This article is one in a series of conversations with women leaders in the construction industry. Click here for past conversations.
Vanessa Carman is a former field foreman and current detailer at Kent, Washington-based mechanical contractor Hermanson. A vocal advocate for women in construction, she is a member of the SMART (Sheet Metal Air Railroad Transit) International Women’s Committee and founder of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 66 Women’s Committee.
In a recent media report, Carman spoke out about her mixed experiences as a woman working in the construction trades. Here, she talks with Construction Dive about the strides that women have made in the industry and what still needs to be done.
How has the environment for women in the trades changed since you began your career?
I began my trade work in 2003, as a residential HVAC worker. In my first three years, I never saw another woman in any trade. It wasn’t until I joined the union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, SMART Local 66, that I saw other women, although there were still very few. Then, I would walk onto new jobsites and feel the stares from hundreds of men, just because I was one of the only women there.
During my apprenticeship, I initially started keeping a notebook to write down the names of tools I was asked to fetch. But then I started recording the things male coworkers said and did to me. One male coworker whom I had trusted groped me. Another day, a group of male coworkers moved the scissor lift while I was working at height inside a duct. I sent frantic text messages, asking for help.
Today, things have changed and it’s not uncommon to see women on the jobsite, including new apprentices, seasoned journey-level workers and foremen. Women are getting in and staying for the long haul. I have even worked on an all-female crew. There were only four of us, but it was so exciting!
Why do you think the numbers are increasing?
Through the years, the promotion of trades has increased drastically. High schools are actually sharing the idea of apprenticeships as being an option instead of just the traditional idea of college. Career fairs and high school outreach is a great way to show a new generation what apprenticeships are. For so many, it is eye opening and a life changer.
They come up to you and say, “What, we don’t have to pay to learn!?”
For young women, it is also helpful to have someone at the booth that looks like them. We try to have a diverse group of people to assist at the table so that the students feel comfortable speaking to us.
Pre-apprenticeship programs like Seattle-based ANEW (Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women) focus on equity and inclusion in the construction industry, for both women and people of color. These programs are changing lives by teaching women basic construction knowledge and skills and introducing them to different trade options. They tour various trades, jobsites and apprenticeship programs to see which is most appealing to them.
Why have you stuck with construction, despite the challenges you’ve encountered?
Before working in the trades, I worked in accounting, but I wasn’t happy. I would look out my tiny office window and dream about working outside and using my hands. My brother was in the trades and he encouraged me to try construction.
I took a huge pay cut and it was probably the scariest decision of my life, but when I finally started working in sheet metal, I loved it and was instantly hooked. The fact that I was also making good money and had insurance for my family was just a bonus.
Why do you think the #MeToo movement hasn’t gained as much traction in construction as it has in other industries, such as entertainment and the news media?
The #MeToo movement was started by powerful women who already had a huge audience, and spoke with voices that were familiar to the world. We do not have that sort of platform.
Although many of our sisters have the stories to share, some don’t want to rock the boat and others are not in the position to have their voices heard without fear of retaliation. That is why it’s even more important in construction for leadership to have women’s backs. It also sets an example for potential allies that they shouldn’t be afraid to stick up for people that are being harassed, and the perpetrators of this behavior that their actions will no longer be tolerated.
Historically, 51% of women have dropped out of apprenticeship programs, versus 46% of men. Why do you think there’s still a higher dropout rate for women in training and apprenticeship programs?
I think because there are still relatively few women in these programs, we notice it more when one leaves. But I have spoken with women who dropped out, and some of the reasons they give are harassment, lack of training, childcare situations or simply not knowing what they are getting into.
Sometimes we sell this as a great opportunity and women want in, but it’s important we give them a realistic picture as well. Trade work is hard, and finishing an apprenticeship takes perseverance. We work long hours, often exposed to the elements, and at the end of the job, you may be laid off. Child care can be difficult to find because our working hours are often erratic.
So, it is important to know what you are signing up for. But of course, I think it is so worth it. I truly believe that anyone can be a tradesworker, but it is definitely not for everyone.
How has your union's mentorship program helped you and other women in the trades?
When the Local 66 Women's Committee decided to create a mentorship program, its goal was to help retain women in the trades. Through the years we had seen so many women drop out for various reasons, but it was also financially alarming because we had invested so many years of education in them.
Our first step to creating this mentorship program was to find out what the women were struggling with. We called every women apprentice and asked how we could help. The most common issues were harassment, lack of training, child care, struggling with apprenticeship classes and struggling with the physical demands of the job. We focused on learning how to best support women in resolving these issues.
Labor and management recognized the situation and allowed us to tackle the problem. Having support is so important to getting change.
With the Women’s Committee and Mentoring Program, women in the trades have a group of people who listen, give advice and simply have their backs. It has become a great support group.
We have a Facebook group and it is not uncommon to see things like, “Does anyone know where I can find early hours childcare?” or, “I have work pants that I am not using, can anyone use them?” It is great to see that kind of support.
What does the construction industry need to do to better support women in the trades?
We should continue to discuss harassment, bullying and lack of training. But I think what’s more important is thinking about how we can do better.
I have experienced horrible situations in the industry. I did not have a voice, nor did I have support or even someone that would listen and hear me.
It is going to take the leaders in the industry to hear us and support us. Business leaders, contractors and the union need to acknowledge these are real issues that should be taken seriously.
SMART has made huge steps to continue recruit and retain women in sheet metal industry, including the formation of the International Women’s Committee and the Recruitment and Retention Council.
All of these amazing achievements could not have happened without the support of our leaders. It would be impossible to make this much progress without them. But we also need our brothers to be allies, and when they see harassment or something else that just isn’t right, to call that person out. Be decent, and stand up to those who may not have the ability to defend themselves.
Those are the kinds of steps that are getting the conversation started, and opening the eyes to people that can actually implement change.