The Oklahoman

‘Lean In’ circles help women in constructi­on

Industry leaders fighting to change the culture

- Alexandra Olson

NEW YORK – Bethany Mayer didn’t want to go back to work after learning that a fellow ironworker insinuated that women like her didn’t belong there.

Jordyn Bieker, an apprentice sheet metal worker in Denver, said she felt uncomforta­ble that her foreman asked her pointed questions about being gay.

Yunmy Carroll, a veteran steamfitter, said a worker at a training session declared that women in constructi­on are “whores.”

The three women shared their stories over Zoom during a Lean In Circle for Tradeswome­n, one of 76 launched nationwide and in Canada this year by the North America’s Building Trades Unions and Lean In, the women’s advocacy group started by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

About 700 tradeswome­n are participat­ing in the program, designed to help them navigate persistent bias and harassment on constructi­on sites, from unwanted sexual advances to being assigned lesser duties like traffic control or fire watch.

It’s a culture that industry leaders are fighting to change in the hopes of recruiting more women into a sector with an aging workforce that faces labor shortages.

As spending on infrastruc­ture rises, constructi­on firms will need to hire at least 430,000 new skilled laborers in 2021, according to an analysis of federal data by the Associated Builders and Contractor­s.

Currently, 4% of constructi­on laborers in the U.S. are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We are really only employing from half the workforce,” said Brian Turmail, the Associated General Contractor­s of America’s vice president of public affairs, who also spearheads workforce developmen­t. “We are struggling with labor shortages with one hand tied behind our back.”

This comes as the pandemic has exacted a disproport­ionate toll on jobs where women dominate, like restaurant servers and cashiers. Nearly 2.5 million women lost jobs and stopped looking for work during the pandemic.

Much of the constructi­on industry was deemed essential, sparing it from mass layoffs. For advocates, it’s evidence that more women should aspire to constructi­on careers, which start with paid apprentice­ships and can lead to unionized jobs with middle-class wages.

The median salary for plumbers and electricia­ns is about $56,000 a year, with the top 10% of earners making $98,000. But only about 2% of plumbers and 3% of the country’s electricia­ns are women.

“We see this all the time. When jobs are higher paid, when jobs have more security, when jobs have higher benefits, they often go to men,” said Sandberg, who partnered with NABTU to bring her signature “Lean In Circles” program to tradeswome­n after meeting Liz Shuler, now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Judaline Cassidy, a New York plumber and union leader who had formed a Lean In Circle on her own in 2017.

Cassidy often recalls being told to “go home and do the dishes” when she first tried to join a union more than two decades ago. But her career has also been empowering, and her daughter, Carey Mercer, followed her into the trades.

“You’re always learning something every day. There’s always some kind of challenge that you might run into where you might need to do some math or think about it and take a second look at it,” said Mercer, an apprentice sheet metal worker.

Gains already made by women appear to have held steady during the pandemic, in contrast to the Great Recession that hit the industry hard.

The number of women employed in constructi­on had reached a high of nearly 950,000 in 2007 before plummeting to a Great Recession low of 711,000 in 2011, according to the BLS. It took nearly a decade for their numbers to recover, eventually reaching new highs of about 970,000 at the onset of the pandemic.

But that time, the ranks of women dipped just briefly in the spring of 2020 before continuing their rise, surpassing more than 1 million for the first time in history in April. The share of women employed in the industry also rose, reaching 13.2% in 2020, compared to 12.5% in 2016.

Since those figures include office roles, it’s not clear how many of those gains were made by skilled laborers. But the number of women who graduated from NABTU’s pre-apprentice­ship programs has also increased, reaching an all-time high of 23% this year, NABTU Secretary-Treasurer Brent Booker said.

Pre-apprentice­ship programs for women and minorities have proliferat­ed over the past decade, while several thousand women gather each year for NABTU’s 10-year-old conference for tradeswome­n. In a sign of their growing influence, the Iron Workers Union became the first constructi­on union to adopt paid maternity leave in 2017.

The top challenge is changing cultural attitudes in the field.

Kelly Kupcak, executive director of Oregon Tradeswome­n, said she recently got a call from an apprentice plumber whose foreman, using racial slurs, said he didn’t care if she was Black or Hispanic because he just didn’t like that she was a woman. That was a year after Kupcak galvanized local unions and contractor­s to launch an anti-discrimina­tion efforts after another apprentice found a noose at a constructi­on site.

More subtle slights also take their toll.

Mayer, the apprentice welder from the Cincinnati area, had been excited about a new job where a raising gang would erect the columns on a new site. But then she learned about the co-worker who said women shouldn’t be ironworker­s. And she was put on fire watch for weeks.

“I don’t even want to go in tomorrow,” Mayer told her Lean In Circle, a group of six women who meet over Zoom once a month.

The women, at the May meeting and in later group texts, encouraged her to be direct and remind her foreman of her skills as a welder. By the time they met in July, Mayer had pushed successful­ly for welding duties.

 ?? KEVIN HAGEN/AP ?? Advocates want women to aspire to constructi­on careers, which start with paid apprentice­ships and can lead to unionized jobs with middle-class wages.
KEVIN HAGEN/AP Advocates want women to aspire to constructi­on careers, which start with paid apprentice­ships and can lead to unionized jobs with middle-class wages.

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