Women in the construction industry

By: Vivienne Haldane

Women in the construction industry Out in the sticks: Tanya Claxton at work on her Sumitomo digger in rural Hawke's Bay. Women in the construction industry
Women in the construction industry Women in the construction industry

Although machine operating remains a largely male-dominated industry in New Zealand, Deals On Wheels searched out some women machine operators to see what spins their wheels about their work.

On a windswept bend along a country road, digger operator Tanya Claxton is hard at work with the roading team.

Today they're constructing a retaining wall to stabilise a bank beside the road that was washed out.
Jumping into my car to get out of the cold, Claxton explains how she got into the business.

"After I completed a degree in fashion design in 2002 I started with the roading team on the stop/go stick. That lead to a full-time job where I learned how to drive and ended up on the digger," she says.

"My plan was to save money to return to the UK where I'm originally from. I was at the freezing works for a while but I thought if I'm going back to cold England I may as well work outside. I did some farm work and when this job came up. I thought 'why not?' I have been here ever since."

So given she did such a drastic gear change from fashion to machinery, where did that skill come from? It turns out her father works for a contracting company in London, so this could explain it.

"Dad was very surprised when he found out what I was doing for a job. When I went over for a holiday I asked him if I could come to work with him. He didn't really believe I could do this sort of thing. It's very different there compared to what we do here," says Claxton.

"That day, my brother was working on a dump truck and I was loading him with a digger, but he was just too slow. I got sick of waiting for him and really showed him up. My dad was totally surprised. He said, 'How come my daughter can drive machinery better than my son?'"

The machine she operates, and the one she learned on, is a 12-tonne Sumitomo with swamp tracks. "It's got a longer dipper arm, which means you don't have to sit so close to the edge of hills or banks. It's big enough to do larger jobs but small enough to work in town too. I'm not as fond of the rubber tyre diggers — I find them a bit rocky, while track machines are more stable and you can really throw them around."

She prefers diggers to anything else. "You can do so much with them, such as retaining walls, drainage culverts, landscaping, and gabion baskets. We get a good variety of both town and country work."

Women _in _construction _4Claxton takes each challenge as it comes and works out a strategy as she goes. "Compared to guys (who have a bit more balls and will just go and do it) I tend to think, 'If I get a digger down there, how am I going to get it out?' I haven't ever had a job where I've gone, 'I don't want to do that'. I read the plans, sort out what's what, and off I go."

She says being part of a good team helps. "Some of these guys have been here about 20 years, so it's handy to have that knowledge to tap into."

I ask her the inevitable question about whether she has encountered any negatives regarding her gender?

"When I started here 12 years ago, I was the first female in the field. There were a couple of older guys who told me, 'This is a man's job. If you want to work here you've got to be able to do this'. I am physically strong so I just bum them out. If they say 'Go and pick up that cement bag and take it over there', I'll do it, so it backfires on them.

"When I first worked on the machinery some people were good but some of the guys wouldn't even let me have a turn. Now it's not so bad. The boys give me shit, just because they can. It doesn't matter to me — I give it back just as good.

"We all get on really well with one another. I don't think they want to let on that I'm good at what I do. They wouldn't want to give me that satisfaction," she laughs.

Claxton entered the Hawke's Bay excavator competition and made the finals two years in a row. She's pleased she did because she proved to herself she was damn good at her job and could foot it with the best.

In 2006 – 2007, she worked in Fiji for construction company McConnell Dowell, building a wharf. Because it was on a remote part of the island she had to do a bit of everything. "As well as diggers, I had to drive rollers and graders, plus batch and pour concrete. It was an awesome experience."

Claxton also holds a heavy traffic licence and a dangerous goods licence. However, she says, she doesn't get on the trucks very often.

On freezing cold days like today she might wish for a minute that she had an indoor job, but she prefers being outside. "It's like you're your own boss – you've got a set list of things to do, so you just cruise along and get them done. You meet lots of people.

"Sometimes you get the cockies coming along and asking one of the boys if they can do a job but they'll say, 'Tanya's the digger driver'. Most of them are used to me now because I've been on the road for a while."

After hours she plays netball and in spring and summer she's in hot demand with brides and bridesmaids for dresses for their special day, so out comes her sewing machine and she puts on her other 'hat' of dress designer.

Does she have plans for the future? She says she's happy 'plodding along' where she is now. "I love working here – we have a good bunch of people. We have a laugh every day. The bosses are approachable and look after us. We have an awesome social club and everyone gets on together. It's like being part of a big family."

Also check out this interview with Bianca O'Neill, who works for Jamon Demolition. Never miss an issue of Deals on Wheels. Subscribe here.

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