She was once called “Madam Builder” as an insult. Now Sophie Ngassa commands respect for her technical prowess.
“What is a woman even doing on a building site?”
That Monday morning, I dressed up in a blue and white skirt to look my best. It was an important day for me. This was my opportunity to showcase the work of my first class of students to parents and other members of our school community.
I was newly graduated from the Higher Technical Teachers Training College and a little intimidated by my students—all huge boys. This was 12 years ago, and I knew that as woman teaching an all-male class in a technical school, I was going to be seen as out of place. In Cameroon at that time, the children who were sent for technical education were those whose parents didn’t consider them bright enough for general education. These students were expected to be unruly, a norm I never questioned. I was growing accustomed to experiencing constant ridicule as a woman in that environment.
We held our Open Door Day event at a work site, and I trod the path with extreme caution in order to prevent a mixture of cement and sand from smearing my black shoes. There was still a lot of work to do when I arrived. I supervised the students as they completed their building models for the exhibition. Watching them, I was anxious to know if the boys had grasped the lessons I had taught them. I could not wait to prove to the community that I was not only a woman technical teacherbut an excellent technical educator.
As I made my way past a boy plastering the wall of his model, I suddenly felt a splash of fresh mortar fall on my face. I watched in shock as it trickled down to my skirt. I could not believe any of the boys would go this far!
Shortly, the event would begin. How was I going to appear in front of the parents and other guests?
“Who did this to me?” I shouted. I saw some students laughing, and I quickly identified the student who had committed this act. The guilt could be seen on his face. First, he pretended it had been a mistake. But the next words that came out of his mouth contradicted this: “What is a woman even doing on a building site?” he asked. As if I had not received enough humiliation, the other students laughed even more. They jeered at me, calling me “Madam Builder!”
My happiness and excitement from earlier that morning turned to embarrassment. I was so young and eager to do my best at work. I knew a student would never have done this to a male instructor. I am sure he took this opportunity to provoke me because of my gender. I started to believe I might actually be in the wrong place.
I paused for a few seconds, calmed myself down, and remembered a lesson on self-control from my Christian Women’s Fellowship group. I decided to talk with my male colleagues about what had happened.
They were even more bitter than I was and reported the incident to the head of thedepartment, who next took the case to the discipline master. The student concerned faced a disciplinary council, which warned and sanctioned him.
As a disciplinary council member, I also attended this meeting. I will never forget the words of one of my colleagues: “Somehow I understand this student. Until I saw Madam Sophie take up this job in our school, I had never imagined my sister on a construction site.”
Later on, the discipline master had a talk with the class. This situation served as a good lesson for all the students and even my male colleagues. Since then, I have never had this kind of issue again.
This incident could have belittled my self-esteem, but I made up my mind not to let it spoil my day. In the moment, cleaned off the mortar as best I could and continued on, confident in my technical prowess. From that day on, I have continued to learn how to be brave and courageous in this male-dominated field, and how to handle the issues that arise that could cause me to lose motivation in my job.
That day, I had to stand up for myself as a woman. It was also important that I had the support of men. The next day I recounted the story to my husband, with whom I share all of my dreams and my challenges. He encouraged me and gave me some tips on how to handle such issues. I am also grateful to my male colleagues for their support and encouragement, and for making work more comfortable for me.
This has strengthened my belief that we need to start at home by educating our boys to understand that a woman can do the same job that a man does. And we need to join with our male colleagues to build a collaborative and supportive work environment. It’s time to break those glass ceilings and make it easier for women to take on “male jobs.” I’ve proved that it’s possible!