The Building Trades Have Seen a Welcomed Increase of Women in the Ranks in Recent Years
By Jacob Bourne
According to data from the U. S. Department of Labor, there are significantly more women in trades professions than there were in prior decades. Since the year 2000, there are 23 percent more women working in construction nationally, 43 percent more working in transportation and materials moving and 40 percent more working in protection services. Although numerous factors have contributed to this, in cities like San Francisco, years of effort on the part of existing tradeswomen and union leadership has helped women gain a foothold in the building trades, where they can earn high wages, benefits and pensions through on-the-job training versus a four-year degree.
“There have been efforts going on for decades to get more women in the trades,” said Sabrina Hernandez, Business Representative of IBEW Local 6. “It’s wonderful that there’s now been a convergence of isolated efforts that have created a blossoming of opportunity for women, not just in San Francisco but across the U.S.”
In addition to sustained outreach and recruitment, other factors like the booming economy, construction labor shortages and changing attitudes have resulted in more opportunities for women.
“With so many cranes and so much work, there’s been an incredible amount of opportunity for women to enter the trades in recent years,” said Tim Paulson, SFBCTC Secretary-Treasurer. “The trades provide good paying jobs, so it’s heartening that the numbers of women have increased and are continuing to increase, but there are still challenges.”
As a former Northern California Apprenticeship Coordinator for marble and tile in the early 1990s, Paulson witnessed the high barriers to recruiting women into the trade.
“The share of women workers never reached five percent,” he said.
Times have changed; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the percentage of women working in construction jobs in 2018 was nearly 10 percent. Debra Chaplan, Director of Special Programs for the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, said that agencies across the nation have the common goal of bumping that share up to 20 percent by 2020.
“If the economy collapses next year, women are out first just based on seniority, so we need to push for women to get into the trades now,” Chaplan stated. “The numbers are still piddling. You still rarely see two women on the same job site. This can lead to a feeling of isolation, which is a bigger challenge for some than others.”
Chaplan said that one of the hurdles to further increasing the numbers is Proposition 209, which passed in 1996 and bars agencies that receive state funding from specifically conducting outreach to women and minorities. Because of this, outreach work done by agencies such as Oakland-based Tradeswomen, Inc. that don’t receive state funding are so crucial.
The increased visibility of women working in the trades has in itself surmounted barriers because women serve as role models for other women. It’s also helped change attitudes of men on job sites who see that women can do the work. However, despite the more welcoming atmosphere, Chaplan said that women still face discrimination from some contractors, lack of mentoring opportunities, sexual harassment and lack of access to affordable childcare and transportation.
“What’s not a hurdle anymore are unions,” Chaplan said.
Changes that have happened over the years in unions have aided women in gaining a foothold. Hernandez spoke of a turning point in IBEW Local 6 when elected leadership began to actively support rank and file members’ interests in attending AFL-CIO sponsored union member enrichment conferences where participants learn the value of diversity within their organizations. Local 6 also regularly sends delegates to the IBEW Women’s Conference and the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus Convention where participants learn union leadership skills. “The experience and education that takes place at these amazing conferences, along with the support of our organizational leadership has led to a culture at IBEW Local 6 which encourages activism, leadership, and inclusivity. It’s really inspiring,” Hernandez said. “Women, particularly our apprentice women, are often seen as among the strongest workers on a given crew and they are moving up the hierarchy on the job and in the Local.”
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but the foothold is finally happening. People are evolving. The Building Trades are evolving. Both men and women recognize that women are valuable on the jobsite and in their unions,” Hernandez said.