Isabelle Schulenburgreading time 3 min.
You have to listen to your heart, and follow your goals and dreams.
The Moorweidenpalais at Dammtor. Scaffolding, machinery, building rubble, construction noise and shouting between floors, from craftsman to craftsman. This is one of the places where Isabelle works. She and her colleagues are currently in the middle of renovation work here, making sure the old building will soon be restored to its former glory. Walking around this historic property raises many questions, and not only for Isabelle. What is the story behind this building? What has gone on inside these walls since the time it was first constructed? Who lived here over the years?
Isabelle is one of the few female masons in Hamburg and, in 2018, she received an award for being the best apprentice in her trade from the city’s Chamber of Trade. This makes her only the second woman ever in the 67-year history of these awards to take first place in this field. This was, of course, one of several exciting things we got the chance to talk to Isabelle about.
hvv switch: When did you decide to pursue this profession that’s traditionally such a male domain?
Isabelle: By the time I was in kindergarten I already had a gang of boys and was only hanging around outside. We played pirates, climbed trees and fought each other. I don’t have any brothers who could act as role models for me, but I did have a little sister who’s the complete opposite of me. And when the time came when I had to decide on a school internship, my mum said: Why don’t you do something manual with your hands, like bricklaying or something. And that was that. I just thought “Great! That’s where I want to be. On a building site.”
It’s actually a childhood dream of mine. When I was a little kid I used to play with Lego. I couldn’t stand Barbies, dolls and everything that was pink and glittery. A nightmare for me.
hvv switch: Why choose to be a mason in particular?
Isabelle: After leaving school I spent a year at a technical college specialised in construction engineering. It was there that I came across bricklaying, built my first wall and just really enjoyed it. It was love at first sight: Stones and mortar. I remember sending my mum a WhatsApp message: Mama, I want to become a bricklayer. From that moment on everything was clear to me.
hvv switch: What was it like in the beginning, as the only woman surrounded by all those men?
Isabelle: To begin with I couldn’t find an apprenticeship place anywhere. It’s really damn hard trying to get an apprenticeship as a woman on a construction site. First of all I looked for an internship in a construction site team and completed it with flying colours. The whole team really wanted me on board. The training supervisor went to the boss and told him how good I was. But the boss decided that he didn’t want to train me up because I was a woman. It then took me six months until I found an apprenticeship place and ended up at my current company “Rohde”.
hvv switch: Did you encounter any prejudice?
Isabelle: Of course there was prejudice along the way, and even jealousy. Especially during my training. We had to build certain walls according to very particular specifications. Whenever I got an A and male colleagues had only got a C grade, their pride was dented and they used to say things like: “Oh, you got an A? You’ve been sat under the teacher’s desk again”. Of course the guys weren’t saying things like that to each other. But it toughened me up.
hvv switch: How much hard work does your job involve?
Isabelle: I spend my whole life on building sites. Going partying at the weekend is also pretty rare, as that’s when I catch up on things I’d normally be doing during the week: laundry, cleaning up, and so on. I’m just so tired after work that I don’t get anything done during the week. I have to be at the construction site at 6:15 am at the latest, and I have about an hour’s drive to work from Harburg where I live.
hvv switch: What’s a typical day like for you on the building site?
Isabelle: Right now we’re renovating the Moorweidenpalais at Dammtor. We are adding on two more top storeys. I go to the foreman in the mornings and he’ll tell me, for instance, you have to work on the gable here as those working on the façade have to get on with that area. Then I get the construction drawing, have to gather together all the materials I need, and get on with building the wall. Sometimes I get drawings without any information regarding the height or width, and I just have to get on with the building work as I think is right. I have to improvise a lot, especially in this old building dating back to the 18th century with its crooked rooms and sloping walls. It’s much easier with a new building.
hvv switch: What did your family and friends say when they heard about your choice of career?
Isabelle: My family and friends always knew that I was a little bit of a Rambo. They think it’s great. The only thing they don’t like is that I just don’t have any free time anymore. And when I get home on Friday afternoons all I want to do is sleep. My parents are very proud of me. My dad has even paid me a visit before at the construction site. I always tell my mum exactly what’s going on.
hvv switch: How difficult is it to get what you want as a woman working in the construction industry?
Isabelle: When you first arrive on a construction site to begin an apprenticeship, you don’t know anyone, and say: “Moin, I’d like to become a bricklayer here,” of course the first reaction from the guys who’ve been working there for 30 years is: what is SHE after? Many of them think: I don’t want that little doll working here. Others help me out though and are keen to teach me things. It varies a lot.
In general though, being on a construction site is like being on a guys’ night out. No subject is taboo. There’s lots of shouting and swearing, and sometimes things get antisocial. And with me working there as a woman, some of the guys of course ask themselves: “Can I still talk freely as I normally would without being reported straight away for sexual harassment? But after a certain period I brought my colleagues around with my way of working and general manner. Sure, I hear salacious remarks every day and from all kinds of people, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I know that it’s never meant in a serious way. I now know all the lads I work with and know so much about their lives and their problems that it’s almost like a family. But, having said that, you do need to grow a thick skin in this business. For example, I have a long list of nicknames: Isa, Isi, Muschi, Sweetie, Princess, to name just a few. The lads call each other Sweetie or Asshole. You can’t be offended at every remark you hear, or even if someone slaps your bum. That would disrupt the team and our work. But I’m also very good at giving as good as I get. And everyone knows where the line is. There are some things you just can’t do.
But we do in fact have a good laugh on the construction site and it’s very honest. Nobody is two-faced. The average age at the moment is over 40, so at 21 I’m more the baby in the team.
hvv switch: Were there any setbacks?
Isabelle: It’s been hard, of course. The work hours, the small wage, the rough way you’re handled, and the physical strain too. In winter it can get extremely cold. It rains. You’re knelt somewhere in the dirt and your clothes get all clammy and cold, but you have to keep on working in them all day long. In summer you’re sometimes stood in the blazing sun for hours on end in over 30-degree heat, you’re completely burnt and you have to make sure you drink enough so as not to faint. But there never came a point for me where I said to myself I can’t go on, I quit. It’s just all part and parcel of it. You have to fight your way through. At those moments when I think I’m exhausted, I have to keep going. And then I see the results.
I see what I've created with my own hands. Before there was just a concrete plinth, and then suddenly I’ve built a 10-square-metre wall on top of it. That makes me feel proud.
hvv switch: You are the first craftsperson from Hamburg to become the state-wide winner in 2018 in the German handicraft competition for the profession of bricklayer. Previously, there has only been one other woman in history to make it on to the podium for bricklaying, and that was in third place, in 1968. What task did you have to complete to win?
Isabelle: No woman has managed to win this competition in the last 50 years. It meant that I was also to secure a scholarship for myself for further training. I had to build a decorative wall. You had to cut bricks, make a plan and then use sand-lime brick to build the wall. And I seems I was the one who made the best job of this.
hvv switch: How ambitious are you?
Isabelle: I’m very ambitious. Last year I finished my three-year apprenticeship and now comes the time when you go on to be a journeyman and move up through the ranks of experience. Over the next few years I will be taking part in various advanced training courses. Next year I will become a master mason and then I will go on to study construction engineering. This is quite simply my life, the building site. At the moment I live both on the building site and for the building site. There’s no time for a boyfriend at the moment. But looking to the future, I already plan to make sure I am not here every day. By then I will be planning the building sites and making sure construction work is progressing.
hvv switch: Do you see yourself as a kind of champion for other women entering traditionally male-dominated professions?
Isabelle: I only know one other female mason. She’s 30 years old. I talked to her and she told me too about the negative sides of the profession, about the bullying, and so on. And I know a female road builder who quit because it was physically just too hard. I think I’m already showing people that a woman can absolutely hold her own in this male domain. The fact that at some point I won’t be slaving away forever on a construction site is due more than anything to my body. I don’t want to be hauling stones around 50. That’s just not possible. I don’t want to damage myself physical health. But I definitely plan to stay true to my job and the construction industry. I have a great desire to plan and manage building sites.
hvv switch: Do your friends and family call you up if there’s something they want you to fix at their houses?
Isabelle: Yeah, of course. If you need a wall plastering in your basement, no problem. My dad is a bank clerk, and not a very skilled handyman. My mum has an office job too, but she’s better with her hands. She’s managed to drill in ceiling strips herself, for instance. I definitely get my craftsmanship skills from her. I’m also renovating my own apartment in Harburg. It used to belong to my late grandfather. Four rooms, but it needs of lots of work. Right now I’m completely re-doing the bathroom. Colleagues from the company are helping me lay the electrical wiring.
hvv switch: Do you ever do “girly things” too?
Isabelle: Like I said, I have a little sister. She looks a lot like me, but is actually the complete opposite of me: she likes theatre, musicals and dancing in a ballet studio. I was never into that. During the week I’m more one of the lads. But at the weekends, when I feel like going out with a girlfriend, I tend to go really over the top. I do my hair, put on false eyelashes, and put on high heels. Then I do really want to be a girl.
I live in two worlds, a bit like a double life. It depends on my mood.
hvv switch: With all this work on your plate, do you have any time for hobbies too?
Isabelle: On Saturdays I go to music lessons and play the drums. I’ve been going to a private music teacher since I was three years old. I also sing in a gospel choir. There are concerts twice a year too, usually in a church. There are five of us and rehearsals are on Monday evenings. So I arrive home from work: shower, eat, change, then go. Rehearsing starts at 8:30 pm and goes on until 10 pm. Then I’m back home at 11 pm and the alarm clock rings the next morning at 5 am. So Tuesday really is a challenge. Although sleeping through to 5 am is a good night’s sleep for me. On the last construction site I had to get up at 4 am.
hvv switch: Do you have any favourite places in Hamburg?
Isabelle: I was born and brought up in Hamburg and now live near Harburg. I love going to the DOM fairground. Hamburg is an absolutely great city. I love it and I think it’s amazing to be able to help change it and play a role in building it.
hvv switch: How do you usually get around in Hamburg?
Isabelle: I’m actually reliant on buses and trains. I live the other side of Harburg and have to leave home around 5 am. It’s pretty quiet and I can choose where I sit, although there are actually quite a few people on the road at that time in the morning. I have a driving licence but I don’t have a car of my own. I also walk a lot.
My motto is “Less of the chat, just get on with it”! You just have to listen to your heart and pursue your goals and dreams. Regardless of who or what stands in your way. If there are obstacles in my path I’ll just build a house out of them!
hvv switch: What does freedom mean to you? Is your work a kind of freedom?
Isabelle: Freedom is very important to me. What else is the point of living? I don’t live to please anybody else. If my parents had told me they didn’t want me to do this job, I would have done it anyway. I know what I want, what my goals are and where I want to go in life. I was free to take up this job. In actual fact I’m a very lazy person. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it and I don’t let myself feel forced into doing it. So it’s even more amazing that I am so dedicated and absorbed in my job. That’s also freedom for me.
hvv switch: What do you hope for the future?
Isabelle: I don’t need any big trips abroad; I really like being at home and at work. It makes me really happy and satisfied to see what I’ve created on any particular day. I would say it’s great for me that I’ve found myself and know exactly where I want to head in the future. My aim for the future is simply to be happy and content, and I’m well on my way in that respect.
Listen to the playlist Isabelle and hvv switch have created for you.
Girl Power Playlist on Spotify