The COVID-19 pandemic was tough on everyone, but women — particularly Black and Latinas — were disproportionately impacted by the events of 2020.
An analysis by NPR found that people of color have higher infection and death rates from COVID-19. The pandemic has also hit women differently, as females are more likely to bear the social and economic burdens of the pandemic.
The events of 2020 highlighted how many Black women and Latinas are working in low-wage jobs, such as retail, food-service, and lower-level healthcare positions. Such jobs don’t allow workers to build significant savings that provide stability and security in times of social and economic downturns and uncertainty — like the COVID-19 recession.
But there are better options. The skilled construction trades provide opportunities for women to build careers that are both challenging and fulfilling, pay a sustaining wage with benefits, and can be accessed through “learn as you earn” apprenticeships.
These trades put women in better financial positions compared to traditionally female occupations. In comparison to the median weekly earnings of female elementary and middle school teachers, the wages of women trade workers covered by a union contract in 2018 were $1,134 higher.
Like most careers, construction has both its rewards and challenges, though women of color face especially unique circumstances. A recent report from Chicago Women in the Trades dives into these issues and examines what it’s like for Black and Latina tradeswomen to work in environments that are traditionally male-dominated.
The report amplifies what attracts and encourages Black women and Latinas to stay in the trades, in spite of the many challenges they face. The report also offers recommendations on what can be done to support their recruitment, retention, and success.
The female construction workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. According to the report, the number of Latina apprentices in the trades almost doubled, and the number of Black women apprentices grew by nearly 50% between 2016 and 2019. In fact, between these years, the growth of women apprentices has outpaced that of their male counterparts.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done because women of all backgrounds remain severely underrepresented in the construction trades. In 2019, women were just 3.5% of workers in construction occupations, and 3.6% of all apprentices in federally registered apprentices the trades. Latinas have about a 1-in-100 chance to work with another Latina, and Black women less than a 1-in-100 chance to work with another Black tradeswoman.
Part of the reason for these low numbers lies in the many hurdles that females, particularly women of color, face in the industry.
Being a woman in the trades typically means finding yourself isolated from other women, lacking role models and mentors who look like you, and having to carry the weight of representing not only your gender but also women from your racial and ethnic background. In many cases, women also have to deal with hostile attitudes and discrimination on the job.
Despite these challenges, women continue to choose construction trades. This is because construction is a high-risk, high reward job that includes many benefits not offered in other careers.
Being in construction allows workers to earn higher wages, so they can be self-sufficient and no longer rely on public support. A career in construction also affords them a home and health insurance for themselves and their families, along with intangible benefits, such as setting an example for their children and the pride and joy of doing their jobs well.
“I’m a single mother and I have to provide for my kids,” says one Latina apprentice. “My oldest…just graduated college. And I helped pay for her school.”
A Black apprentice, who's now a homeowner, attributes her success to being a tradeswoman. "I experienced homelessness at the beginning of my apprenticeship. But also through my apprenticeship I now have my own home,” she says.
There are many stereotypes, assumptions, and biases about females in the skilled construction trades. Perhaps the most prevalent is the misconception that construction simply isn’t for women.
For instance, when one Latina apprentice expressed her interest in pursuing a career in the trades, the response was "What? That's for men. What are you doing? You're not going to go through this.”
Mothers are also at a disadvantage since they have to deal with assumptions about how women with children are less reliable or less committed than men.
As one Latina apprentice explains, “That phone call ‘kids are sick’, depending on who you're working with, may be frowned upon. ‘Why are you answering your phone? What is this — do you need to leave? Is this too much for you? Can you deal with this?’”
The construction industry must address and eliminate these biases and stereotypes. Doing so will help us attract more workers to the trades — which is something that the industry desperately needs.
According to the Associated General Contractors of America, 81% of firms are finding it difficult to fill hourly and salaried craft positions, and data from the National Association of Home Builders indicate that labor availability is one of the top problems that builders are facing.
The construction industry clearly has a labor shortage issue. One of the best ways to solve this is to tap into a fresh and diverse talent pool.
Fortunately, we are already taking steps in the right direction. The increase and improvements of diversity in leadership positions and union representation have created a positive role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the trades.
As a result, women in the field feel more supported and empowered. In the report, one woman discussed her extremely positive experience working under a Black foreman, while another recalled how uplifting it was to work for the first multiracial forewoman she has ever seen.
There are still many problems facing Black women and Latinas in the trades, but promising policy solutions include women-focused pre-apprenticeship programs, employment targets with consistent oversight, and support networks of other tradeswomen.
Every successful tradeswoman interviewed in the report had support and resources from organizations like Chicago Women in the Trades, Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), Tradeswomen Inc., and similar women-focused pre-apprenticeship programs across the country.
Aspiring tradeswomen who are unsure of where to start should look into these programs as well as join communities, Facebook groups, and networking events specifically for women in construction.
These communities have grown rapidly over the past few years. The annual Tradeswomen Build Nations conference, for example, brought together 2,700 women in 2019 and continues to expand.
Aside from helping females gain knowledge and opportunities that would help them grow and succeed, these communities and events serve the important purpose of uplifting women and helping them see that they’re not alone.
As one Black tradeswoman puts it, “I was under the impression that I was the only one until I went to that [Women Build Nations] conference, and it's just like, ‘Why is she telling my story to me?’ It was the same story! Just a different city and state… And I was like, "You know what? Whoa! I'm not the only one going through this. It's a bigger issue than what I thought."
While women in the trades have certainly come a long way, isolation, discrimination, and the fear of retaliation are still prevalent.
Apprenticeship programs, unions, contractors, owners, and developers can — and must — do more to ensure that the experiences of discrimination, disrespect, and disregard are eradicated.
The recent report by Chicago Women in Trades sheds light on what needs to be done to build women up in construction and attract more females into the workforce.