Why the hell am I, a woman, in the ironworkers

why women "can't do the work"

why women can do the work

the men and the women in the trade all together

sexual harrassment and gender discrimination

the union, the non-union and the good old boys

Ironworking is a very satisfying job for me. I am challenged daily--physically and mentally. I learn to beat the steel, how best to use the tools and knowledge that I collect to get the job done.

The pay is union and good. If I'm going to have to put up with crap, might as well do it and be paid for it. At least I'm doing something I like. Having benefits is great too. Yet as fascinating as work is to me--the questions I get asked usually involve--why? Isn't the work dirty? Isn't it hard? How do you deal with those men ? Can't you do something else?

Beyond construction in society as a whole, women generally are not expected to do the things that men do. Despite the advances of equal rights movements, schisms within women's and people's view of what "woman" is defined as and by still limit the potential of what women can do. Often an individual woman is limited by what people think of women in general in a physical sense: because of the generalization of size, definition by attractiveness, physical capacity to give birth, qualities such as intelligence, determination, ambition, spirituality are overlooked. There are exceptions which we see everyday--but they are seen as just that--exceptions. As a whole, women are still not seen by "modern society" as equal to men---that's all of society, men and women. (for example, see The Letter)

Often little girls are taught to play with dolls and how to look pretty and to let the boys worry about things like fixing broken things, proving their point or opinion, growing up and being independent, or "being a man." I spent a day in a class at City College that had as its goal the encouragement of women in the blue collar trades. We spent the first day learning how to read a tape measure. Grown women did not know the difference between inches, feet, or yards and could not figure out what all the little lines were for. And when pressed to learn, gave up with a sigh, saying, "I was never any good at math." They expressed a desire to be able to be independent and not to have to have the guy next door fix a toilet or put a nail in the wall for them, but didn't have the confidence in themselves or encouragement to learn from their families, society and eventually themselves.

Despite the efforts of affirmative action and feminist movements to increase the number of women on jobs, there are never enough to fill the positions offered. Of those that accept, many do not stay. Ironworking is not for every woman. But then neither is it for every man.

In my experience, many of those that can do work and stay outside of circumstances of injury or marriage--become discouraged. The grueling stress of constantly needing to affirm one's place in the world of construction on and off the job leads to the eventual leaving of numbers of women in the ironworkers and in construction in general. Consequently there are very few well seasoned women who are available as role modes, or who can give advice from years of experience.

Still there is resentment that women are "taking jobs from men with wives and children." This is an outrageous assertion, ignoring the many men who are single, the men who owe child support, and the women who struggle to support children without the help of a man or community. Typically, men work and women are expected to raise kids. But speaking realistically in today's society, it usually takes a two income family to live comfortably. I've seen ironworker couples do very well together.

If there are guys that are really threatened by me--a woman in a predominantly male realm, someone who is not naturally accepted and is going to take a lot of crap to prove themselves, someone who is almost a foot shorter and 50 lbs lighter than most, they've got to find something else to do. When work gets slow, as they say, the cream rises to the top. Either I've got to boogie now and do well, or I'll be out of work anyhow.

Women are generally not equal to men in physical strength. But there are as many variations from man to man as there are between men and women. I've arm wrestled computer geek male friends, and won a few times. (But some of them have now taken up body building....erk.) This difference in strength though is quite insignificant when you're faced with something that weighs a ton. I believe that is why tools were invented--it's a matter of working smart. The saying goes "you gotta be smarter than the steel!" There are plenty of ways to avoid the usual bad back and bad knees of the hard working ironworker, if you aren't afraid to demand the proper tools. Look at what you've got to do and think it through. In one of my favorite stories: it looks pretty good to go running off muscling two angel-wings at a time; it's even better if you can take a half a dozen and push them around together like shopping carts.

Eventually a good worker is recognized as such despite gender or race. People who work so closely with each other in such tense situations will eventually see worth if it's there, even grudgingly.

Still, there will always be people in the ironworkers who stand behind tradition and believe that no women should be allowed in this rough and gruff field. Sometimes even women are not our friends. When I was calling around to companies for a sponsor, a rebar company had a woman call me back. She told me that if I was married or had kids or was otherwise involved, I could just forget about working for them. Somehow being female, rather than male, put me at risk of not doing a good job to support my family.

I have found that many white workers have fearlessly come to my defense. Many of my favorite partners are self proclaimed dirty old men. But they can see the situation in the trade with their brothers and sisters in the trade and realize something is wrong. True, racial discrimination is not completely overcome, and age discrimiation is not always taken seriously (take care of our vintage members! it will be you someday!) but gender discrimination still must be addressed. Sometimes it takes relating this to themselves, or the possibility that their wives or daughters are in or may be in the trade someday. That way they'll try and help to push other people to help themselves.

Women are just as unused to women in the field as men are. I think of it sort of like having a left handed pitcher. Most batters are used to right handed pitchers. Both left and right handed batters are used to right handers. So they'll grumble a lot. Whether the pitcher is good or bad, initially no knows quite how to match that difference in pitch make that hit work. But the more you play with left handed pitchers, the better able you are able to work with them to get that home run. Which then makes this analogy fall to pieces and make no sense what so ever. Which is why I'll think of a better one.

What should a woman do if harassed? What should a woman do if she feels like she's been discriminated against? (On my links page, the ERA is a very good resource for advice and information on sexual harassment and gender discrimination.) Confront the guy. Sometimes a person can be so thickheaded that they just have no idea of the problems they're causing you. Occasionally telling the guy to knock it off is enough. He should be told, one way or another, to protect yourself as well as him, in case it needs to go further. If the behavior persists, tell your foreman and tell your steward. Harassment is very much a safety issue. You have a right to feel safe on the job. If that doesn't work, try your business agent. The BA is there to work for you and protect your right to a safe working environment. Keep notes on what is going on and try and make a habit of a daily log of what goes on, anyhow. This stuff holds up in court. Hopefully it can be worked out without going into the legal level. I mean, if it's serious, hell yeah, hit him where it counts, in the pocket--sue the hell out of everyone and make a lot of noise. If it's not and you're just greedy, you're helping no one but yourself, and I hope you rot. That just makes the serious battles harder to fight, by clouding things with petty issues. It makes guys afraid of women and less willing to work with them.

The union guarantees its members equal treatment. All of us get paid at the same rate. It's just a matter of who gets in.

Previously the union was pretty good old boy. Sons and brothers and nephews were put in the apprenticeship whether they liked it or not.

Because of changes in the economy, and the growing number of non-union workers, unions learned that they must change in order to compete. The previously unacceptable minority workers have only grown in numbers and strengthened the non-union. Many of these people become strong activists, and vocal members if given the chance. Non-union companies have tried to convince minorities and women that the union is still a "good ole boy" group, and that they would be safer and more comfortable getting less wages and less benefits with less protection with them. That is why COMET: Construction Organizing Membership Education Training is now a part of the apprenticeship training. And also why the non-union is very unhappy about the implementation of this class.

I might be crazy (and my friends habitually remind me that I am) but I enjoy ironworking. It is hard, and I get discouraged. One day I feel like this is the best job on earth. The next, though, some worm who doesn't even know me can bring me down. But the encouragement and the satisfaction of being on top of the sky keeps me going back to the hall for more.

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