Prevalence of Women in Industry Slowly Changes Attitudes

Tue April 01, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Tracy Carbasho

Rosie the Riveter would be proud of the women throughout the country who are proving the construction industry is no longer just a man’s world.

During World War II, more than six million women challenged the traditional notion of their abilities by working in shipyards, steel mills, warehouses, foundries, lumber yards and hospitals. The nickname “Rosie the Riveter” was coined to describe all of the women who worked as laborers in the manufacturing and industrial sectors during the war.

Now, women from coast to coast are once again making it fashionable to don a hard hat and to step into the trenches, completing jobs that previously fell into the men-only category.

“I think the most difficult part of being a woman and working in the trenches is holding onto your values and your priorities,” said Lory Warren, who serves as street superintendent for the municipality of Oro Valley, AZ. “Sometimes it is so tempting to be one of the guys and not stand out as the ’other one’ that we tolerate things we don’t want to or we turn a blind eye to the behavior that makes us uncomfortable. We should never have to be ashamed of our status as women in the workplace.”

She started working in the construction business as a bricklayer in 1977 and was later recruited by a union representative to begin a career in the highway and bridge construction sector. She worked various union jobs for five years before moving over to the government side of the industry.

Warren said she rarely had to deal with attitude problems from male co-workers when she was a member of the ranks. However, she has encountered problems during her career as a supervisor in instances where men have not wanted to take orders from a woman.

Karen Jones, a carpenter and co-owner of Double Eagle Design and Construction in Eugene, OR, said male co-workers usually become more accepting once they realize women are competent construction employees.

“Women working in the trenches are constantly faced with having to prove themselves, gaining respect, handling harassment issues and isolation,” said Jones. “Many men are convinced that if there is a woman on their crew, they are going to have to work harder to make up for her lack of ability. The harassment issues still exist on a subtle basis and it takes many forms.

“Men relate to other men fairly easily on the job, but don’t know how to relate to a woman in the same situation,” added Jones. “All of these factors tend to create a working environment for women that is one of constant scrutiny and pressure to perform.”

Jones also believes that both men and women who work in the business must overcome misconceptions from a society that has been conditioned to think construction workers do not have a high school diploma or are unable to get any other type of job.

“A person who is skilled in a trade and/or has dedicated his or her life to building a business in construction has to have specific training and on-the job experience, must understand math and business principles and must possess people skills,” noted Jones. “They must be able to read blueprints and job specifications, interpret code requirements in specific job site applications, order materials and produce accurate bids. Anyone, male or female, who is a professional in the trades has worked hard to become successful.”

Double Eagle Design and Construction is a residential general contractor specializing in custom homes and large additions and remodeling work. Jones has worked in the construction trades for more than 15 years and her job duties include drafting and design, managing projects, framing, driving a backhoe, installing pipe, putting up siding, pouring concrete and doing finishing work.

Jones is a chapter member in Region 9 of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). This particular region includes Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Western Canada. During her career in the industry, Jones has noticed an increase in the number of women who are coming into the field.

“Locally, we have community colleges that have programs to encourage women to pursue non-traditional careers in construction,” said Jones. “Many apprenticeship programs are actively seeking women as students. I am not sure if this is in order to meet equal opportunity quotas of employers, but I do think there is an increased awareness that women are doing this kind of work and that leads more women to pursue jobs in construction. And believe it or not, there are some employers that actually want to hire women.”

NAWIC, founded in Fort Worth, TX, in 1955, is an international association serving about 5,500 members in nearly 190 chapters throughout the United States and Canada, as well as affiliates in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. NAWIC’s mission is to promote the advancement of women in the construction industry. The diverse membership includes tradeswomen, estimators, business owners, engineers, architects and a variety of other construction-related personnel.

Tamie Taylor, who serves as NAWIC’s Region 9 director, has seen an increase in the number of women who are choosing construction as a career, especially in the areas of painting, drywall and electrical work. She attributes the increase to two factors. First, women are realizing they have many career choices from which to choose and more employers are hiring women to meet their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requirements.

“If I tell someone who doesn’t know me that I work in construction, it is interesting to see their response,” said Taylor. “Most people are interested, thinking that it’s cool. However, there are others who look at you like you are from outer space. I have also seen a slight change in how individuals in the industry view women in the field, but it certainly is not like it should be. I do remember when it was a daily fight, but at least now it seems that there is some support from the employers so it’s not as bad.”

According to the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor, the number of women working in construction between 1995 and 2000 increased 20 percent from 762,000 to 913,000. The total number of men and women working in construction throughout the country in 2000 was 9,433,000. Of that number, 8.5 million were men and 913,000 were women.

The jobs being completed by women in the field are as varied as those that have traditionally been done by men. Women are working in all trade areas, starting their own businesses, operating heavy equipment, serving as safety officers and completing every job in between.

Ruth Fritts, a resident of Meridian, ID, serves as a safety officer for McAlvain Construction Inc. McAlvain is a general contractor licensed in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. She started her career in the construction industry 18 years ago as an office manager and has worked her way through the ranks to her current position.

As the company’s safety officer, she develops and reviews all safety programs, trains personnel, conducts site audits and oversees accident investigations, risk management and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Partnership Program. She also is the immediate past president of the Boise, ID, Chapter 245 of NAWIC.

Fritts said the majority of the women who work in construction in her region are employed as project managers, engineers, architects and office support personnel. She said the biggest drawback to working in the construction business for women is the need to sometimes travel, which can be difficult for those who have young children.

Fritts, whose father was a millwright, began her career working as an office manager for a small construction company. The company did not have enough employees to complete all of the necessary work, so she volunteered to help in any way she could by working in the field.

Prior to working as an office manager, she worked for a cattle feed mill where she learned to repair electrical panels, operate forklifts and do welding.

“The most rewarding part of my job today is to see that all of our employees and subcontractors’ employees go home to their families every day without an injury,” said Fritts. “To do this brings me in close contact with all of the workers and how they are going to do their duties on a day-to-day and task-by-task basis.”

Diana Diaz, a carpenter for Welbro Building Corp. in Orlando, FL, is known among her colleagues as a jack of all trades who has done nearly every aspect of the construction business with the exception of electrical and masonry work. During her 10-year career in the industry, she has worked on many noteworthy projects such as Universal Studios in Florida.

Despite what many women in the field refer to as the lingering attitude that construction is still a man’s world, Diaz encourages others to follow in her footsteps.

“When I first started working in the business, it was tough because of the attitude of some men,” she said. “The most demanding part is just trying to keep up with the men sometimes because they forget that I’m a woman, but there are a lot of opportunities available for women who can pull their own weight. Any woman who wants it bad enough should just go for it and remember to work hard.”

Patricia Walker, director of NAWIC’s Region 3 which covers Florida, has noticed a change in the attitude of women working in the field.

“’They do not receive special treatment. They view their jobs as careers and a way to provide for their families,” said Walker. “They are willing to do what it takes to be successful and earn an above-average wage.”

Some women who opt for a career in construction grew up in a family where working in some aspect of the business was the norm. For example, Tiffani Bradley’s father was an architect and her mother is an AutoCAD technician.

Bradley, who lives in Edgewood, NM, decided she wanted to explore the construction side of the business after earning her master’s degree in architecture. Today, she works as both a project engineer and project manager, depending on the size of the job, for Gerald Martin Ltd.

“The only way women are going to be given an equal opportunity in the construction world is if we continue to show our faces in the field,” said Bradley. “Being hesitant is normal, but giving in to that is defeat.”

Debbie Christensen, director of NAWIC’s Region 8, which covers West Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, is a certified construction industry technician who now works as a project manager and realtor for The Karam Co.

She has witnessed an increase in the number of women working in the field and attributes it to “a desire by women to work in the non-traditional industry and the lack of skilled male workers”

“The industry is opening its eyes to the fact that in some positions women make better workers,” said Christensen. “They are more detail-oriented and quality-conscious.”

JoAnn Paradis, a resident of North Stonington, CT, is a 25-year construction veteran. She drives a dump truck for her business, JoAnn Trucking, and prefers to do heavy highway projects.

“My ex-husband got into the business and one day he was short a driver so he put me in the truck,” she said. “I liked it and decided to try it by myself.”

Paradis is straight to the point when she talks about the most difficult part of being a woman working in construction — “finding a bathroom.”

Kathy Weigand, director of NAWIC’s Region 1 which includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Washington, D.C., parts of New York and portions of Virginia, said women now realize they do not have to follow traditional career paths.

“The women are saying that they no longer have to follow a stereotype, nor do they feel the crunch of competing with men for the same job and same pay,” said Weigand. “Women feel more free to pursue a career of this type than they did 15 years ago.”

Yvonne “Sue” Dillworth, an 18-year construction veteran from Matagorda, TX, currently works for BE&K Construction Co. in Birmingham, AL, as a welder and also has worked as a laborer, timekeeper and stage rigger during her career. The business also is a family tradition for her since her brothers served as pipe fitters and ironworkers.

Diane Quimby has worked as a journey level carpenter, a carpentry instructor and a curriculum program specialist for skilled and technical programs. She is currently the workforce development coordinator for BE&K Construction.

Quimby became involved with NAWIC two years ago and is co-chairing the association’s 2003 Tradeswomen Committee. Her co-chair is Wendy Phelps from the New York area of Region 14. Quimby believes there is still a prevalent attitude in society that construction is for men only.

“Yes, it is unfortunate that male historians wrote Rosie the Riveter out of the 1940s history,” said Quimby. “If more people knew that women have already proven what they can do, more women today might be accepted in non-traditional roles.”

Marti Ziobro-Taylor, who began her construction career in 1976, lives in Nashville, TN, and works as a project manager for Knestrick Contractors. She previously worked as a project manager, resident engineer and superintendent on a variety of commercial and heavy industrial projects.

“If you like honest money and like to build, then go for it,” said Ziobro-Taylor. “I had parents who didn’t restrict me and told me I could be anything I wanted. The most rewarding part of my work is resolving how to put square objects into round holes and making them look good.”

Donna McDurmont, director of NAWIC’s Region 2, which covers Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, believes there are more women working in construction in the North and West because the southern part of the country still has a “good ole boys” syndrome.

McDurmont believes that organizations like NAWIC are instrumental in letting women know construction is a viable industry and a good career choice. She said certain general contractors have told her they would prefer to have women working on welding jobs and other tasks that require tedious work because they have more patience.