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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 world of work for women is changing. A popular new Barbie construction set -- yes, building pink mansions! -- may help girls expand their view of what occupations are open to them, and that's welcome. But tradeswomen are taking action today: President Obama will soon be hearing from women electricians, plumbers, ironworkers, and carpenters about what it takes to succeed in the world of skilled trades work. 

In April over 650 tradeswomen gathered in Sacramento, California, for the “Annual Women Build California and the Nation Conference.” Iron workers and plumbers met with carpenters, electricians, and laborers. They cheered women leaders like Liz Shuler, Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO; the first woman and the youngest person ever elected to that position. The women listened to Ed Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who called for equal treatment on the job site and in the union hall.  Cement mason Alise Martiny, business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building Trades Council, offered her story of women’s leadership. These women are “leaning in" in ways Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg might not imagine. For one weekend tradeswomen from all over the country shared their stories and learned from each other.  Most return to worksites where they are the only woman. The isolation of their day-to-day work lives is in stark contrast to the gathering.  

Some of these women are brand new apprentices, others are seasoned journey-level workers, the most skilled in their trade.  Some have become apprenticeship directors and union officers.  These are women who work alongside men to build our houses and hospitals, our bridges and roads, to connect our power lines and solar panels. They work with their hands and their heads. The jobs are demanding, rewarding, and often dangerous. 

But why are there still so few tradeswomen? What can be done to make these highly skilled, good paying jobs available to more women?

Thirty-five years ago, President Jimmy Carter expanded Executive Order 11246 to prohibit sex discrimination in employment by government contractors.  He established goals and timetables and outlined ways to reach out to recruit and train women for all jobs.  An early goal was for women to be 6.9 percent of the workforce on federally funded construction projects. 

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs was established to oversee the enforcement process within the Department of Labor. There was active outreach, training, and oversight. Women began to enter apprenticeship programs. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 the enforcement effort slowed to a crawl from which it has never recovered.  The OFCCP has half the staff today that it had in 1978. 

Women have shown that they are interested in this work and fully capable of performing the most difficult and dangerous tasks.  Many have overcome hostile supervisors and co-workers, sexual harassment, and isolation. There have been grievances, complaints, law suits, and consent decrees. Many have also found male mentors, good job training programs, and support.  Their stories have been documented most recently in books like Jane LaTour’s Sisters in the Brotherhoods.

According to author and tradeswoman Susan Eisenberg, however, for the few women who get into the trades it is still not uncommon to hear stories of inadequate training, biased evaluations, unsafe assignments, and sexual assaults. Thirty-five years after the Executive Order demanded affirmative action and almost 50 years after Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in employment based on sex, women remain pioneers on construction sites.

Today only 2.5 percent of trades jobs are held by women.  According to the latest reports of the U.S. Department of Labor, while women are almost one-third of doctors and lawyers and over 14 percent of our armed forces, they remain barely 1.6 percent of carpenters, 1.8 percent of electricians, and 1.3 percent of operating engineers. The numbers are worse for women of color.