Women Carpenters’ Silent Struggle

The port-a-potty was disgusting.

Kina McAfee shivered out of her layers of winter coats and construction coveralls, the clothes nearly dropping to the port-a-potty floor—which was covered in God knows what. McAfee would have preferred not to wear the outhouse’s sewer-like smells back to work, but the convoluted physics of being a woman in a port-a-potty made that wish nearly impossible. Turning around gingerly in the cramped bathroom, McAfee ignored the sexual drawings and words her carpenter colleagues had scrawled on the walls. That was when she spotted her own name, scribbled in permanent marker, accompanied by a message McAfee doesn’t want to remember.

“It gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. You just know that everybody on the job saw it,” McAfee says. “You’re a target and you don’t know who is on your side—you’re assuming nobody. And you don’t know who wrote it.”

McAfee found herself in that particular port-a-potty, facing sexism and sexual harassment, more than two decades ago, but she encountered countless others just like it over the course of her career as a construction site carpenter. And little has changed for women carpenters in the last 20 years: Limited funding for programs that support their entrance into trades, along with other structural barriers, keep women’s numbers in the field disgracefully low.

In fact, just 1.7 percent of employed carpenters are women, according to a 2014 Department of Labor statistics report on “nontraditional” occupations. (The DOL defines nontraditional occupations for women as any workforce comprised of less than 25 percent women, a list that ranges from butchers to barbers to bus mechanics.)

The Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations Act (WANTO) is the only federal program that specifically aims to help women enter apprenticeships in nontraditional fields, including construction, distributing about $1 million in annual grants to community-based organizations across the country that support that goal. Or rather, WANTO used to do that. The DOL’s 2015 and 2016 budget proposals don’t include any money for the act.

“It would need to be refunded this summer,” says Connie Ashbrook, executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., a frequent WANTO recipient nonprofit that works to improve the number and experience of tradeswomen in Oregon.

“Actually, I don’t care what they call it, whether it’s the actual WANTO program or whether it’s some other program,” Ashbrook continues. “But they need to find a way to invest in alleviating the disparities of women coming into apprenticeship. It’s just criminal, really. The disparity has been so great for so long.”

Right now, the DOL Office of Apprenticeship says that help for women in nontraditional occupations will be provided through general apprenticeship programs, but tradeswomen will no longer be a specific focus. Many say this is not enough.

“You lump women in nontraditional occupations under other populations [and] it’s unlikely to be any kind of priority,” says Jayne Vellinga, who heads Chicago Woman in Trades, a Midwestern nonprofit similar to Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. Both groups derive 30 percent of their budgets from WANTO.

Ask why so few carpenters are women and the answer is almost always the same: There aren’t enough resources to let women know they can be carpenters, let alone to help them stay in the industry.

“The industry doesn’t market these opportunities to women. Women don’t know anything about them,” Vellinga says. “They don’t know what these jobs entail. They don’t know how much they pay. They don’t know why they should be interested in these jobs. So most apprenticeship programs get very small numbers of female candidates.”

Chicago Women in Trades runs technical opportunities programs to help women understand basic construction skills, such as how to recognize tools and read blueprints, which they can use to secure apprenticeships in trades of their choosing. Run by unions, apprenticeships are the cornerstone of careers in the trades. During that time, apprentices earn a fraction of the salary they’ll receive once they are certified as journeymen. In return, apprentices are recognized as union members, take classes at the union school and receive on-the-job training through working with contractors at construction sites.

At least, that’s what happens in theory. While interest among women in high-paying trades jobs is on the rise—Vellinga reports that her organization’s program orientations sometimes draw over 150 women—few would-be female carpenters actually make it through their apprenticeships to become journeymen, in part because they face harassment and poor treatment.

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studies, 41 percent of women construction workers endure gender harassment. Ten percent have had their work vandalized, and another 10 percent have faced physical threats. They rarely report this abuse to their supervisors.

“There is that culture of, ‘This is where tough people come to work. And women shouldn’t be here, but since you are, you gotta be tough too,’” explains Lorien Barlow, a New York City-based filmmaker who’s spent the past two years working on a documentary about tradeswomen across the country. “If you do complain, you’ll be seen as the whiner, or the hysterical woman or the one who’s just looking to sue someone for money.”

Adds McAfee, “The thing about construction is it’s very easy to get laid off. All they have to say is, ‘Lack of work. We’re slowing down on this job.’ And the woman will be the first person to go.”

Yet, trades are “a real middle-class opportunity,” Vellinga declares. “Gaining access to a wider range of opportunities and breaking down barriers to well-paid blue collar occupations, [which] don’t require a college degree, is an important part of the work to achieve parity.”

According to many involved in the tradeswomen movement, legislative—not to mention cultural—change is needed if women carpenters ever want to achieve equality in the field.

Current policies aren’t cutting it. For instance, just seven years before McAfee became a carpentry apprentice in 1985,  amendments to Executive Order 11246 established new affirmative action policies for women construction workers. Thanks to the order, women must make up 6.9 percent of the workforce on any federal or federally funded construction contracts. But this rarely plays out in real life.

“Very, very few projects—even today—live up to that number,” Barlow says. “No one’s getting slapped on the wrist when they don’t.”

McAfee says the number of people working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is “darn laughable.”

“There’s obviously no way that they can police [construction] jobs with just the numbers of people that they have,” she explains. “That’s due to lack of funding and commitment.”

Those policies also don’t apply to construction work on privately funded projects, from which women carpenters are easily excluded.

Advocates like Barb Pecks, a representative from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ International Sisters in the Brotherhood Committee, says women aren’t hired enough on private projects. Organizations like hers are working to change that: “We want to make sure those private companies are aware there are women in these fields,” she says. “There are women that are very capable of performing that work.”

The mission of Sisters in the Brotherhood is simple: to be a resource and a uniting force for all women who belong to the North American umbrella union United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Sisters in the Brotherhood urges the women in its 22 chapters to stay involved and speak up in their local unions.

“I actually encourage our women members to be involved and to run for those positions” within their local, Pecks says. “I think it’s huge, because it means that when you’ve been elected, you’ve been elected by your peers. You’ve built that relationship up in your local. They’ve chosen you to represent them.”

At one Chicago local, it took 126 years before a woman, Jennie Wagner, was elected an officer. Wagner’s personal uniform consists of an oversized grey sweater and loose denim jeans, but her glittery stud earrings and a flash of silvery eye shadow betray her refusal to blend in with her mostly male coworkers. “I don’t care what other people think. They’re not in my shoes. They don’t pay my bills,” she says with a defiant shrug. “The door has been opened a bit. … It’s happening. We’re coming.”

When women rise to positions of power in unions, Barlow says, more women are recruited into apprenticeships. Yet ultimately, there is always more to be done: more enforcement, more grant money, more visibility and more people who care.

“I know women who’ve been in this movement for 25 years. And the numbers have not changed. Can you imagine? Twenty-five years of being an activist for tradeswomen, and the numbers have not changed at all,” Barlow says. “It’s this whole other level of emotional investment and fatigue that is just really hard to grasp sometimes, on top of being a construction worker. You’re trying to change the world and it’s just not changing around you.”

But some think the world is changing. Maybe. “Feels like we’re on the cusp of something,” Vellinga says. She pauses. Then she adds, “But we just have to keep the funding long enough to make something of it.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archiveslicensed under Creative Commons 2.0.



Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.