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By Laura Moretz
December 4, 2017
Two advocacy organizations for women in construction—Chicago Women in Trades and the National Association of Women in Construction—say their work is far from done. According to a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report, only 9.1% of construction workers are women. Linda Hannah, the technical opportunities program director for Chicago Women in Trades, says, “In 2018, there will be a lot of (construction) work. Our goal is to be sure that women are hired and sponsored.”
Lorie Lythgoe, the director of the South Atlantic Region of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), started in construction 30 years ago when her husband’s employer needed someone who could measure brick accurately, and her precision with numbers came in handy. She stayed in construction—she is now a manager for S.B. Cox Inc. in Richmond, VA—but she never had any intention of networking with other women in the field. She was brought to her first NAWIC meeting as a surprise.
She had avoided joining NAWIC because she feared the members would be “office women,” and she wouldn’t have much in common with them. But she found that she identified with the women at the meeting, many of whom had worked on jobsites, too.
Looking back on her early experiences, she says, “I really didn’t have a lot of harassment. I gave as good as I got if somebody pushed my buttons. I drew a line and basically stopped it.” But she says it’s important to create an atmosphere in which “women don’t have to fear speaking up if they are being wronged. I do see positive changes.”
At NAWIC, “Our main goal is to empower women and ensure the success of women in the construction field,” she says. NAWIC offers classes, networking, job postings, building and design competitions for high school students, scholarships, and support for women who want to succeed and move up in the field. “The support system is unbelievable.”
NAWIC members do their best to offer all women in construction advice and support. “We still need to put more women into management and above positions. We’re still lacking that,” Lythgoe says.
Hannah says that Chicago Women in Trades’ Technical Opportunities Program continually puts more women in the construction pipeline. “We’re always recruiting for that program.” Three times a year, about 140 women attend an orientation session about entering trades led by tradeswomen who have been through the program and gone on to work in plumbing, bricklaying, sheet-metal work, and other trades.
CWIT’s assessments screen out some women. “The physical (assessment) ranks higher than the math,” Hannah says. “Those who pass are invited back for the interview. We want to have a conversation with each woman who wants to be in our program.”
Excitement tends to build as the women try out different trades. “Each time they go to a hands-on they change their mind about what trade they are interested in” because of newfound enthusiasm, she says.
“We also tell them the good, the bad and the ugly,” Hannah says. “The sexy part is that you do work that you wanted to do, but you just didn’t know how to get it.” It is gratifying to drive by a building you helped to build years later and see that it is still standing.
“The bad is the fact that you are not working 12 months of the year. Some companies may not work all year round.” And every time you complete a project, you may have worked yourself out of a job. “In a city like Chicago where the weather can really control your work,” Hannah says, workers need to be prepared financially.
“The ugly part is the isolation of going into a trade when you are the only woman on the jobsite,” Hannah says. “Some companies believe that women change the environment, that it’s an intrusion on that space” to have women on the site.
CWIT continues to support women who are apprentices. “At CWIT, we have an excellent mentoring program with plumbers, carpenters, painters, and others. An apprentice can just pick up the phone and talk to her mentor. Someone can assist her, help her with what’s required to move forward.” The advice might be about mastering math or managing on-the-job situations.
Women in trades who did not come through the Technical Opportunities Program can also call on CWIT for help. “Their voices are always heard. We will help them if they need some solid advice about something.”
CWIT hosts conferences, such as the recent Women Build Nations conference, that was attended by 1,900 people. Through a grant from the Department of Labor, CWIT is helping other organizations replicate its programs.
“The organization has been around 35 years,” Hannah says. “The good news is that we plan to be around. The bad news is that in 35 years, the work is not done.”
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