This December, 4,000 tradeswomen from across North America – including over 400 representatives from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) – convened in Washington, D.C. for the North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU) Tradeswomen Build Nations (TWBN) conference. The largest of its kind, the TWBN conference hosts representatives from various trade unions, labor leaders and government officials to address and combat the key issues facing tradeswomen today so we can continue to grow a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
“LIUNA understands now more than ever how important it is to dismantle the barriers that have traditionally hindered women from entering the construction industry,” said LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “Creating a space for our LIUNA sisters and advocating for their rights on the job remains at the forefront of our agenda.”
Since its inception 13 years ago, the conference has grown over 267 percent to reach this year’s record-high attendance. The TWBN committee believes this turnout proves that efforts to foster inclusivity and attract more women to the trades are working. In opening remarks, members of the committee noted TWBN is a time to highlight the progress that’s been made as well as continue paving the way for the work that still needs to be done. The conference sessions and workshops addressed issues like mentorship, leadership, childcare and federal policies that impact women.
Breaking Down Barriers
A key theme throughout TWBN was the importance of breaking down barriers and challenging the attitudes that prevent women from pursuing construction. Although women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, only one in ten construction workers are women. Despite the countless advantages to having a construction career, there are still factors that might stop a woman from choosing one. For twin sisters Suveen and Shmyla Thandi, the biggest barrier was disapproval from their family.
“We’ve always wanted a career that was challenging and rewarding, and knew that a career in the skilled trades would suit us best,” Suveen explained in her remarks to the TWBN conference. “But our family initially didn’t support our career path, especially being in a male-dominated field with a perception that what we were doing was dirty work.”
However, in spite of their parents’ concerns, Suveen and Shmyla joined a welding apprenticeship program in 2009 – where they were among the only women in their training class – and have been journeyperson welders for UA Local 401 for over a decade. The Thandi sisters were able to overcome this barrier and pursue a fulfilling, long-lasting career in the trades and hope their story can inspire other women who might be hesitant to join the trades because of similar stigmas.
Addressing Tradeswomen’s Needs
Helping women overcome hurdles and pursue careers in the trades is an important feat, but the work doesn’t end there. The next challenge is how to retain these women and make sure they continue to feel valued and fulfilled throughout their careers. The TWBN conference provided a forum for thousands of tradeswomen to share what challenges they’re experiencing in the field and what changes they need to see to feel they belong.
Among many voiced concerns, three issues stood out throughout the weekend:
- Access to properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Access to sanitary bathroom facilities on jobsites
- Access to parental leave programs
These issues arise because construction jobsites and equipment are primarily designed with men in mind, and as a result, can exclude women and deprive them of the resources they need for success. During a health and safety workshop, several women – including safety managers, forewomen and members – shared stories of how they weren’t provided with hardhats that accommodate long hair or were given fall protection that was too loose for smaller-framed bodies. Ill-fitting PPE not only fails to protect from existing hazards, but in many cases it also creates additional, unnecessary risks. Panelists from the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) were able to point these workers to resources and manufacturers that produce PPE specifically for women as a starting point.
The Significance of Tradeswomen Build Nations
TWBN aims to provide a space where tradeswomen can celebrate themselves, network, share ideas, learn and empower one another. This year’s conference focused on uplifting and developing skills to help tradeswomen succeed, because building trades leaders know that women are integral to our workforce and deserve every right and opportunity that men have been afforded.
U.S. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi reminded us of this in her address to TWBN attendees. “Our work is not yet finished,” Pelosi said. “There are still too many barriers that women face, and only the full participation of women in the workforce will unlock our full economic potential. When women succeed, America succeeds.”
Here at LIUNA and the LHSFNA, we’ve been advocating for employers to go above the bare minimum to protect the health and safety of all workers, including a recent push for federal agencies to make PPE fit rules more clear and, in turn, more protective for women. We know our work isn’t over and will continue our fight.