Walls of the Mind

By Neelakshi Joshi – shared by Saurabh Tiwari

A commentary on the impregnable gender bias in the work-site

Feminism and female education has shaken many a male bastion and sometimes even blown up their existence. A lady doctor is now a norm rather than an oddity and teachers are predominantly women. Even in the unskilled sector women now manage small businesses, run shops and organize their livelihoods. Though the world may soon unwrap the first Architect Barbie, on the field in construction and architecture, it is still men who lay the keystone. While analysts scratch their heads over how only 20% of the women end up practicing architecture the scene on the work site is even worse.

For years women have worked on the worksite as labours. Unlike men who come in as small boys, assist the mason for some years as helpers and finally, when the time comes, graduate as masons. Later some of these masons become contractors and move up in the social ladder. However, this order of informal training is reserved only for men. Women enter and exit the site as labours irrespective of the years they have spent working there.

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I asked a group of masons casually over tea why women never became masons and their answers were varied. Most believe that women fear heights hence are unable to climb difficult scaffoldings. This seems absurd when you see the same women going to the highest points of the scaffolding to pass mortar and blocks. Others believe that it is physically demanding work to be a mason. Women on site seem to be giving in their best in this regard carrying heavy loads on their heads, sometimes, with a small child tied on their backs. Interviewing women on site reveals another line of reasons. Most families do not prefer young unmarried girls to go on site both because it is a male dominated environment and also because it is physically strenuous. Earlier on in life they prefer girls to do housework. Later, if forced by necessity, they take up the job on site. By then it is considered too late for specialised training so the women begin and end their careers as labourers.

Supervisors often praise women for better job quality, sincerity and discipline. They are more regular, do not drink alcohol nor create trouble and contribute their salaries for the betterment of the family. However they are held back by tradition and unwritten job hierarchies to assign them better work. These differences become starker on salary day. A woman labour receives much less than a male labour for the same nature of work (Rs. 165 per day versus Rs. 306 per day for men as per the current standard on most sites in Tamil Nadu,India). If you begin to argue the replies stand ready. Women labours have softer duties than men. This does not seem true when you observe them on the long line that passes the bricks from one end to another, shoulder to shoulder under the scorching sun with their male counterparts.

Since women constitute a major portion of the workforce on site and their skill development will play a crucial role in the years to come as construction projects boom all over the country, there have been numerous attempts by the government as well as the NGOs to train and promote women masons. Although the training goes well and women take up the skills it is when the time comes to find a job that the scheme fails. The social taboos surrounding a woman mason overpower them from being active in the mainstream. Contractors are reluctant to accept women and women are reluctant to step in a men-only domain. Post tsunami in Tamil Nadu the government funded many projects to train women masons so that they become agents of reconstruction. One such project was run at the Auroville Institute of Technology. It involved three months of theory classes followed by three months of on-site experience. We received six coy young girls. After an initial hesitation they settled in well. The masons were more than helpful and taught them well. They actively participated in all aspects of construction. 

After three months their skills were commendable. When asked what their future plans were, none of them wanted to be a mason on site. They said the training was fine however their families did not appreciate their working side by side men. Some intended to use this experience and study further, maybe learn drafting on CAD and settle in a comfortable job. Others had plans of going to other countries in the Middle East(where some family member was already working) and try to get some construction work there.

Though it might be a while before we see women skilfully laying blocks, bending steel or plastering walls, the hopeful winds of change have begun to blow. Women have proved that it is not skill that they lack but opportunities. If we strive for better, safer and more equitable sites for them to step down to I am sure they will not disappoint us.

Bibliography

1. Habitat (1997) Women Constructing Their Lives: Women Construction Workers – Four Evaluative Case Studies, United Nations Centre for Human Settlements.

2. Barnabas A, Anbarasu J and Paul C (2009) A Study on the Empowerment of Women Construction Workers as Masons in Tamil Nadu, India . Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 11 

Neelakshi Joshi is a graduate from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi and works as an architect at the Auroville Earth Institute, Tamil Nadu with keen interest in the human dimensions for attaining sustainable architecture

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