Politics & Government

At construction sites, catcalls nearing extinction

Catcalls from construction workers are on the wane. Women's complaints to supervisors muzzled them.
Catcalls from construction workers are on the wane. Women's complaints to supervisors muzzled them. Tish Wells / MCT

WASHINGTON — The catcalls and salacious commentary that generations of American construction workers rained down on passing women are fading, according to many women and to workers who say they've reformed.

Complaints by women on the street — and on the job — raised their sensitivity, construction company supervisors said.

"In our company, if someone is caught doing something like that, we call the subcontractor company and they're removed from the job site," said Greg Clark, 52, a senior superintendent for James G. Davis Construction Corp., which has many sites in the Washington area.

Adonis Hernandez, 37, assistant superintendent at a Davis site in downtown Washington, recalled one case:

"A girl was passing by with a dog and a worker said to her in Spanish: 'Como quisiera ser ese perrito para que me anduvieras jalando' (I wish I were that dog so you could pull me around.) She asked me to translate it to her and she laughed, but then she made a complaint."

The subcontractor exiled the worker to leafy Loudoun County, Va., where passing skirts are scarce.

Latin workers, who have a tradition of making unsolicited "piropos" in praise of passing women, generally fear for their jobs if they try it in the U.S.

Juan Vaca, 32, from Honduras, said he made the mistake last year.

"I was looking at a woman, and she asked me why I was staring at her that way. 'Because you're beautiful,' I told her, but she didn't take it well and made a complaint," he said.

Vaca said his bosses told him not to do it again.

About the worst thing a catcaller could do is seek the attention of Mai Shiozaki, press secretary for the National Organization for Women.

"I've filed five complaints in the last two years," she said. "As a feminist, I don't sit back. After I complain, I usually call the site manager to see if they took any action.'"

Catcalls haven't declined when she runs in the morning, she said, but they're no longer "outwardly disgusting."

"It's more like a 'hey baby' or 'your body is amazing!' "

Women who said they once got lots of catcalls say they've noticed the pall.

"It's not as common anymore! You don't hear it as often. Construction workers used to holler at me," said Denise Woodson, 37.

Vivian Price, a former union electrician who teaches interdisciplinary studies at California State University-Dominguez Hills, credits the growing number of women in construction.

Kris Paap, a sociologist at the State University of New York Institute of Technology who worked three years as a carpenter's apprentice, offered another explanation. As women gained power, she said, their complaints gained weight.

Historically, construction workers were seen as "incredibly physical, sexual men," and catcalls were part of the mystique, Paap added. But there's been a shift: Being overtly masculine is no longer so powerful and catcalling is more frowned on.

Catcalling complaints are hardly winners in court, however.

"There is no legal definition for street harassment," said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, a woman's rights organization headquartered in New York. "There are harassment statutes on the books but I am not aware of any statutes that deal with this kind of issue."

Greg Fisanich, 44, an assistant safety director for Miller & Long construction, knows catcalls are wrong but remembers them fondly.

"It was a fun thing, a celebration of youth," said Fisanich, who recalled his last catcall around 1986:

"I learned to say in Spanish 'flores de mi corazon,' which means flowers of my heart, and I yelled it to a girl. And she screamed back, 'F--- you gringo!' "

"We were at the forefront of construction guys catcalling women!" said Tony Powell, 52, a Miller & Long superintendent who's worked in construction for 30 years.

But that's passe, he said. "It is a matter of respect."

He learned this from experience the first time he took his wife to his job site 15 years ago. She was catcalled, and he was furious.

"Someone said she had a nice (derriere), and she didn't tell me that until we got home.

"If I'd known I would've fired the guy."