NEW YORK — Tameeka Gwyn is used to schlepping concrete weighing as much as 60 pounds around a construction site.
For Janna Rojas, it’s a cinch to carry metal pipes as heavy as 100 pounds going into new plumbing.
“When you first do it, it’s quite a shock, but it’s reality,” says Gwyn, who with Rojas is helping build a highrise for Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
They are some of the new faces of the 21st-century American construction worker — with women slowly making inroads in an industry still dominated by men. While there has been progress thanks to a rebounding economy, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found women represent only 3.4 per cent, or about 285,000, of the nation’s 8.3 million construction workers. Over the last decade, the total number of women in the construction industry has risen by about 31 per cent.
One program in New York City addresses the gender gap head-on, kickstarting recruits’ training while gaining a promise from unions to try to reserve 15 per cent of onsite apprenticeships for women. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York is working with a non-profit group, Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), which runs a pre-apprenticeship program for women who want to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters and members of other trades.
“We’ve had a real shift in terms of really working with the unions as partners in our work because they recognize that the need for a diverse workforce, a workforce that represents the population of New York City and beyond,” said NEW president Kathleen Culhane. She says they recruit trainees by distributing flyers at job fairs, community organizations and unemployment offices in addition to social media outreach.
It’s clear the industry has a long road ahead to even out its gender discrepancy — one that is hardly surprising for a job often characterized by male workers whistling at women who walk past jobsites — despite a push from the #MeToo movement that is leading to sweeping changes in many occupations around the globe.
“The #MeToo movement has highlighted what’s right and what’s wrong, and women are being accepted more and more on the jobsites,” says Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, an organization of 15 labour union affiliates representing 100,000 workers.
It’s time for us as women to seize this opportunity,
— Zakiyyah Askia
Philip LoMonaco, a foreman at the cancer centre project, witnessed the transformation firsthand. He first saw a woman on a construction job about a decade ago. Now, there are 200 female workers, including Gwyn and Rojas, building the highrise on Manhattan’s East Side, representing about five per cent of all workers on that project, according to the builder, Turner Construction. Jacobson & Company, a large carpentry contractor in metropolitan New York, says nine per cent of its nearly 300 employees are women.
Many of the female workers come from low-income circumstances and some are single mothers used to juggling multiple jobs to pay the bills. But once they break into the trades, these women are better off than those in other lines of work, facing a smaller wage gap compared to men. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says women in construction are paid 96 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues, versus only about 80 cents on the dollar in the general workforce.
Gwyn finished her five-year apprenticeship in 2015. The 30-year-old plumber had gone to college to become a teacher, but left school when her student loans mounted. She says she now earns about double what she would have made as a teacher.
Rojas, a 37-year-old plumbing apprentice, is hoping for an eventual six-figure salary after she finishes the program.
Since 2013, about 1,500 apprentices have come out of NEW’s tuition-free trade school, housed in a former firehouse in Manhattan. They spend seven weeks being introduced to basics in such skills as carpentry and electrical work, as well as using a measuring tape to execute a design and mathematical equations to accurately match materials into a space. Similar programs have popped up in Illinois, Vermont, Oregon, Wisconsin and Washington state.
“People might say that it’s a man’s job because it’s dominated by men, because women have been frozen out of this industry for so long,” said Zakiyyah Askia, a plumbing apprentice in a program run by the non-profit Chicago Women in Trades. “And now that the opportunities are presenting themselves, then it’s time for us as women to seize this opportunity.”
The NEW program also puts its workers to the test physically.
“Every day, we had to carry ladders and buckets with, like, 60 pounds of concrete up and down stairs,” says Gwyn.
In addition to the physical challenges of their jobs, some of the women in the NEW program say they’ve encountered social hurdles — what one called “old-school behaviour” such as some male co-workers reluctant to ask them to do equal work, or occasional attempts at unwelcome flirtation.
Gwyn says she made sure she looked “stern and serious, because if you smile, they sometimes say, ‘Oh, she’s cute’ and try to pursue you.”
“I’d say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you!’ I came here to work, and the more I’m here, the less it happens,” she says.
The program provides sexual harassment workshops during its training and all workers in participating trade unions are given the same training. It also ensures women have access to restrooms as well as safety gear and clothing that fits them.
The modest progress women have made in the industry has not come easily or quickly.
In 1985, 19 women sued a New York City public corporation and a real estate firm in Manhattan federal court, saying they were unfairly denied jobs for which they were qualified because they were female. The court approved a settlement requiring builders to make good-faith efforts to hire women-in-training.
LaBarbera, the labour group president, calls the women coming in through apprenticeships “trailblazers.”
And generally, neither gender nor age are impediments.
For Myrtle Wilson, a 49-year-old labourer who had previously worked multiple jobs and struggled to raise her kids, the past two years working on the Memorial Sloan Kettering project doing “a little bit of everything” have been a game-changer.
“I have watched this job literally come from the ground up, and it’s been an amazing experience,” she says with a grin.