Recruitment has been the easy part,
since union tradeswomen have achieved
equal pay for equal work, while the overall gender wage gap is still more than 20
percent. They have proven their worth,
as well. At one national association conference, a highly respected electrical
contractor rebutted his peers’ skepticism
about hiring women by stating that, every
time he assigned a female electrician to
a crew, productivity increased by 10–15
percent. In his opinion, no man wanted
to be outworked by a woman.
Despite efforts to recruit more tradeswomen, it has proven very difficult to
retain them. Over the past three decades
as a subcontractor, association president,
construction educator and training program auditor, I have observed, consulted
and strategized, and two things are clear.
The most egregious problems on job sites
have been addressed, but there are still
lingering issues most employers cannot
discern or correct.
Isolation is a major topic at tradeswomen’s conferences. Vocational
educators have noted that one female
student is likely to drop a construction
class, but two will often form a team that
outperforms their male peers. The same
is true for tradeswomen. One is a token,
but two or more are a peer group that can
provide the missing collegial support.
It costs nothing to assign two women
to a crew instead of one. Mitigating the
isolation problem improves job satisfaction and may spur the entire team to
become more productive.
Project owners expect their job sites
to be tidy and have little tolerance for
crude behavior or language, but trades-
women have sometimes been blamed
for taking the fun out of job site cul-
ture. Improving the work environment
benefits all employees. For example, a
lone female on a panel of journeymen
at a national industry image conference
pointed out the deplorable sanitation
levels on her projects in response to a
question from the CEO of a major engi-
neering company asking what changes
were needed in the work environment.
Known for his proactive recruiting of
tradeswomen, he agreed that clean, private bathrooms should be available and
promptly offered her a job.
A formal mentoring program creates
additional support for tradeswomen to
help them adapt to the company’s way
of operating and identify problems early.
On a federal project some years ago in
Chicago with a goal of 40 percent female
craft workers, the local tradeswomen’s
alliance created an orientation program
to help the new apprentices recognize
the difference between traditional hazing rituals and harassment. Although
hazing has become less acceptable in
recent years, an effective mentor can fill
a similar advisory role in your company.
Adapting to a new culture causes
understandable confusion, especially
for men who have been taught traditional
etiquette for social situations. Tradeswomen open their own doors and carry
their own tools. That’s their job. Women
expect help carrying materials if their
male peers would expect the same assistance, but too much help can send the
wrong message that tradeswomen can’t
handle the job.
Today, tradeswomen seldom face the
risk of injury or overt hostility that pervaded the job sites of the early days. The
behaviors that create a stressful work
environment are subtler—the “
accidental” touch or the retraction of a remark as
“just joking” are harder to combat. Marketing is still largely directed to the tough
guy who needs a powerful truck, and
women are still introduced at meetings
with comments about their attractiveness instead of their credentials. These
small things, however unintentional, can
erode the efforts of tradeswomen to fit
in and build collegial relationships with
male coworkers and supervisors.
Many women are reluctant to bring
job site issues to a male human resources
employee, so make sure there is a woman
available to field complaints. Investigations and any disciplinary actions should
involve both male and female staff. In our
company, even though I was the CEO, my
brother took the role of explaining to our
shop crew how their clumsy practical
joke had almost cost us a valuable female
employee and a potential legal settlement. The message was more effective
coming from him.
You can’t create a perfect work environment, but you can ask what your
tradeswomen need to do their jobs better. You can send them to tradeswomen’s
conferences and association conventions
and ask them to report on what they
learned. You can make it clear that they
are valued employees, and they will show
their appreciation by doing their jobs.
Then, maybe, they will stay.
The Right Environment
Keeping women in the trades
IN 1978, PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER issued an amended executive order that,
within four years, required tradeswomen to perform at least 6. 9 percent of the labor
hours on construction projects. Contractors on federal projects are still expected to
make a “good faith effort” to hire tradeswomen, but, after nearly 40 years, women
still perform only 2–3 percent of construction work.
NORBERG-J OHNSO N is a former subcontractor and past president of two national
construction associations. She may be reached at