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I've been a structural engineer for a few years. My tasks are usually design calcs/reports which are office or remote based, i.e. I am NOT a site engineer. I have recently been placed on a project with another team to oversee some works on site and I'm travelling hundreds of miles each week and spending the week alone in hotels/air bnbs etc. At first, I enjoyed the work as it enriched and complemented a lot of the design work I do, and it was beneficial for my career. However I'm now well into my 8th week on site.

I'm told last minute where I'm going next week, and I don't know when it will end. My usual routine is out the window. I'm a young woman, I don't feel safe staying in certain places on my own, I've had to deal with a surprising amount of inappropriate comments from contractors, sub contractors on all of the sites, and sometimes my suggestions are brushed off (when they're made by another member of staff, they're taken on board).

I absolutely do not envisage myself ever working on site long term - I don't mind visiting/overseeing for a week/few days, but long term this is not the role for me. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but I also don't see why I should just suck it up when it's not something I want to do from a career perspective and it's starting to get me down mentally as it's ruining my work-life balance. If I wanted to be a site engineer I would have applied for a job with a contractor. I've started applying for other jobs as a back-up if I don't get taken off of this project. Just as an add on - I went into this with an open mind as I do every job I'm given, as I want to learn and experience as much as I can.

Has anyone else experienced similar to this? How did it play out? How can I present this to my manager without coming across lazy/whining?

EDIT

Work like this is not common at my workplace, and I know most people do not want to do it as they have families etc. I understand that sometimes you just have to get on with it and do jobs you don't want to do - especially early in your career (which I have also done in the past) but I don't want to create the impression that I will take all the jobs people don't want to do.

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    Is on-site work a significant change to your job description (either contractual, or you and your manager's mutual understanding of it)? Or was it always in theory part of your role but you were fortunate, prior to this project, not to have had to do any? How you proceed will depend a lot on this. Sep 21, 2023 at 10:27
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    Thanks for your quick response, to be completely honest I think I've probably been fortunate to not have had to do any of that in the past. Topic of site work on the job description is not really touched upon, and off the top of my head I don't remember seeing anything in my contract about it (but i'd have to check). The site work is much rarer in my work as we are a consultancy, and any site work I've done in the past has been initial site visits or some visual surveys and inspections but nothing this long term.
    – Zaritz
    Sep 21, 2023 at 11:03
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    You might find Being Glue relevant: the details are about a software engineer, but the broader concept seems similar.
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 21, 2023 at 21:29
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    How much travel is involved needs to be included in the job description. I had an experience where a boss unexpectedly tried to send me overseas just because it had been a customary thing for employees to take some annual company trip. I declined to go, stating that it clashed with my family life, and pointing out that no mention of overseas travel was made when I agreed to the job. He made some griping remarks along the lines of me not being a team player (during a staff meeting, which was unprofessional on his part), but ultimately did not force me to go. You've got to set boundaries.
    – Mentalist
    Sep 22, 2023 at 1:37
  • I am not a structural engineer, but I have very good experiences with telling managers "I will complete this project but I'll never take a similar project again". Is this something you'd be willing to try? It has nothing to do with lazyness, it has everything to do with being a job that's not within your strengths. Considering the years of experience you have, I'll assume your manager is aware of your value in other fields, for other projects.
    – Mast
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:52

4 Answers 4

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The answer is as it always is if you want to change something about your work: you have a meeting with your manager and explain:

  • You prefer office-based work for reasons X, Y and Z
  • You understand the top requires some site-based work and you're happy to do that but don't want to be on-site permanently
    • If there are specific things which cause you difficulties, mention those - e.g. if you feel unsafe in the hotels you're put in, it may be possible for you to get hotels in a safer area etc.

We can't really predict how your manager will respond to all that; things could vary from "suck it up", in which case you start looking for a new job, through "okay, we'll look to get your back in the office next month" to "oh dear, I thought you liked site-based work, we'll put you back in the office ASAP".

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    It may be helpful to ask when you could be rotated to a task you enjoy more. That gives your manager the hint that maybe others should be taking their turn at these least& favorite tasks.
    – keshlam
    Sep 21, 2023 at 12:32
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Stop being open minded

Companies tend to be happy to give you work, even if inappropriate or bad for your work life balance because they don't tend to care about your feelings. Whenever you get a new work request, evaluate whether you're being paid enough for it, if it's within your contract, and if you want to do it. Pushing back strongly on new work requests is important if you want to have a life. If you enjoy new work, you can go for it, but you shouldn't have an automatic attitude of accepting anything.

This is especially true for something involving travel and working outside normal hours. Check your contract to see what you're actually supposed to do. Open mindedness is bad, go for jobs which are directly in your contract or which benefit you, otherwise push back.

Document every bad experience.

If you're getting sexually or violently harassed at work, raise official complaints each time. They're contractors, and you have a fancy expensive position, so you're unlikely to get blowback for complaining. This is a major issue your workplace should be fixing, and you shouldn't be expected to handle their lack of preparation.

See if you can work out why they are ignoring you.

Do they see you as too young? Too female? Has management not prepped them to listen to you? Regardless, document any comments, and have that as material to use.

Work out what you can use in a meeting with your boss

You could just tell them "This is outside my area of expertise, and I hate doing it, can I do something else" and that will work with some managers. You do have some potential areas for stronger complaints though.

  1. Contract issues. Is your work according to your contract? Does it state they can send you on trips all the time? If not, complain about that.

  2. Safety issues. If the contractors are sexually or violently harassing you, you're not safe- they could escalate and assault or kill you. Tell your workplace you feel unsafe, and ask them to get the contractors to manage their employees, take sexual harassment training courses, and perhaps send a colleague along with you to help keep you safe. If they brush this off or ignore it, you have more grounds to ask to stop since they can't guarantee your safety.

  3. Note that you're not the right person for the job. If they're ignoring you, then your advice is pretty useless. If they need someone male to listen to for example, it's fairly pointless sending you, a woman, if you'll just be ignored.

Workers complaining to their managers about work is fairly normal and common, and your position is expensive and high up enough that they probably can't easily replace you. Know your worth, complain to your manager with concrete issues, and reveals a lot about the company. So long as you don't say you're considering leaving there's rarely any consequence.

If they say no, keep looking for another job, document every incident in case of any legal incident like them firing you, and move on.

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    +1 for the part about report and document everything - have as much of a paper trail as possible, and then later down the line if you need to turn to a lawyer to take action, you have incredible leverage Sep 21, 2023 at 17:13
  • Regading the feeling unsafe in places to stay, thats something else you can push back on. The company can easily solve that by spending more money on accommodation in a lot of places. It might be that there are only two places in town, but that doesn't mean they can't pay for the fancy expensive option if thats the only alternative to a grotty airbnb. Sep 23, 2023 at 18:33
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There are multiple issues here that are contributing to the overall problem. I've tried to separate them out below:

  1. Sometimes you are asked to travel to places you don't feel safe.
  2. You are being given little notice of where and when you need to travel.
  3. You are being asked to travel more than you would like and it interferes with your work-life balance.
  4. You prefer office side of the job to on-site work, but currently you are being asked to specialise in on-site work.
  5. Working on site, you have to deal with overt sexism (inappropriate comments, etc.).
  6. Working on site you have to deal with a lack of professional respect - likely sex- and/or age related (ideas ignored until someone else says them).

I have tried to list them in order of which might be easiest to resolve. The first step is to raise the issues with your boss and ask for their help to find a solution which works for you and your employer. Before the meeting, you will need to give some thought to which matter most to you, and what compromises you can make, and try to structure the conversation to address those. You seem realistic that some amount of travel and site work are necessarily part of the job, so acknowledge the benefit to your professional experience and development, and try to propose solutions, but be clear that the current situation is not sustainable.

Feeling safe should be non-negotiable, so think about what that needs (hotels with on-site parking in nicer areas, even if that means paying more or traveling further between site and hotel?) and ask for that.

How much notice you get is partly about work-life balance, but also contributes to feeling safe - you need to be able to book into the decent hotel, not take the last remaining AirBnB with the weird smell in the bad area. Hopefully your boss would be sympathetic to these and be able to improve matters with a little better planning/organization up front.

How much you have to travel is about work-life balance. Think about what your upper limit is, and does that change if some of the other issues are addressed? Could you do one week in X if you knew Y weeks ahead of time? Could you cope with travel at short notice if it was only Z weeks per year on average?

How much on-site work is about your career aspirations and development, and the company's needs. Saying to your boss you don't want to specialise in this is fine, but might have consequences... maybe they can spread it around better with just a bit of thought; maybe they think it's a niche where you can develop and progress with less competition than other areas and giving it up would slow your career development; maybe everyone else has already had enough of it and you're the last to complain and they can't/won't fix it, or only if you complain louder than everyone else.

The sexism is hardest to fix, being a much wider issue than just your current situation. For the overt stuff, your options are to ignore it, call it out on the spot, or raise it with the senior people on site. You shouldn't have to deal with this, but all options are far easier to write than to do and get results, and all with the possibility that it gets worse. As for being the invisible woman, that might get better as people are more used to you and you build professional reputation, and you might be able to find allies who will at least credit you when they repeat your idea so that others take it onboard - "I agree with Zaritz that we should do X" is an improvement on "we should do X" - if there are people you work with regularly and trust, discussing with them and asking them to be conscious of this type of thing might help, else with your boss or a (female?) mentor at work or in the industry - many Engineering organisations/institutions such as the IMechE have professional networks for women that you could join and get support from.

TL;DR Try to untangle the issues, work out your priorities, red lines and potential compromises, then have a constructive conversation with your boss. If things don't get better, keep your thoughts about these issues in mind when interviewing potential new employers.

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    Having a female friend in the construction trade for the last decade and a half... I don't think she ever completely managed to shut-off sexist remarks completely, especially on-site. She typically ignores the ones behind her back, and chews out whoever calls it to her face... Sep 22, 2023 at 8:32
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There are probably some people who love jobs that are constant travel all over the place and no real significant time at "home" for their entire careers. However, everyone I've met tired of that within two years tops. Its also, in my experience, quite destructive of personal relationships. If you don't have any to start with, great. But if you'd like to one day, and I'm seeing that you would, then you need a different job.

I remember one high-stress long-term engineering site project where 2 of the 3 married engineers sent (all of whom I counted as close friends) ended up divorced by the end of the project. The other 2 engineers left the company or transferred within the next 2 years.

I had another friend who used to do international travel all over the globe year round. He had lots of fun stories (in the "fun in retrospect but I'm damn glad it wasn't me" vein), but when he met someone he wanted to get seriously romantically involved with, he had to quit that job. It just wouldn't work otherwise.

The point here is, most human beings long-term need to have their own life outside of work with their own home. You aren't being selfish to count yourself among them, you're just being a normal person.

Its quite likely your company knows this, has trouble finding someone who will take this task on long term, and that's why they talked you into doing it despite it not being the best fit for you. They are also likely to resist your request to quit doing it, for the same reason. You're like Atlas stuck shouldering a burden nobody else wants to take up.

Again, there are perhaps some people (whom I haven't met) who'd love to do this exact job as a career. But that clearly isn't you. You need a life. So yes, you are absolutely right to stick up for yourself here, and indeed find yourself another job if the company won't help you out.

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