'Now you see me, now you don't': The visibility paradox for women in a male-dominated profession

Watts, Jacqueline H. (2010). 'Now you see me, now you don't': The visibility paradox for women in a male-dominated profession. In: Lewis, Patricia and Simpson, Ruth eds. Revealing and Concealing Gender: Issues of Visibility in Organizations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 175–193.

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Women working in professional construction roles are required to negotiate a range of cultural constraints to their presence in the industry arising from the heavily male-dominated ethos of the sector. As managers their authority is questioned, particularly in the setting of the construction site where they are rendered invisible by a culture within which they have no history. This is contrasted with their high visibility both on site and in the office that places them as physical spectacle or distraction to the main business in hand – men transacting the ‘live’ building of structures. The additional performance pressures associated with being ‘different’ from the main cohort are experienced as stressful adding the dimension of acceptance labour for women, many of whom report feeling ‘under surveillance’ by male colleagues.

Drawing on a feminist interpretive lens this paper explores the nature of the visibility paradox and the ways in which women have to adjust their work styles to accommodate the challenges they face arising from the visibility continuum (Cohn, 2000). The ideas of both Walby (1986, 1990) and Cockburn (1991) are used to interrogate how women respond to particular problems such as unfair chartering processes, sexual harassment and their use as tokens to close out the deal. The discussion will reveal that women do not identify as a group within the industry and adopt individual strategies to address these issues. The possibility of women forming a separate network was thought to be both unrealistic and unhelpful, only positioning them further from arenas of power. With no collective voice they are unable to establish a community of interest within which to support each other and often feel isolated at work.

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