Remember when it was okay to be funny?
Remember when you could tell a joke without the woke culture trying to cancel you? Remember when men were men? Remember when you could compliment a woman and call her Toots?
Here’s the thing about power: you might not be aware you have it, but you are very aware when you don’t. Those jokes were never funny to the person they ridiculed. The atmosphere those comments generated never felt welcoming. Is it any wonder the industry is so homogeneous?
I’m guilty of wanting to fit in and be part of the team, laughing at those jokes I knew were inappropriate.
Years ago, while reviewing a bid from a tile setter, he said, “So how much are you going to Jew me out of this one?” It took me a year to muster up the strength to explain to him how offensive that language was. He had no idea the phrase was antisemitic and apologized.
Over the years, I’ve been guilty of weathering comments that were offensive to my heritage instead of speaking up for myself. Who wants to be singled out? When someone comes to you and says, “That language or action hurts,” recognize it is no easy task.
When we hired our first female carpenters, it felt like we took a chance. Could they do it? Would they be taken seriously? But with those questions came reflection: Why did we make performance judgments based on an individual’s biological sex? There’s so much societal head trash to get through, it clouds the judgment of even the best-intentioned among us.
"My hypocrisy, buried in good intention, was a rude awakening."
A few years ago, we hired someone who used they/them pronouns. Internally, we struggled to use the right language. Our trade partners, when informed, rolled their eyes. I told the employee that they couldn’t expect people outside our organization to use the right pronoun, and that’s when it hit me: Had this been a racial or religious slur, I would have had zero tolerance, but without a personal connection to this issue, I was willing to compromise. My hypocrisy, buried in good intention, was a rude awakening.
A friend provided some guidance. One of his children’s sex is male, but her gender is female. He is fiercely clear about how his daughter is addressed, and would never tell her to accept others’ intolerance. Should I accept substandard treatment for an employee?
Leading by Example
We recently had a project manager on staff with great experience, and he was tough on our male carpenters. The guys did not like being spoken down to, but I wrote it off as them being too soft. That was my first mistake.
When I told my wife, she wasn’t surprised. She could see his misogyny a mile away. When I told the woman running one of our trade partner companies about the staffing change, she visibly relaxed. I then heard about the belittling comments he made towards her.
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t see it until it reached this breaking point. This guy suffered from both a sexist view of the world and an unhealthy idea of masculinity, which, unfortunately, is common in our industry. Neither should be tolerated in our workplaces, but as a white male, I acknowledge I have a terrible blind spot for seeing what doesn’t impact me.
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Leading by Listening
There is a narrative in the construction industry that is long overdue for a healthy remodel. Our culture of misogyny, racism, and twisted masculinity was never okay, and it’s time we made a change. So, if we can admit we have a problem, how do we fix it? How do we create welcoming environments free from discrimination?
It starts with listening. It starts by hearing the requests for how we address someone. It starts by asking, “Is there language or behavior that I could change?” It starts by recognizing that it costs us nothing to alter our words, but means the world to those that hear them.
That Golden Rule says to treat others as you would have them treat you. If you find yourself saying “What are they complaining about?” that is a sign that you have power and privilege. Do you roll your eyes at people who present their pronouns as he/him? Recognize that while for you this may seem trivial, for someone else it is powerful, and you have the privilege of power.