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

By Dave DonelsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2003

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.

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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.

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