Originally Posted on www.compsmag.com
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 Officer Sheryl Sandberg. About 700 tradeswomen are participating the program, designed to help them navigate persistent bias and harassment on construction sites, from unwanted sexual advances to being assigned lesser duties like traffic control or fire watch.
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 steamfitter, said a worker at a training session declared that women in construction are “whores.” It’s a culture industry leaders are fighting to change in the hopes of recruiting more women into a sector with an aging workforce that faces chronic labor shortages.
As spending on infrastructure rises, construction firms 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. Right now, only 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 at a time when 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. Meanwhile, much of the construction industry was deemed essential, sparing it from mass layoffs. For advocates, it is 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, for instance, 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 benefits, 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. The good news is that gains already made by women appear to have held steady during the pandemic, in contrast to the Great Recession that hit the industry hard.