Julia Schaffer Flemk is a tiler who’s passionate about an equal opportunities construction industry. This battle has led to her being awarded grants, receiving attention in the media and being given more work than she can fit in.
Business of equal opportunities
This business of equal opportunities in the construction industry is still more or less just talk. Even now, women leave their jobs because they’re unable to cope with the unhealthy macho culture – which is uncalled for, by the way. My vocation, and the point of my company, is to get women more interested in construction professions, because I know their entry into the construction industry will automatically improve attitudes internally within companies and in dealings with customers,” says Julia.
When you say the macho culture is uncalled for, what do you mean?
Being a builder is a tough job for men and women alike. Your body comes in for some tough punishment when you have to carry heavy sacks across the site and up stairs in buildings without lifts. But sometimes, these stresses are worse than they need to be.
What do you mean?
Guys have to learn on day one that they have to show what they’re made of. They slog away until their backs break. They don’t want to come across as feeble and end up delaying the work. As a result of this behaviour, they carry weights that are too heavy for them and don’t bother to use protective equipment. And this approach affects us all.
When I started work as a tiler, I weighed 47 kilos and the sacks I was carrying weighed 25 kilos. One of my colleagues in those days, a fairly big bloke, carried a sack over each shoulder and thought I should do the same if I was going to be a tiler. I did as he said, and now my back and knees are going to give me trouble for the rest of my life. The aim of my company, and the fact that I talk in the media about the macho culture as a harmful phenomenon, is to prevent other people making the same unnecessary mistakes that I made.
Do you only employ women?
Anybody with the right attitude is welcome to work for me. Gender, nationality and sexual preference – they mean nothing to me.
Would you say most construction companies are open to the idea of employing women nowadays?
Many say – officially – that they’d like to take on more women, but they’re not prepared to change anything. Like ordering clothes of the right size, for example. People who wear poorly fitting clothes that are too big find it harder to do a good job. Workwear that fits women is an important marker, and perhaps the first step towards really opening up the industry to women.
What’s the market like?
Lots of manufacturers have woken up. Nowadays, clothing and protective equipment are available in smaller and fitted sizes, and both 10 and 15 kilo sacks are now available. Work trousers are even available for pregnant women. Now builders and the construction industry have to be persuaded to take on this broader range.
What happened when you helped to devise a new workwear line for Snickers Workwear?
Malin Enoksson, product developer at Snickers, called a meeting of 10 or so women working in the construction industry, with different professional profiles, and spent an evening finding out what we thought. Leg length, hip sizing and shoulder width were some of the most important measures on her list.
Women working in construction generally have broader shoulders than the average woman. Women often have broader hips than men, which frequently means that we have to do choose one size up when we buy things from the male range. The legs end up being far too long, and the kneepads end up in completely the wrong place. If you have to roll up the trouser legs, chippings and other debris end up trapped in them, and that completely wrecks your washing machine.
Tell us what you think ABOUT THE NEW TROUSERS?
For the first time ever my kneepads are in exactly the right place. The average tiler moves around quite a bit, climbing ladders or kneeling down. Perhaps 100 times a day. In the old days, I had to pull up my trousers every time I had to kneel down. Now I can concentrate on my work instead.
what about THE softshell jacket?
Having even a small chest means that jackets designed for the male body frequently feel tight across the back. And the same goes for all those promotional t-shirts you get. I always get my carpet knife out and make a cut in the neckband so that it’s not too tight. But you can’t do that with a jacket. Since we’ve had our say, the new Snickers jacket fits perfectly across the back. It’s a fitted design, and the sleeves are just the right length and width. It gives me full mobility.
How did you end up in the construction industry?
When I was little, I decided I wanted to become a carpenter. I grew up in the countryside, with no TV, and I wasn’t spoilt with gadgets. Most of the time, my cousin and I were out and about making treehouses that we actually spent whole summers living in.
Did you spend your time in the treehouse dreaming of being an entrepreneur?
No, I didn’t dare dream of starting my own company. I didn’t have the self-confidence for that. But after a decade as an employee, I felt I had to do something to change attitudes. I reckoned all that macho talk really started in earnest at school. The curriculum even says that students have to receive training in professional culture – hah!
That was why I started studying to become a building and construction teacher at university. But by the time I completed my training, I had new self-confidence and felt I should start my own company instead. I haven’t regretted it for a second.