Women at Implenia

What counts is performance.

Construction is one of the most masculine industries, but more and more women are getting involved – from administration to work on construction sites. Gina Roth and Sonia Pinnelli are good examples. Michèle Binswanger investigates how they feel about their special status and what they like about the tough but honest “man’s world” that they now inhabit.

Women at Implenia. It’s a windy day on the site in Zurich’s Wiedikon district where the Gutstrasse 85–127 residential development is being built. Gina Roth stands amid all the masonry, dust and bare concrete. Tall and wearing jeans, a blue t-shirt and trainers, she is an imposing figure. She is also the only woman here and the senior on-site manager for this 50-millionfranc project. In approximately one year, families will be eating their evening meals here in warm, dry rooms. But there is much to be done in the meantime, as 34 years old Roth knows better than most. Which is why she moves so fast around her building site, asking questions here and lending an ear there. Her sentences are short and her movements concise. “Has the problem with the windows been sorted? Will you manage?” she asks a colleague. The window-maker prevaricates. “Not sure,” he says. “It’s tight.” “Which means it will be OK, right?” she retorts. “The bricklayers are breathing down your neck just so you don’t get bored.” She grins.

Many women come in from other professions. Women are still a rarity in construction. It is, after all, still one of the most masculine of all industries – one that still calls for a gung-ho attitude and sheer muscle power. But even here the traditional roles are changing. “The proportion of women is increasing, especially among trainees,” says Ueli Büchi, Head of Occupational Training Policy at the Swiss Association of Builders. A paradoxical phenomenon is becoming apparent: Büchi estimates that one in 150 of those graduating from training courses for site foremen are women, but that the proportion goes up to one in forty for site management courses. Women often come into the industry from other professions, and are better represented in more senior roles where brains are more important than brawn. Gina Roth has both. The daughter of a stone mason and a beautician, as a child she preferred to play with Lego and build houses for her Barbie dolls. “I always liked to swim against the tide,” she says. It was the same at school, and later during her training as an architectural draughtsman and as a mason, and then later still when she did courses to qualify as a site manager and project manager.

An honest world. She says it’s her dream job, though she had to go through a tough schooling to get here. Her career taught her that there were advantages to being a woman in the construction industry, but also disadvantages. Many of her teachers and line managers trusted her less than her male colleagues and froze her out. But Roth knew how to stick up for herself. When a foreman refused to make her carry heavy loads during training, she had to tell him: “It’s causing me problems with the others.” “But you’re a woman,” he said. “I’ll tell you if it’s too much for me,” was her answer. So he put her to work and she spent many hours the next day carrying stuff around until she asked for a time-out at three in the afternoon. From that day on, everyone respected her. Respect is important to her. She seems like a person who can get her own way – but without having to act too tough. She certainly respects all the men who work outside in the wind and bad weather. “It is a hard job,” she says. But she loves this man’s world because it’s an honest world where people call a spade a spade. “You can give someone a piece of your mind, and then go out for a beer the next evening. Then it’s over and done with.” But she wants respect for her work too. Every now and then, of course, she runs into a man who is “a bit uptight” about working under a female boss. And if somebody tells her she has a sharp tongue, then she knows she’s doing her job properly. But usually she has no problem working with anyone.

Gaining respect. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what gender you are. The main thing is that the work gets done to the right standard. After initial scepticism, she has also experienced sympathy. Not all men think women in construction are an unwelcome complication. “I often hear men say that having a woman on the construction site is no bad thing. I have a different way of dealing with things. I’ll look into a problem and listen to what people have to say,” she explains. It is important to her that the workers are happy, because happy workers work better. As for herself, she has everything she needs to make her happy: job, husband, house, cats, snakes and a dog. What about children? “Under discussion, but not planned yet,” she says. Having kids would mean giving up the job, at least for the first year. And it would be impossible for her to come back as a part-timer: “There are no job share models in the construction industry yet,” she says. Not at management level, at least. But women are welcome to take part-time jobs in administration, as Sonia Pinnelli, mother of a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son, could tell you. As a construction finance clerk, she looks after the civil engineering side of the project to regenerate the old Weststrasse transit route in Zurich. The daughter of a Spanish foreman, she has fine features, a sweep of black hair and carefully painted fingernails.

Culture of frank and open discussion. The 39-year-old has returned to work part-time (50%) after a long maternity leave. A single mother, she relies on her own mother’s help to look after the children when she’s away. She says that going back to work is demanding, but that it has made for a richer and more varied life. Her job is to coordinate and control the suppliers’ invoices. And she is the only woman in an otherwise exclusively male team – for the first time since she began a commercial apprenticeship in the construction industry when she was 16. She was concerned about this to start with, but needn’t have been: “On a construction site people respect women just as much as men; what counts is how you perform,” she says. And Ms Pinnelli performs well. “Ms Pinnelli is a blessing for the building site,” says construction manager Roger Widmer. Thanks to her many years of experience she knows the difference between Italian gneiss and Portuguese granite. She can talk to the workers in Spanish and Italian and encourages frank and open discussion,” says Widmer. What does that mean exactly? “You have to be able to stick up for yourself.” You can also exchange a personal word or two with Pinnelli without worrying that it will go any further, he says. Apart from that, she dresses appropriately for the building site and always focuses on solutions. Pinnelli waves this aside and returns to her work. There’s still much to be done. Time to get on with it.

A constructive atmosphere

Gabriela Bouras, Executive Assistant, Implenia Switzerland Ltd., Onex

People often have the wrong idea about the workers and the work in a construction firm. It’s actually a pleasant working environment and I have a relaxed and friendly relationship with my colleagues.”

Building in the blood

Sandra Wanner, Construction Clerk, Roads and Civil Engineering, Implenia Switzerland Ltd., Zurich-Oerlikon

“I feel good on building sites. I’ve never had any problems with it because the Wanner family founded its own construction business more than 60 years ago and is still active in the industry today. The trade is probably in my genes.”