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

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.

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.”

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