Since being named Best Woman Consultant at the 2017 European Women in Construction and Engineering (WICE) Awards, I am often asked whether I have experienced any discrimination in the workplace as a female engineer. And I am always pleased to be able to say no. However, perhaps this is not strictly true.
When I say no with such confidence, I am thinking about a very specific type of discrimination, that of colleagues, clients or other consultants making a sexist remark or judgement because of my gender. But that, thank goodness, has never been a problem. I find the construction and engineering industry is very welcoming towards all and actively craves diversity, including a genderbalanced workforce.
However, I have since realised that there is one area where I do feel discriminated against. And that is personal protective equipment (PPE). Although the industry is gradually heading towards addressing its gender imbalance, the PPE available for women on-site simply does not match the progressive and inclusive attitudes of the modern-day construction and engineering industry. Women are still struggling to find PPE that fits, which means that is it not personal (more a one-size-fits-all generalisation) and the poor sizing may also reduce the PPE’s functionality by making it less protective and less safe.
One size does not fit all
To make the playing field an even one, we must take a step back and recognise the physical differences between men and women. Women have different body shapes to men and are generally smaller. It is, therefore, necessary to create two different ranges to cater for these differences. Suppliers have taken a step in the right direction by starting to offer some women’s PPE. However, the limited range available means that it is still not good enough. Currently, less than 10% of our supplier’s catalogue is women’s PPE, and this company is one of the more balanced ones. Basic items such as high-visibility T-shirts, jackets and trousers are now available in women’s sizes and styles, but the moment you start to get more specific such as wanting items that meet more-stringent health and safety specifications for construction work or terminal sites, or fire-retardant kit, women are still forced to buy men’s items. Even those items that are available in women’s styles are noticeably more limited: there are two colour options for women, whereas men have six; there is one brand option for women and four for men. I believe every item that is available for men should also be available for women.
“Pretty in pink”
To those unfamiliar with the industry, please do not think me vain. The colour problem is not just an aesthetic preference! Many clients and sites require staff to wear certain coloured PPE depending on their role, the site, the consultant, etc. For example, site operatives may be asked to wear yellow and banksmen to wear orange. If you are a woman on a job that requires a blue or a green jacket, you have to buy a men’s style. It is so important to me to be judged on my merits regardless of my gender, but with ill-fitting PPE, women stand out before the job has even begun.
“women are being prevented from working safely, comfortably or even at all because of their size”
Rosey in basic women’s PPE. Rosey would like to see women’s styles and sizes extended into all ranges, not just the basics.
Unfortunately, typing ‘women’s PPE’ into your search engine will ensure that you come across another way in which women’s PPE draws attention to female engineers for all the wrong reasons. As if we have regressed a few decades, one of the first search results is for ‘pink PPE’. Much as I like the colour pink personally, it is insulting to target this towards women and not to offer it for men, or to assume that picking a ‘nice’ colour is our top priority in PPE preferences. I can assure you that my primary concern is having PPE that fits and enables me to do my job safely and properly.
And it is not just the colours of garments that cause issues that prevent women from doing their job properly. Many of the PPE ‘accessories’ come in a standard range rather than separate male and female lines. Items that I have personally had trouble with include boots, safety hats, ear protectors and glasses. The boots that meet the safety specifications necessary for my role only go down to a size six in most brands. Only one goes down to a size five and none any lower. With size five feet, I have only one option. Many of my female colleagues with smaller feet have to order theirs from specialist suppliers. Size four and five feet are certainly not uncommon for women, so why are they not catered for?
In terms of my safety hat, I have to wear a special binding under it to make it fit. I have to buy special ear protectors that actually cover my ears, as the standard ones that come with the hats cover my chin, which defeats their purpose. All these things make buying my PPE a morecomplicated, more-expensive and more-time-consuming experience than for my male counterparts. All this just to get clothing that fits!
Rosey has to wear men’s PPE on sites with higher health and safety specifications or for those that require fire-retardant kit. Even the smallest size, ‘small’, is too big.
“the time has come to put the Ps back into PPE and that means making it personal and protective for all”
But perhaps the most problematic item has been safety glasses. I was recently working on a big project for a major energy company that required the use of antistatic PPE owing to the risks of static electricity creating sparks that could ignite the fuel on-site. The antistatic hat and glasses I was issued with were far too big and kept slipping down over my face and eyes and my glasses kept falling off. As project manager, I had to consider the health and safety implications of this, so made the call to remove myself from the work area so that I could return to wearing standard (non-antistatic) glasses and a hat that would not fall off. This caused significant inconvenience and, potentially, delay to the project, as I had to instruct the drillers to bring the things I needed out of the work area to the safe zone. My team adapted quickly and professionally to the new conditions; it is a shame that modern PPE has not been as quick to change with the times. The gender-related barrier I encountered was not associated with a single one of the six-strong team; instead, it was with the PPE that was supposed, ironically, to ‘protect’ me.
And I am not alone. One of my female colleagues is so petite by male PPE standards that the usual sleeve rolling and minor personal adjustments that most of the female consultants have to make were just not going to cut it. Even in the men’s smallest size, ‘small’, her trouser legs were so long that she would have tripped over and she could not even see her hands, let alone work with them. We had to send her kit off to a specialist tailor to get it adjusted properly so that it was still fire retardant and the reflective strips could still be seen. This cost £100. Luckily, we realised the problem in time to get it adjusted before she went onto site. If she had had to be on-site the next day, we would have had to send someone else; it just was not safe. That PPE goes up to an XXXL size but the smallest is S just seems absurd to me. PPE needs to cater for men and women of all shapes and sizes; we are all different.
The struggle that many women in the construction and engineering industry face before they even reach site is discrimination and unfair. Women are being prevented from working safely, comfortably or even at all because of their size. The industry is ready to embrace diversity and PPE must catch up. The time has come to put the Ps back into PPE. And that means making it personal and protective for all.