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Why the Person Building Your Next House Might Just Be a Woman

Despite harassment and bias, women are fighting for jobs in skilled trade.

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The problems are complex, and cultural stereotypes persist. The education and job training systems continue to track young women into traditional and low paying jobs.  We need to reach young girls at an early age to make them familiar with tools and technology.  On that front some hope maybe found in the new Barbie construction set and a Lego line promoting pastel construction toys called Friends. Twenty-nine year old Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling has introduced “ Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine." Designed to interest 5 to 9 year old girls, Goldie takes apart her ballerina music box to figure out how it works and weaves instructions for how to build a belt drive into the story. 

But what of those 650 women gathered in Sacramento?  While their percentages are small, there are in fact over 175,000 women working in construction related jobs nationwide.  In 2005, before the recession decimated the ranks of women and men in construction, there were slightly more women in skilled trades, 274,000, than there were women doctors, 268,000.  There are thousands of women who can tell employers, unions, and government agencies what needs to be done; for example, update the regulations and increase the budget for enforcing the laws.  Actively recruit women for apprenticeship and train male managers and coworkers in ways to end discrimination and harassment.

In March Pat Shiu, director of the OFCCP, told participants at a New York summit on women in construction that the sector is growing again.  306,000 jobs were added in the last two years;  half in the last five months. She has recommitted her agency to ending “systemic, pervasive and persistent discrimination” because “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law.”  She has hired more investigators, improved training for the compliance officers, and increased the number of construction reviews per year from 238 to an average of 525.   Reviews are focused on “mega projects” worth more than $25 million and first-time contractors.  The number of violations tripled for things like not having a strong recruitment program, not ensuring an harassment-free workplace or not validating tests used for hiring. 

But, she reports, finding concrete examples of discrimination is more challenging.  Initial data is often missing, small construction companies may have moved on by the time the OFCCP review is complete.  Workers don’t complain for fear of retaliation and those who do complain often face a daunting process.

Shiu concluded that the “key to getting more women and minorities in the construction trades is strong enforcement.  And the key to strong enforcement is sound policy, updated regulations and a collaborative effort by government, industry and advocates to connect workers with available jobs.”

To that end, the Department of Labor is to issue proposed changes to the Registered Apprenticeship Equal Opportunity Regulations in June and to the Construction Contractors Affirmative Action Requirements in October.  There will be a time for public comment and tradeswomen’s voices are critical.

Tradeswomen in Sacramento agreed to tell their stories.  They are stepping up to email the White House about their trade, their union, and why they love their work, but also talk about the challenges they face, the barriers that continue to keep many women from following in their footsteps, and the solutions they see to these problems.  They can take to Twitter and YouTube to let the world know why these new regulations are important and how they can help women and men succeed in securing good jobs, good pay, and satisfying work.  And we can “like” and “share” their stories, supporting tradeswomen and the government officials trying to make a difference.  It’s time for contractors and unions to step up too and collaborate in the fight to end discrimination and provide equal opportunities for women in the trades. As First Lady  Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We can’t just talk.  We have got to act.”