By MALLORY GRUBEN
Liz Nichols still remembers holing up in a porta potty to pump breast milk after her son was born in 2017.
Then an apprentice with Cement Masons Local 555, Nichols had to dump the batches because they wouldn’t be sanitary for her baby to drink. But pumping during her shift was the only way to ensure her body would produce enough milk to feed her new child, and the temporary toilet was the only private place she could find on the jobsite.
At a time when about one in 15 of Oregon’s building trades apprentices were women, Nichols hadn’t crossed paths with another woman who understood her difficulty. The experience was isolating and awkward, she said.
Since then, women have entered union construction trades in greater numbers. The rate of female apprentices grew to 9% this year, from 7% in 2018. But in spite of increased recruitment efforts, improved working conditions, and even mandates by some project owners to hire more women, the growth has been slow.
To find out what may be holding women back from joining the building trades, the Labor Press interviewed a dozen tradeswomen about what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated construction industry. Though their experiences were in five separate unions, they all described challenges with harassment, isolation, and unequal treatment.
Don’t tell me to ‘smile’
In a 2021 survey of 2,635 tradeswomen by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research 48% said they are held to a different standard than their male co-workers, face discrimination in many aspects of their work, and sometimes contend with an unsupportive if not hostile work environment. And 44% said they had considered leaving the industry.
IBEW Local 48 journeyman Amy Yates said multiple incidents of harassment caused stress-related health problems and almost cut her career as an electrician short. She recounted one experience where a male coworker would meet her in the lunchroom and make unwanted romantic advances. That included putting a hand on her knee while they sat next to each other. When Yates turned down his advances, he became hostile. In private, he would bully and berate her. Around coworkers, he’d “mask” by singing her praises, which added to her anxiety.
“You generally know you just don’t speak up,” Yates said. “You just grin and bear it and wait for relief…. The times the men around me said, ‘Hey, we are not OK with you treating her that way,’ those were the best outcomes.”
Nichols, the cement mason, has fielded unwanted flirting, inappropriate questions, and sexually charged comments on the job site. Male coworkers have asked her when she lost her virginity. One man told her she was his favorite crew member to see bent over.
“I don’t like to talk about it, because when you talk about the harassment then you are the woman who is complaining,” Nichols said, now a journeyman cement mason and business agent with Local 555. “It’s hard, and it was mostly in my first four years as an apprentice, but it’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable speaking out about it.”
Tradeswomen say the men usually don’t mean to make them feel bad, but that’s the result. Even seemingly harmless comments, like being told to smile or getting called “strong for a girl” are demeaning, said Laura Tocki-Toggenburger, a former member of Carpenters Local 503 who now works in the apprenticeship programs division of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries. Men don’t ask each other to smile while hoisting heavy equipment. They don’t qualify another man’s strength by tacking on his gender at the end.
“It’s like, please stop calling me a girl. I’m a woman, and I’m older than you,” Tocki-Toggenburger said. “In addition to the actual physical labor of work, you have to do this emotional work, too.”
When she was still working in the field, Tocki-Toggenburger said she usually spoke up if a male coworker said something that made her uncomfortable. Often, she was one of very few women on the crew, so if she didn’t say something, the men might not understand why some of their comments were inappropriate. Speaking up helped her connect with union brothers who would later support her on other job sites, she said.
But building work friendships isn’t always easy. Multiple tradeswomen told the Labor Press that workplace banter can be difficult because their interests differ from their male coworkers.
“I’ve had my fill of hunting and cars as far as conversations,” joked apprentice carpenter Caitlin Grimm.
Grimm said she feels isolated when she’s the only female carpenter on the crew. Sometimes she’ll see another woman across the job site working in a different trade, but they don’t cross paths much, she said. That means she doesn’t have many people to vent to if a fellow Carpenters Local 503 member made an off-color comment or if she’s feeling down because of life outside of work.
“I trust (the men) to keep me safe, help me to do my job right, and teach me how to do my job, but as far as talking about personal things, I don’t know if I feel totally comfortable,” Grimm said.
Even when there are other women on the site, most female workers hesitate to form friendships. Those who do risk being labeled as talkative, or part of a female clique, said Isis Harris, a journeyman electrician with IBEW Local 48.
“A lot of the time you’ll be on work sites and walking by other women, and they will avert their eyes because they don’t want to make that connection,” Harris said. “Sometimes it’s that little head nod or that smile that gets you through the day, when you can connect with someone in brief passing.”
For Dolores Doyle, an electrician of 23 years, feelings of isolation have eased over time. When she started in IBEW Local 48, she was consistently the sole female on the jobsite. Now, most jobs have at least one woman on each crew, she said. She credits the change, in part, to project labor agreements that require a certain number of “minority” workers for public projects.
Constant double standard
Though helpful for adding women to job sites, project labor agreements can make life as a tradeswoman harder by “pigeonholing” workers who meet those minority requirements, said sheet metal foreman Korri Bus.
“Sometimes companies will keep you just for that reason, or the crew will tell you that’s why you’re there,” said Bus, a member of Sheet Metal Local 16.
Bus has more than a decade of experience and family ties to the trade, so being considered the “token woman” doesn’t feel good. It’s a disservice to her skills to say she’s only there to check a quota box, she said. In 2007, she worked with men who would watch her set up ladders because they didn’t trust a woman to do it right. After 16 years in the union, she’s still mistaken for an apprentice. It surprises most crews when they call the foreman and she answers.
“A lot of times people will assume the male standing next to me, who is my apprentice, is running the job,” Bus said. “Every time I go to a new crew, I have to prove myself again — unless I’m lucky and there’s some guy I worked with before.”
She’s learned that to be considered an equal, she has to work twice as hard and twice as fast.
“It is incredibly exhausting,” she said. “I go home tired after starting with a new crew, dead to the world mentally and physically.”
Ironworkers Local 29 journeyman Minna Long said she tries not to attribute unequal expectations or poor treatment to gender unless she’s ruled out all other explanations. Sometimes the discrimination is glaring. On one of Long’s very first jobs as an apprentice, the foreman let a younger male apprentice drive a forklift for training but made Long sit back and watch. The only explanation the foreman offered was that Long was “not ready for it,” she said.
“In the moment, I was like, ‘OK, whatever. He’s probably right.’ But I think about it now and I’m like, ‘that’s so fucking discriminatory.’ He didn’t think I was capable,” Long said.
Carpenters Local 503 member Katie Zerzan also noticed she got less hands-on training than male apprentices. The unequal treatment continued even after she journeyed out, she said. For example, male coworkers sometimes accept other men’s advice about how to approach a job but ignore Zerzan’s suggestions.
“It gives a lot of room for doubt,” she said.
Several tradeswomen told the Labor Press they struggle with imposter syndrome, or feeling like their success at work is tied to luck, not their inherent skill. They’re constantly trying to prove that they belong.
“A lot of us are super badass, but we just never feel like our cup is full,” Bus said. “It’s like we are never doing enough.”
And yet, it’s still worth it. And things are getting better
Despite sometimes having to contend with isolation, harassment, and discrimination, most tradeswomen told the Labor Press they love their jobs. Union-represented construction trades pay the kind of wages and benefits you can raise a family with. Contracts also guarantee that women are paid the same as their male counterparts.
Tradeswomen can also count on the vast majority of their union brothers to defend them if someone tries to degrade or demean them because of their gender, they said. Long, the journeyman ironworker, said she knows with “100% certainty” the men at the union hall would have her back.
“I can count on one hand the people that have maybe tried to hold me back, and for every one of them, there are 50 people saying, “Uh no, we don’t care that you’re a girl. You can do this job,’” Long said.
Apprentice electrician Kat Zimmerman said the benefits far outweigh the downsides. Given the chance to start her career over, Zimmerman said she’d still pick the trades, and her union, IBEW Local 48.
“If you’re doing something you love, you can put up with a lot of crap,” Zimmerman said. “This is the best job I’ve ever had, and I don’t imagine doing anything else.”