In certain male-dominated industries, basic requirements of female workers can be overlooked.
Earlier this year, Lucy, a crane operator, took a job on a windfarm, where she was the only woman out of fifteen workers. “I lasted about a month,” she told me over email. First, although she suspected she’d been fired for making a similar request at another job, she asked for a portaloo. But rather than receiving one, she found herself given less and less work. Then she got her period. “I had to change my tampon in the crane without taking off my coveralls,” she said. “That was my last day.”
Lucy is based in the US, but when I asked women who work in construction about sanitation facilities, I heard many similar stories from those in Britain as well. They described construction sites where the portaloo is locked, used for storage or left in such a bad condition that they felt forced to use the toilet in nearby cafes instead. Many said there were no bins for sanitary products, and they suffered from pre-menstrual cramps while doing physical labour.
Some straight talkers aside, few of the women I heard from wanted to raise the issue with their manager. Some, like Lucy, feared losing their job. Others thought they would make their boss feel uncomfortable, or remind him that they were “different”. One wrote that she would not speak up because the proportion of women in construction was so small: “We can’t show weakness without it being used against us.”
Period talk still taboo
It’s easy to understand why these women, already trailblazers, end up taking ziplock bags to work. It’s also easy to understand why, in a society where publicly discussing periods is still somewhat taboo, their male managers may wish to avoid talking menstruation.
But for the women I heard from, this seemingly small issue told them a lot about how welcome they are in male-dominated workplaces. In the 20th century, campaigns for women’s rights in the workplace included access to toilets. In the early 1990s, the male-dominated US Senate had only a men’s bathroom, with a sign declaring “Senators only”.
A 2007 academic study into women’s access to toilets in public spaces found that the lack of access to toilets was putting women off being cab drivers. Keeley Foster, a senior firefighter in London, has written about how, in 2002, she often did not have access to a women’s toilet. Despite some period cramps being compared to the pain of a heart attack, three-quarters of women say they feel they have to lie about why they need time off work. As recently as 2017, a woman in the US was fired from her job in the US after a heavy flow stained an office chair.
This matters, because male-dominated workplaces often need more women. Britain is short of construction workers – two-thirds of small and medium-sized construction businesses are struggling to hire bricklayers, according to the Federation of Master Builders, and the situation could get worse after Brexit. In London, where the housing crisis is most acute, twice as many workers left the industry in 2017 than joined it. “If construction is to deliver it will need more women,” wrote Roni Savage in Property Week last month.
Of course, we don’t choose careers based purely on the quality of the toilets. But women make up just one in ten construction workers, compared to roughly half of the workers in the UK overall. This remarkable disparity has been flushed away by defenders of the status quo, who claim that women simply don’t want to become builders. But construction in practice means a huge variety of jobs, and women already muck in, whether it’s working in care homes or serving in the army. During World War II, women even built Waterloo Bridge, one of London’s busiest crossing points over the Thames.
If women can’t even access basic facilities, such as sanitary bins, it suggests that the reasons they might not be joining the industry in droves have more to do with working culture than a “natural” aversion to bricks and mortar. To put it another way, if construction bosses can’t get their act together enough to source some portaloos, what hope is there for solving the housing crisis?
The trade union Unite has been surveying women working in construction, in the private, public and non-profit sectors, about their access to toilets. Assistant General Secretary of Unite Gail Cartmail is clear that the responsibility to change lies with the industry, not the women entering it. According to Unite, just 11 percent of those applying for an apprenticeship in construction are offered a place – but this falls to just six percent among women. Then there’s the depressingly familiar fact that women in construction earn less than men, with the gap widening over time.
Making women more comfortable at work
In Scotland, the government has led the way in changing the culture around periods, by introducing funding for free sanitary products for low-income women, and girls at high schools and colleges. North Ayrshire Council is also making them available in public buildings such as libraries and community centres.
Employers are also more willing to break the period taboo. Coexist, a Bristol company, has developed a “period policy” which recognises period pains as a legitimate reason to take time off work (although the idea can be controversial, similar policies exist around the world, with China’s Anhui province introducing regulations to allow women with particularly severe cramps to take time off after producing a doctor’s note).
Some in the British construction industry also understand that there is a need for change, even if their motivation might be more pragmatic. Monica Lennon, a Scottish Labour politician, has long been campaigning for better access to sanitary towels. She’s now a well-known face in Scottish feminist circles. But she was nevertheless surprised when a man wearing black tie at a construction industry dinner told her he wanted to talk to her about periods.
“They have a skills gap in the industry and they desperately want to get more women,” Lennon told me. “They have got to change the workplace.”