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Continued: A Labor Day conundrum: Why are so few of America's construction jobs held by women?

  • Article by: DAVID CRARY , Associated Press
  • Last update: August 30, 2014 - 11:55 AM

Now 50, Battle has been working in cement masonry for 30 years and in 2012 became the first woman elected business manager of Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 891 in Washington, D.C. Under her leadership, the number of women in the local has risen from five to 12, but she says sexist attitudes persist in the industry.

"Men don't perceive of women as someone coming to work, they perceive of women as a sex object," Battle said.

For younger women considering a construction career, Battle tells them: "No matter how much negativity you get, keep on the job and don't quit."

A mother of six, Battle credits a devoted baby sitter with helping her handle long work hours. Many construction jobs start in early morning, complicating child-care arrangements for some single mothers.

Another challenge for women is to get their fair share of working hours, according to Elly Spicer, a former carpenter who is now director of training at a technical college affiliated with New York City carpenters unions.

"You'll find, unquestionably, that women get access to less hours than men," said Spicer. "You can't do this working six months of the year."

The management side of the industry insists it would welcome more women.

"Most of our members are desperate to hire people," said Brian Turmail, public affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of America. "They're looking for any candidate who's qualified to come and join the team — women, minorities, veterans."

Turmail suggested that most women aren't tempted by construction careers, while those who are interested might be hampered by cutbacks in school-based vocational programs.

The Labor Department plans to award $100 million in grants this year for apprenticeship programs that expand opportunities for women and minorities.

"The reality is that the face of apprenticeship in the construction industry has been white male," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview. "We're working to ensure the future reflects the face of America."

A crucial step, Perez said, is to highlight the successes of women who have thrived in construction.

"Women are good at this," he said. "They've punched a ticket to the middle class and speak with great pride of the barriers they've overcome."

Regarding sexual harassment, the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has pledged to crack down on contractors who fail to prevent serious abuses.

Earlier this year, the office determined that three female carpenters with a Puerto Rico firm were sexually harassed and denied work hours comparable to those of male workers. At times, the company failed to provide the women with a restroom, and they had to relieve themselves outdoors, the office said. Under a conciliation agreement, the company agreed to pay $40,000 to the three women.

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