Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be very challenging. The increase in women in some industries and roles happened rapidly and recently. While many men are fantastic to work with and have adjusted to women on the worksite, some, unfortunately, haven’t.
This means that a lot of re-education needs to happen as sexist habits that may have been tolerated back in the day are no longer welcome.
One such habit that needs to be let go is calling coworkers, often female coworkers, pet names or using pet names to insult coworkers.
Babe, sweetie, hunny, hun, muffin, cupcake, love, etc. have no place at work in any context. Especially if they are only used on female coworkers.
Although many pet names can be considered a term of endearment, spoken from the mouth of a colleague the words can take a different tone. In certain contexts, they can be used to shoot the other person down by painting them as less than, suggesting they are inexperienced, and not worthy of listening to. In other contexts, they might be used to remark on the attractiveness of another which at work is an unwelcome subtle form of harassment.
Failing to talk about the implications of using certain language at work can cause workers to get themselves or their company into hot water.
For example, recently while working as an engineer on a worksite in Northern BC a tradesperson that I worked closely with fumed a “Whatever babe” in my direction in response to feedback I had given. This made my blood boil and created tension that could have easily been avoided.
It’s widely known in the industry that the part played by an engineer on any worksite is one that is often disliked by contracted tradespeople. Junior engineers on site tend to have little or no practical experience yet it’s our job to oversee construction and to speak up when we see corners being cut or safety protocols being broken. So disagreements are common and you develop a thick skin.
That said there are certain words like “Babe” that can instantly cut through the skin of even the most seasoned professional. This is because the word babe is a specific insult that extends beyond a difference of opinion about how work should be done.
As the sole female on-site and in charge of enforcing site safety rules “babe” was used to cut me down and I know it wouldn’t be used on me if I was male.
I was forced to inform my colleague in front of his crew that the term was inappropriate and he needed to use my name in the future. He looked shocked and the tension between us remained.
This look of complete shock made it clear that companies need to start having more transparent conversations with our worksite employees about appropriate language if we want to ensure increased diversity and avoid harassment and bullying lawsuits.
While I, like many women on worksites, was fortunate enough to have the experience and strength to stand up for myself and deal with this challenge directly. Life for both men and women on worksites would be greatly improved if we could eliminate these types of unnecessary confrontations.