Providing Research and Technical Assistance to Union Construction Partners on Recruiting and Retaining Tradeswomen
A guy in a hardhat calls out to a woman walking past a construction site, “Hey, ya looking hot.” The woman shoots back, “Get a friggin’ life, you moron.” Sitting amidst 5 male co-workers, the catcaller slowly rises to his feet and soulfully says, “You know what? Toxic masculinity is a set of velvet handcuffs and gender norms have the hidden key.”
This is the conclusion of a Saturday Night Live sketch with Charles Barkley playing the woke worker who opens the eyes of his construction brothers as he muses on why women’s clothes have the best colors. The guys explore the fashion choices they would have if only they were women. “My closet is a sea of tans and browns. “Why do women get to echo the seasons in playful ways?”
Just a joke or have guys in construction really changed?
In another, much more serious, video that made the rounds of social media recently, five men who work in construction in Texas discuss how the #MeToo movement has affected their work lives. Their stories of how their female co-workers are treated are stereotypical and not pretty. Lewd pictures of women drawn on walls, sexist and abusive comments. They have all seen it. One acknowledges that women “sometimes have to work twice as hard to get the job.” Two admit to behavior they are not proud of when they were younger. The discussion is thoughtful and sensitive, but none see themselves as part of the problem. The HR guy thinks it’s not really harassment if the woman plays along and he brings a witness whenever he talks to a woman. The ex-Marine thinks life is the way it is and it’s impossible to change the construction workplace but, in the same sentence, says “together we can work it out.” He echos a sentiment often expressed by men when he says, “I don’t know what the MeToo movement is but my big changing point was my daughters…” Women of the #MeToo movement have asked if men really need to have female relatives in order to overcome their own sexism? When one guy questions the legitimacy of harassment that happened years ago (“…depending on how bad it was… It’s his word against her word, right?”), another defends the right of women who have been shamed into silence. “With the MeToo movement that’s the whole point of it is, ‘you’re not crazy. I know you were scared back then.'” The discussion concludes with these younger guys saying the construction workplace has changed and that the problems of the sexist and hostile workplace are dying with an older generation.
This is a feeling expressed by many tradeswomen working in Boston today. While threats and danger still exist (see our February post on the murder of Laborer Outi Hicks), the everyday working life of Boston’s tradeswomen is very different from what it was a decade or more ago. The number of tradeswomen has tripled in Massachusetts and not being the only women on a site is a common work day experience for tradeswomen today in Boston. These changes may indeed also change men. A study of the military in Norway found that the best way to get men to change their attitudes about women working in male-dominated environments was to have men work with more women. Women were assigned to some Norwegian miliary boot camps and not to others. Researchers concluded that living and working with women “causes men to adopted more egalitarian attitudes.” (Research– often the big duh!)
These changes were anticipated twenty years ago when the women of the HASWIC (Health and Safety of Women in Construction) work group made this recommendation to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:
“To address the problem of workplace isolation of female construction workers, employers, apprenticeship programs, and unions (where responsible) should assign female workers in pairs, or more when possible, especially those who are relatively new to the construction trade.”
More women on sites has made the work safer and less stressful for women. It has also made it normal for women and many of the men. In a video on dealing with gender bullying produced by the British Columbia WorkSafe program, longtime Electrician Kelly Keinleitner says, “Do I have to be the female journey? … I don’t think there’s gender in trades other than two– apprentice and journey. That’s it.”
Construction, at least in Boston, is less and less a “man’s world” and more and more a world of highly qualified and proud construction workers.
For the week ending 3/4/18, NASDI, a demolition company working on the Gilbane site at 48 Boylston St in Boston’s Chinatown, has 22% tradeswomen’s hours, 75% people of color and 55% Boston residents. This was also the first site in Boston to hang the Build A Life That Works scrim on the site. Congratulations and let us know when your project or training program hits #20percentby2020!
Today, Valentine’s Day, is the one year anniversary of the murder of Outi Hicks, Carpenter apprentice, killed by a co-worker on a construction site in Fresno, CA.
The article below from the New York Times discusses the connection between sexual harassment on the job and the concept of “manly jobs” or, as the author describes it, “blue-collar jobs that once scored a kind of manly trifecta: They paid a breadwinner’s wage, embodied strength and formed the backbone of the American economy.” This certainly describes the benefits of the construction trades today for both women and men–good wages, hard work and building communities.
But along with those benefits has come a long history of sexism and discrimination against tradeswomen. Outi’s fate is one story and most tradeswomen have endless and often horrifying stories of their experiences of being the only woman in a “hostile work environment.” [PGTI’s founding document, Unfinished Business, documents this history.]
Over the past decade, tradeswomen and their allies, with the support of their unions and industry leaders, have been transforming the construction workplace in Massachusetts. In Greater Boston, it is now nearly normal for women to not be the only one on a construction site and, when harassment does happen, tradeswomen’s formal and informal networks across the state provide resources to protect the women and even to confront the problem man.
And that is usually where the story begins and should end– with one sexist man with the bad attitude, the bully, the idiot. He starts it, the teasing, demeaning, touching, threatening. The woman knows she could lose her job or worse and lacks the power to stop it.
That is when the another tradesman, That One Guy, is needed. That One Guy who tells the idiot to it cut out. That One Guy who takes the woman aside to find out what is going on. That One Guy who will speak up for the woman if the story needs to go higher to a super or steward to get the bully to back down and shut up– or to lose his job. That One Guy stands up for the simple right of women to do their job with dignity and respect, the same as every other tradesperson on the site.
At the 2017 Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago last October, Outi Hicks was honored and the Ironworkers’ Union debuted their Be That One Guy campaign. It is another tool for making the work safe for women and reaching the goal of 20% women by 2020, a tool that should be used on sites and in training centers throughout the industry. The alternatives, embodied in the memory of Outi and spelled out in the article below, perpetuate not only the danger and discrimination of the past but also an image and reputation that has injured the entire building trades movement. For a stronger and unified building trades movement, sisters, #WeAreOutiHicks, and brothers, #BeThatOneGuy.
Thanks to the Building Trades Employers Association and the Building Trades Training Directors Association for hosting our February 8 webinar, “HOW AND WHY: Best Practices for Recruiting and Retaining Women to Joint Construction Apprenticeship.” In the 50 minute presentation, we review area best practices and suggest questions for JATC directors, staff and trustees. Upcoming revisions to the federal apprenticeship standards will require JATCs to rethink their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policies and reorganize their outreach, recruitment and selection practices. This can be an opportunity for JATCs to step up their recruitment of women and bring greater diversity to their apprentice classes and to the union workforce as a whole.
Click below to watch the webinar and contact us with questions, comments and requests for in-person technical assistance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Only the union sector can supply the tradeswomen of the future.”
–Brian Doherty, General Agent, Metro Boston Building Trades Council
We often describe PGTI as a “learning community.” At our open meetings every other month (the next meeting is at 4 PM on December 20), a group of people who share the commitment to increasing and retaining women in the trades but who come from many different places in the construction industry, exchange knowledge and expertise from their area of work and generate new ideas for moving women forward in the industry. These ideas get integrated into our best practices document, Finishing the Job, and are incorporated into our Technical Assistance Workshops. A recent lesson has emerged from many discussions over time: Think Women First!
As industry stakeholders integrate new ideas into their business practices, too often women are part of a longer list of diversity requirements. When we begin with other categories such as “minority,” veteran or resident, the population that is targeted is usually male. By default, women become the last category. But women are veterans and residents and at least half of the women entering the industry in Massachusetts are women of color. When contractors and apprenticeship programs target women first, they are very likely to fulfill two or more categories of workforce requirements. In addition, of course, women are the most disadvantaged group in the construction trades. We are aware of only one project in the Commonwealth that has ever reached any federal, state or municipal target. The best practice for increasing and retaining women in the trades is think women first and put women at the top of the list. For outreach and recruitment, put women first. For hiring and referrals, put women first. And for layoffs, put women last.