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Skilled Women Break Through Barriers to Entry and Promotion in Trades Work

(Photo: Timothy Krause / Flickr)

Although role models are scarce, training is hard to find and sexism is rampant, determined women are finding professional success and satisfaction in the skilled trades: construction, sheet metal working, welding, pipefitting – and more.

When Leah Rambo became a sheet metal worker in 1988, she never imagined that she’d one day run the apprenticeship program for Local 38 of the Sheet Metal Air and Rail Transportation Union. But a little more than a year ago, she became one of the highest-ranking women in the US labor movement, taking the helm of a hands-on, 4 1/2-year training program for sheet metal workers in New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties.

This year, the program has 306 students, eight percent of them female.

“The challenge is not only to get women enrolled,” Rambo says. “If you promote trades work to women, and they see other women doing the jobs, a lot will want in. The bigger challenge is improving the conditions so they stay in the field. Most women experience discrimination or harassment. As a matter of fact, when you are a woman, nobody – not the bosses and not your co-workers – sees your color. Your gender is much more important than your ethnicity or race. The sexism is not as bad as it was, but it is always an issue. Women are still hit on, still don’t get the same promotion opportunities and still get laid off more frequently than men.”

Sadly, she says, skepticism about female competence remains endemic. “Women have to be much better at what they do than men. They can’t be average. In addition, they have to figure out how to do the job while dealing with the male ego. If you come across as not taking any crap, the men tend to become threatened. On the other hand, if you take their crap, it gets worse and worse. Each woman needs to find a way to tell the men that she’s there to work and support herself, that she’s on the job for the same reasons they are.”

As Rambo speaks, her passion for work collides with her exasperation over the misogyny that pervades the field. Nonetheless, it is clear that she loves being a maverick and role model. She’s proud, she says, that three New York-area apprenticeship programs are now woman-headed – carpenters, masons, and sheet metal workers – normalizing the idea that women not only have a place in the trades, but are also central players in unions that, until recently, worked hard to keep them out.

Still, it is not surprising that progress in achieving gender equity has been uneven. According to a June 2012 report published by Catalyst, a 50-year-old nonprofit research group that promotes expanded opportunities for women, women now comprise 46.6 percent of the US labor force. Although the majority are concentrated in teaching, nursing and the service industries, they have penetrated several previously male bastions, including computer programming, law and pharmacy.

This is heartening, of course. Nonetheless, when it comes to the skilled trades, the number of women remains miniscule and 48 years after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave women the right to enter apprenticeships, and 34 years after Executive Order 11246 determined that women should be given at least 6.9 percent of all working hours on federally-funded construction projects, they are nowhere near parity with their blue-collar and hard-hatted brothers. Indeed, The Department of Labor Women’s Bureau reports that women constitute 7.9 percent of painters; 5.4 percent of welders, solderers and braziers; 4 percent of sheet metal workers; 3.9 percent of machinists; 2 percent of HVAC specialists; 1.5 percent of pipe layers, pipe fitters and plumbers; 1.4 percent of carpenters; and 1 percent of roofers and electricians.

Jane LaTour, author of a 2008 book called “Sisters in the Brotherhoods,” attributes the low numbers to inadequate access to employment and training. “As long as women can’t reach critical mass in these jobs, as long as they are largely invisible, things will remain much as they are,” she wrote in an email. “Even though unions are doing a much better job in 2012, these great opportunities are still a well-kept secret from most young women.”

While groups like New York City’s Nontraditional Employment for Women – one of the country’s oldest pre-apprenticeship programs for women interested in learning about careers in the trades – visit high schools and attend community events to publicize the availability of free, six-week classes to prepare them for union internships – the absence of visible role models means that neither students nor job-seekers automatically think of entering the skilled trades when they’re envisioning their futures. Likewise, school guidance counselors rarely present apprenticeships as a career choice, despite the fact that skilled work can pay between $20 and $80 an hour.

Once more, you can blame sexism. Last June, Dr. Marc Bendrick, an employment economist, dubbed construction “the industry that time forgot” in testimony before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Under-representation [of women] spans the skill spectrum from entry-level laborer and helper occupations, to well-paid skilled trades such as electricians and plumbers,” he said.

Among the culprits: widely-accepted stereotypes about women’s inability to do heavy lifting and use machinery and tools; the outdated notion that men deserve higher pay and more hours because they have families to support; and a tolerance for sexual innuendo, homophobia and outright sexual harassment in the workplace.

Legal Momentum, a 42-year-old national advocacy organization, has brought numerous cases to the EEOC in an effort to improve conditions for tradeswomen. They range from instances of discrimination against pregnant workers – in some cases pregnant women have been put on light duty despite medical evidence that it is unnecessary, while in other cases they have been denied reassignment to jobs with less lifting and carrying – to ignoring behaviors that are overtly hostile to female employees.

“When we bring cases, we are not just interested in getting justice for one woman,” says Francoise Jacobsohn, project manager of Equality Works, Legal Momentum’s program for women in nontraditional occupations. “We’re interested in getting policy changes that will benefit women more generally.”

There’s been some headway, she continues. When Avon hired workers to build a new Manhattan headquarters, they stipulated that the construction crew had to be at least 15 percent women. Similarly, the government of San Francisco has indicated that women will perform 8.3 percent of the labor needed to construct United Nations Plaza. What’s more, the city of Portland, Oregon has determined that the public K-12 school district will give 18 percent of its purchasing and contracting to women and minority-owned businesses.

These decisions represent a trend that is likely to continue if the anticipated 15 percent growth in the construction industry over the next three years comes to fruition, says Dede Hughes, executive vice president of the Fort Worth, Texas-based National Association of Women in Construction. “We’re going to need a skilled workforce,” she says. “If women can go to a trade school or start in an apprenticeship, they’ll be able to get good jobs and later move into management if they so desire. If the construction industry is not open to women, if it does not change with the world, it will eventually disappear and be replaced by an industry that recognizes that women can do the same jobs men can do. They may do them differently, but in the end, men and women get the same results.”

Barbara Armand was a field engineer before she started the Armand Construction Company in 1991 – and she agrees with Hughes. She also sees herself as a change agent. After a decade spent working for others – and experiencing sexual harassment – she says she maxed out her credit cards to start her own business. “Nothing came easy,” she laughs, “but 21 years later, we’re working in three states, have 24 employees, and offer a full construction management service, which means we act as the owner’s eyes and ears on a work site. We supervise construction, oversee the general contractor, and make sure everything stays on budget and on schedule. Sometimes we evaluate bids and monitor compliance with government hiring commitments.”

Armand is active with a group called Professional Women in Construction (PWC), a networking hub for women and minority business owners on the east coast. PWC chapters give members a way to meet one another and provides a forum for the exchange of information about upcoming projects, including procedures for bidding on work. “Challenging stereotypes starts with me, as an African-American professional woman,” Armand adds. “I have to be an example for other women – and for men. I have to handle myself well because I’m expected to hit the ground running and demonstrate that I have the skills to do every job I get.”

And the work keeps coming – from employers ranging from the Long Island Railroad to Temple University. That said, those on the lower rungs – the tradeswomen – don’t always have as many opportunities as they’d like. “I’ve been a journey-level carpenter for seven years, but a while back a piece of steel accidently fell on my leg and I needed 22 staples,” says one tradeswoman, who asked that her name not be used.

“I went back to work right away, but it was really hot and my leg started to get infected, so I took my check and left. When I returned a week later, I was given the run-around and for two or three days, they had me standing around. I finally complained that I wanted to do something, but my foreman informed me he’d been told not to put me back on. Right now I’m unemployed and it pisses me off. I enjoy carpentry and I’m good at it. A lot of men don’t like that. Some men are great and I’ve been on crews that become a family. Unfortunately, many others are prejudiced, really old fashioned. They don’t want a woman to tell them how to do things and they make it really hard for us. What makes it worse is that I’m usually the only woman on a job with 10 or 15 men. I’ve been thinking of going out on my own, but I don’t know.”

As the tradeswoman speaks, her voice cracks and she periodically stops to collect herself. “We have such a long way to go,” she sighs. Nonetheless, she is pleased that the federal government, through the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Program of the Department of Labor, recently allocated $1.8 million to six states – California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, West Virginia – to train women in nontraditional occupations.

“I hope it brings in lots of women,” she says. “We women want to work just like the guys. When you’re on a job the money can be great, but to be held back because you’re female, that’s just wrong.”

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