – yes but I felt like it was more of a test and I knew I was moving through and past it – little ego and great humor do wonders. At no point did I feel that anyone was trying to hurt me. I think they initially thought they could make me uncomfortable enough that I’d leave, but that didn’t happen and we were on to the second stage of ok we’re stuck with her, but maybe she’s not too bad even though I’d still prefer a guy.
Back to that afternoon when local guys came on site and were harassing me.
Amazingly, almost immediately a couple then a group of “my” guys came around me, yelled back and took control of the situation. I cried out of fear and gratitude which was the only thing I could do at that moment. I think this surprised them because throughout all the crap that had gone on I never cried or really whined.
It wasn’t until that moment that I knew yes indeed there was a shift, I although not a full fledged part of the construction team, when push came to shove been accepted in whatever way I was going to be accepted.
We all took an unexpected break and Roy said, you know, we’ve been really hard on you, I know you understand why and you also take a good joke, but when those local guys came on site it made me realize that it wasn’t ok for someone else to do that to you – are part of our crew. They don’t have the right to do that to you. I also think we’re beginning to enjoy having you around, just a little bit, I mean who else can you leave on a roof and send out for coffee every day?
At the end of the day they asked me to stay and have an end of day beer with them for the first time and I knew the rest of my summer on the crew was going to shape up.
Your Favorite Lessons Learned At Work
What are some of your own favorite lessons learned that built your character early in your work life that still resonates today?