Give the woman a chance: The recruitment and experience of women in the trades

4 years ago
Chris Ferrari

by Lynda L. Hinkle, Esq.

Pay equity is a hot subject in political circles and it affects women daily across the United States who, as a whole,  earn an average of 77 cents on every dollar that men make. In unions generally, that gap is only 88.7 cents on the dollar, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. However, in the building trades, women are still heavily underrepresented. For example, in 2014, the National Women’s Law Center reported that only 2.6 percent of construction and extraction workers were female.  Similar numbers exist across the trades.

Many Unions are actively recruiting women with groundbreaking programs like the Sisters in The Brotherhood Program of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters which provides a pre-apprenticeship that enables women to be mentored to see if a five-year carpentry apprenticeship is the right career. The goal is to increase women apprentice enrollment to 10 percent.

Currently, Program Director Sue Schultz says they have increased enrollment to about six percent and will need another year and a half to reach their target. The program, if successful, is a pilot that will hopefully be rolled out by the International Brotherhood across the United States and Canada.

“One important thing Is to get women to realize that this is a viable opportunity for them,” says Schultz. To help with that, they’ve created marketing materials to show women as carpenters. “We have done a huge amount of outreach all over New Jersey to community organizations, schools, state agencies and most One Stops, teaching them how to identify good candidates.  A good candidate is someone who wants to do it, has the drive to build something, and who gets satisfaction from seeing what they’ve built, from their own hard work.”

Some women have come to union membership on their own, however. Maria Elena Foster, a member of Painters District Council 711 who now is their Director of Government Affairs, got into the union to be able to better support her family.

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“In August of 2005” says Foster, “I joined the IUPAT DC 711 as an apprentice painter in the commercial painting trade.  I am a first-generation painter, and no one in my family belonged to a Union.  I decided to join when my son was 3 years old.  I became a single mother a year earlier and was not receiving any child support or health benefits and had to rely on the state to provide health benefits for my me and my son.  Although I held a certification in medical assisting, it was not enough money to support my us.  I was forced to stay home and take care of my mother when she became ill with a rare illness.

“When my son was 2 years old, I was painting his bedroom and a friend came over to help,” says Foster. “He used to be a house painter and he mentioned that a relative of his was in the union, and it clicked.  I hadn’t heard anything about the union in years.  When I was in high school, acquaintances would tell me of their plans to follow in their fathers’ footsteps upon graduation.  So, it hit me that I should join the union.  I knew that if I had the opportunity to join and work hard, I would be able to rely on myself and take care of my responsibilities without relying on any assistance from the state or others.  I found the contact information for Painters Union, made the call and the rest is history.”

Amber Ray, an IBEW Local 269 Journeyman Electrician, reports that getting into the union was life changing for her, saying she can’t imagine doing anything else despite the challenges she has faced on the job as woman.  Ray enumerated them as “using a gross portable toilet (although now women have their own); the glares every time you meet a new crew of men; and their hesitation to talk to you until they feel you out because they’re afraid of getting charged with harassment.

“Some will flat out refuse to work with you,” says Ray, “but that’s their loss. Usually once you know a crew and they see you are skilled and a good worker, there is no issue.  I do feel that there is a need for women to outwork men just to prove themselves, to prove we can do this work too. It’s a “macho” industry with long hours, dirty conditions and no one wants to show any weakness.  Let me be clear that not everyone has the same experience, so do not let someone else dissuade you from trying.  It is fulfilling and rewarding at the end of a project to drive by with your children and say, ‘Mommy helped build that.’”

Darlene McCann, a sheet metal worker who worked her way through her apprenticeship with Sheet Metal Local 27, agrees. “Some of the challenges of being a woman in labor,” says McCann, “is having to constantly prove yourself when you get a new work partner. Unfortunately, 20160920 081007 183x300 - Give the woman a chance:  The recruitment and experience of women in the tradeswhen they see a woman walk on the job, men tend to think they are going to have to pick up the woman’s slack or that the woman doesn’t know she’s doing. After a few years of proving myself and being aggressive, this went away, but only because I continued to work hard. Another challenge is getting the guys to accept that if you work hard and advance in a company, it is because you earned it, not because you are a girl and getting special treatment.”

All three encourage other women to get involved in the trades and offer advice for women considering it.  “I think the biggest challenges women face,” says Foster, “is the fear of stereotypes of women in the trades and the thought that women cannot do construction.  I have news for you. Women can do construction! My Union alone has 75 women members and there are plenty of women doing this work in other trades as well.  I think it is about educating women everywhere about the trades and showing them that there is real opportunity to join and be successful.  I would say that if you are interested in joining a trade, don’t let your gender hold you back. Learn everything you can about the specific trade that interests you, and go for it!”

Ray adds: “Have a thick skin. Use humor to break the ice. Most of all, be present. Be willing to learn and ask questions. Be willing to jump in the dirt and help, that is what you’re there for. If you don’t feel it’s for you, then quit. Don’t do it just for the paycheck. You will certainly experience some sexism, but try to educate men.  Sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying is wrong; it’s all they know. But if you are being harassed, handle it. It is a raw place, tell them to get off.  Always stand up for yourself. There are plenty of opportunities that and many different directions you could go such as estimating, project management, utility, or safety.  Many contractors want people with field experience, it’s better than anything a book can teach you.”

McCann also cautions: “You have to work harder than most men and learn as much as you can about the trade you are in. You will find that some people don’t want to teach you, so you have to be aggressive and learn on your own if necessary. Be prepared to be thick skinned because most tradesmen like to tease and joke around with everyone, not just women. Labor takes its toll on a person so you must be physically fit.”

Sue Schultz from the Carpenter’s Sisters program worked in the field for many years before spearheading the mentoring initiative, and she offers the following for women considering a career in the trades: “You are entering into a field that is non-traditional for women. Don’t let the fear stop you. There are many more allies out there than you realize. Become allies with your brothers and sisters. The atmosphere is changing and the union provides representation, so if there is an issue, there is recourse. There are mentors. You aren’t going at this alone so reach out. “

McCann has advice for men in the trades as well. “Give the woman a chance. Don’t automatically assume she will be a burden because she is probably smarter than you think. One of the well-meaning things men tend to do is rush over to help a woman carry something. It does have its advantage, but most of the time, it’s not needed. Let her come ask for help if she needs it. I found that as a sheet metal worker, the number one thing a man would tell me is, ‘watch the metal, it’s sharp.’ I must have heard that a thousand times. Just because I’m a girl, doesn’t mean I don’t know that.”

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