A woman working in a male-dominated sphere: the Christmas Market

Beth Cochrane is an Edinburgh based fiction writer. She graduated, with Distinction, from the MSc Creative Writing programme at the University of Edinburgh in 2015. She is the winner of the Sloan Prize 2015 and is one of Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop writers, 2016. She performed her work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer and has recently been published in 404Ink’s magazine, Error. She is the co-host and co-curator of Edinburgh’s new spoken word and music night Interrobang?! Follow her on Twitter: @literature_wine

It’s a set up you’re familiar with: those frosty, crisp nights of mulled wine clutched between your gloved paws, watching hesitant skaters cling to the side of the ice rink as they slide one foot in front of the other. Those bubbling vats of hot chocolate, seasoned, perhaps, with a shot of creamy liqueur, wondering if the £4 deposit on the mug is worth not bothering to fight your way back to the bar.

You look forward to the stalls laden with cheeses and chocolates and coffee beans of every conceivable (and inconceivable) flavour. To perusing the gifts of silvered jewellery and balancing wine racks and other knick-knacks that are tailored to no one in particular (a wide audience is the best audience). You follow the signs to the Christmas Tree Maze where suspiciously tall (and rather chilly looking) Elves await you with a prize of chocolate coins. You follow the signs to the Ferris wheel, to the Spiegeltent. To Santa Land, Reindeer Land, to ‘this’ bar and ‘that’ bar and the Scottish Market and European Market. You read the signs that tell you to beware the slippery surface, to walk on the left, to walk on the right, to hold onto the handrail.

In fact, everywhere you look, there are signs. And this is where I come in: stepping into this festive scene, before it was festive, with my hi-vis vest, hardhat and power drill.

Constructing a Christmas market takes a lot of ‘man’ power. It takes a lot of bodies, a lot of hours, and a lot of hard work. It’s an environment dominated by men – sturdy chaps who’ve done this for years, who know what needs to be done and when to do it. Joiners and builders and tech specialists who know each other well and enjoy working together: it’s all banter, isn’t it?

An interesting – intimidating – work environment for a twenty-something year old woman. My job was (is) visual marketing. All those signs you see? Positioned and drilled into place by my team and I, armed with sturdy ladders, hefty power drills, and pockets overflowing with screws.

There is something about seeing a young lady with a nine foot board sign and sharp, electric tools that makes construction men feel uncomfortable. Or, as one of my many Christmas Market Tales of Misogyny begins, there is discomfort even with the idea that a woman could be capable of basic construction work.

A conversation from last year, around a week into building the site, really stuck with me. I was becoming more accustomed to the work environment and more at ease with the guys I was working with, although I wasn’t familiar with them all.

I’d walked into the shipping container/makeshift office/storage unit and said my hellos to the man in his hi-vis vest which matched my own, and located a power drill, complete with battery and bit. Picking one up, I checked it was charged and working, and I turned to go on my merry way.

“You know how to use that, darlin’?”

I pause at the door.

“What? This thing?” I wave the drill in the air, just that little bit too close to my face, expression purposefully blank. “Sure do,” I say. “I just find the toggle on the end of the cord and pull it out pretty hard. I wait a wee second for the engine-y thing to start up, and there we go. Like an old fashioned lawnmower, right?”

Maybe this was an unkind or unfair response, and the man in the hi-vis vest doesn’t quite know if I’m serious or not. He’s stuck between two options:

  1. Explain The Drill: explain some basic safety checks, how to secure the bit, and how to hold down the trigger, maintaining pressure. This poor, idiot girl clearly has no clue what she’s doing, and shouldn’t be messing around with dangerous tools.
  2. Acknowledge banter. However, this means acknowledging she knows what she’s doing, and that doesn’t feel right.

It’s a crucial point. Laugh and he has lost (lost what? I’m not entirely sure.) But from what I’ve gleaned at my time on site thus far is that construction is just as much work as you would think. It’s physically demanding and mentally tiring; endless safety checks and calculations to be made. It’s fair that I’m the ‘new kid’ on the block, and they feel a certain amount of pride in their work. They know that what they do needs skill and training.

But come on, guys. It’s just a drill. And I wouldn’t be picking it up if I didn’t know how to use it.

The grunts of the man in the hi-vis vest could constitute a laugh or a dismissive snort. He continues with his paperwork.

I chuckle as I leave the container. I love this. I love being a capable woman in a typically male environment. It’s fun, it’s funny, and I walk away, usually, with a few new friends who wouldn’t have looked twice at me before.

You wouldn’t have thought about it, not from looking at the twinkling lights of Santa’s Grotto and listening to the merry screams of terror from sky high rides – but these micro-aggressions at my female presence were a regular occurrence. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this, or a similar, conversation. This was maybe the sixth or seventh experience like this one, but it had taken me this long to become comfortable enough to make a joke in reply. Not just comfortable facing the gentlemen who have spent their lives building and creating, but also confident enough with my own abilities.

It was hard going from my indoor jobs out into the bitter cold, to plot and position signage and drill them into walls and doors and fences with precision. And at first it was fairly lonely work. We were a team of three, myself and another fantastic young woman, and a great guy who had done this before (a blessing in my times of ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’). There were hundreds of construction workers, each assigned with a team and a task and had the relevant knowledge and skills to get the job done efficiently and well.

Learning to ask for help was hard at first. I felt out of place and thought I’d be laughed at. Comments like the one above were common, which didn’t help. But I’m adaptable, and quickly learned quietness and mild manners had no place in this new environment. Adapting to this, joining in with ‘banter’ and learning the big NoNos of construction put me in good stead, and by week two I felt like the Dangerous Woman that I should have been from the start.

I stopped overthinking things: stopped wondering if the guys were laughing at me when I climbed ladders and yelled down for the sign to be position a little left, a little right. I stopped caring if they thought I looked incapable, or that I wasn’t doing something quite as they would. I realized I was doing my job, getting it done and actually doing it quite well. So enough second guessing, enough meek replies of “Uhhhs” and squeakings of “Ehhh, maybe. I think I know how to do this.”

And you know, I don’t think any of the guys noticed any of these changes. They were always nice to me, always offered to help with the lifting and when things were too tall for me (height-wise, no, I’m not suited to working on a construction site). It’s more than likely when they were asking me if I knew how to do things or how to use equipment they were simply checking I was going to be safe, and not hurt myself or anyone around me. Or maybe there was some protecting of the Boys’ Club and all its secret knowledge; knowledge of drilling and joinery and all those skills they hold dear and close.

By the end I didn’t really care. They were there, doing their jobs, and I was there, doing my job. One of just a few women on the Christmas Market construction site, and one of the fewer women who challenged themselves to fit into this male dominated environment.

Although I can only speak from my perspective, I did discuss the experience with the other woman on my team. I was not surprised to find she felt equally as uncomfortable as I did, particularly when asking for help from the main construction team. She, too, felt that she wouldn’t be taken seriously and often met similar reactions to her presence on site as I did: patronising comments, raised eyebrows, constant ‘suggestions’ on how our work could be improved – man-splaining why our methods were inferior. She said she felt her worth there was being continually questioned; that she continually felt under pressure to prove herself capable of doing all the things the men on site could do.

She tackled her position in a similar way as I did, however had desk space in the office to retreat to. That meant a little less time on site, and a little less time to become accustomed to the ‘lads’. Less time to grow thicker skin: to build coping mechanisms and realise that she was a Dangerous Woman in her own right – capable of doing any on site task that she needed to do.

It’s amazing the confidence I grew over this time. I wouldn’t have considered myself particularly handy, but I proved myself wrong. Once upon a time I wouldn’t have trusted myself with a power tools either, but now if I had some DIY to do around the house, I’d be my own first port of call. Drill in hand, confident in my new found skills, I’d call myself a Dangerous Woman indeed.



Picture: Christmas Market, Edinburgh by Zoe on flickr, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.