It's dirty work, and these women gotta do it

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Few women embrace the idea of being a construction worker. Only 153,000 women worked in the construction trades in 2001, according to the US Department of Labor. That's only 2.4 percent of the total construction workforce of 6,253,000.

While this is up slightly from 2000, the figure suggests that women either choose not to enter carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, or other trades, or that they face too many obstacles to get there.

Simply put, the trades are not considered a career option by many women. They see the work as hard, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. It's often outside in less-than-perfect weather and the skills required are seldom taught to girls as they grow up.

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But often overlooked are compensating factors. One is the tremendous difference in pay scales for women who choose the trades instead of more traditional occupations.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricians earned an average of $19.81 per hour in 2000, whereas a bookkeeper made $11.96 an hour. Secretarial positions, 99 percent of which are filled by women, pay $14.46 per hour while plumbers average $20.74 hourly. Add in union benefit packages, and tradespeople earn considerably more than the national averages.

To help women move into these more lucrative fields, several organizations have emerged over the years. On the national level there are Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow along with the National Association of Women in Construction.

In addition, numerous local groups provide training, advice, and advocacy. These include Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Hard-Hatted Women in Ohio, Tradeswomen Inc., in San Francisco, and Chicago Women In Trades.

Yet even after attaining the necessary skills, women still face obstacles to entering this male-dominated field, notably prejudice. Of course, Federal and state regulations prohibit gender discrimination, and many government construction contracts have hiring quotas that work in women's favor.

But even if the contractor doesn't cause problems, the men on the job often do. Women in the trades frequently face resentment, doubts about their skills, and sexual harassment. Just as in other industries, the problems come from a minority of co-workers. The difficulties tend to arise during the woman's first few days on the job. For women, the most frequently heard recommended defense is a realistic set of expectations and maintaining a positive self-image.

Yet attitudes are slowly changing, as unions and other groups fight for women's workplace rights. More important, women, including the three described on these two pages, are showing they can do the job:

Joyce Harris, ironworker

When Joyce Harris arrives at work, she doesn't put her purse in her desk and sit in front of a computer screen. Instead she slips into a fall-protection harness, puts on her hard hat, and straps on a tool belt.

As an ironworker, Ms Harris bends concrete-reinforcement rods, hangs rigging, and welds on construction projects high above San Francisco Bay, just like the men on the job. A mother of two and wife of another ironworker, Harris has been practicing her trade for 12 years.

"The ironworkers' union welcomed me into the training program," she says. "Some of the men weren't happy I was there, but that's just because they weren't accustomed to working with women."

She adds that women bring some needed instincts to the job site. "We tend to be more organized, to think the work through. Women figure out how to do it with our brains, not brawn," she says.

Before becoming an apprentice ironworker, Harris served in the US Army and tried college. She also became a wife and mother and, when her children grew older, started looking for work in construction.

She says she has encountered only a few difficulties along the way. "Being an ironworker has taken care of me and my family," Harris says. "I love it. My only regret is that I didn't start 10 years sooner."

Harris encourages other women to enter the field. "It will show you what you're really made of," she says. "Just remember that you've got to have a positive attitude."

Kate Molloy, electrician

Kate Molloy, a veteran master electrician from East Hartford, Conn., has 18 years' experience in her field.

While she says the pay is great, working in this male-dominated area is not for the faint of heart.

During her teenage years, Ms. Molloy attended the Howell Cheney Technical School in Manchester, Conn. She says she chose trade school because she likes working with her hands and wanted a career outside an office.

But her gender caused problems. Molloy was one of only 20 girls out of a total enrollment of 400. She originally wanted to be a carpenter, she says, but chose electrical work because a carpentry teacher constantly referred to the "chicks and babes" in the school.

"One of the electrician instructors told me to become a bookkeeper," she says. "He said women don't belong in the field. That just made me want it more."

Another struggle came after Molloy graduated in 1983 and started looking for a job. She says it took her 16 months of hunting before she was able to put her 2,000 hours of training to use.

"It was simply because I am a woman," she says. "If I answered an ad, I would be told the job had been filled. If I called the same place the next day and said I was calling for my boyfriend, the job would miraculously open. One man even told me I couldn't be an electrician because I printed too neat."

Once on the job, there were new problems.

"You have to prove yourself 110 percent," Molloy says. "Men still feel threatened by women on the job. They haze everybody new, but women get it worse. You have to be strong and have a thick skin.

"I'd hate for my mother to hear some of the things I say to these guys," she adds. "You can't let them get to you."

Molloy says she has had to deal with sexual harassment in various forms. She says it's better to handle the problems personally than rely on the legal complaint process, which can prompt retaliation by men on the jobsite.

"You'll also get ostracized. There will be a big black mark next to your name that will follow you from job to job," she says.

Despite the problems, Molloy says she loves her work because it's challenging and creative. She also has a great sense of accomplishment in having overcome the obstacles and succeeded in a man's field.

"I love this country because I can be what I want to be," she says.

Suzette Pickett, apprentice carpenter

Suzette Pickett is a single mother who worked for a textbook publisher in Chicago for many years.

But when her daughter entered high school in 1998, Ms. Pickett was ready for a career change.

Her choice: carpentry.

After attending an orientation meeting put on by Chicago Women In Trades (CWIT), Ms. Harris spent 12 weeks in the group's Technical Opportunities Program. After completing the course, she began a four-year apprenticeship and is now just a few months away from becoming a journeyperson carpenter.

"I think the trades are especially good for a single mom," Pickett says. "The money is excellent and so are the benefits. Employers know a single mom works hard because she needs the job. They can depend on us."

One drawback, according to Pickett, is that there can be periods when construction slows down and jobs are scarce.

"But no job is guaranteed these days," she says. "And the pay is good enough to get you through the slow times."

Pickett says she hasn't had any difficulty finding work or being accepted, partially because, as an African-American woman, she helps contractors fill employment quotas.

Once on the job, though, she has to deliver the work like anyone else. That's where her training comes in.

"There's a right way and a wrong way to use a hammer or a drill," she points out. "If you know how, your size doesn't matter. No one expects us to carry 100-pound loads - even the men don't do that. The contractor just wants you to have the same skills as a man. And I do."

If a woman isn't afraid to get dirty and work hard, Pickett says, she can find many rewards in the trades. "I get real self-satisfaction, good money, self-esteem, and independence."

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