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Trade Ins

Women still stand out in a traditionally male field


Published February 26, 2003 at 8:50 p.m.

Next time you're strolling through Burlington, look down at the sidewalk under your feet. Pam Tuttle might have built it. As a foreman in Burlington's street department, she works with her crew to build and maintain pedestrian walkways in the city. Though the vast majority of construction workers in Vermont and around the country are men, Tuttle is proof this isn't just a guy's job.

"I can stand side by side with anyone here and do the same work," Tuttle says.

Her job requires a variety of skills, from managing a crew to maintaining equipment and handling pieces of curb that weigh about 180 pounds. The only woman in the Street Department, Tuttle worked her way up over the past eight years. When she started, she came in at "worse than the bottom," but before getting there, she felt near rock-bottom in her life -- out of work and unable to find a job or qualify for state training programs.

"You either had to have kids or be in a certain age group," she says. "There were just no organizations for me." Then one day she spotted a flyer that changed the direction of her life. "I saw this piece of paper advertising Step Up and I thought, 'You mean I can do this? There's no restrictions? There's nothing that makes me not fit into this program?'"

Step Up is a project of Northern New England Tradeswomen (NNETW), a private nonprofit based in Essex. The six- to nine-week job-training program, run for both the public and prison populations, was created in 1985 and is especially intended for lower-income women. The state covers the $3650 price tag for most participants. Women who complete the program are then qualified to enter an apprenticeship or, like Tuttle, begin work on a job site, even if that means starting at a low level.

During Step Up, Tuttle learned the fundamentals of carpentry, plumbing, welding and electrical work. Perhaps more importantly, she developed greater confidence and self-esteem. "They work on your whole person," Tuttle says. Daily gym workouts help participants build upper-body strength, and workshops teach them about time management, assertiveness and communication skills.

"For many women it's the first time they've ever had an opportunity to think about themselves and explore what they want to do with their lives professionally," says Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of NNETW. "They emerge with heightened self-esteem and a clearer, broader vision about what they can do."

After completing the program, Tuttle felt an unexpected emotion: pride. "I don't think I've ever felt that good about myself in my life," she declares.

Graduates tend to view their lives in terms of before and after Step Up. "The program is a pivot point, and everyone experiences it very strongly," says Lisa Marchetti, a carpenter who runs Thunderbolt Woodwork with partner Harry Atkinson. Marchetti went through Step Up in 1997 and just started her first term as a NNETW board member.

"It's a great program and it's done in a really nice way," Marchetti says. "It's not set up as 'them' and 'us.' I think they have a really healthy attitude about being part of a community."

The notion that women can do anything isn't really revolutionary anymore, but that doesn't mean women are swarming to jobs traditionally held by men. In fact, a list compiled in 2001 by the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau makes you wonder what decade you're living in. The leading occupations held by employed women that year include nurse, elementary-school teacher, secretary and cashier. The problem with much of so-called "women's work," of course, is the pay.

Bluemle testified at a Congres-sional briefing two weeks ago about the state of women in the workforce. The statistics she presented were frightening. Eighty percent of women are employed in sectors that pay less than a living wage and often have no benefits; 44 percent of women report providing the sole income for themselves and their families, and half of those women live below the poverty level; 59 percent of women in the work force earn less than $8 an hour.

Nationally, the average wage of a construction worker is $17.86 an hour. It's no surprise, then, that money is a big motivating factor for women to enter the trades.

"So many women we've worked with have never been able to support their families," Bluemle says. "If you're not going to go to college, then a job in the skilled trades can provide a means to economic independence."

Some college-educated women take the trade route, too. In the late 1970s, Shelley Warren graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in theater and got a job doing sound and lighting for stage shows. One day she met a group of electricians and happened to compare notes with them on salary and benefits. She quickly realized who had the better deal. Warren went to the union office and was fast-tracked into an apprenticeship program. "They wanted women, so they waived their two-year tech-school requirement," she explains. Today Warren is Burlington's electrical inspector.

"The trades offer pathways for professional advancement," Bluemle says. "You can't go very far in a lot of retail jobs. As far as opportunities go, the construction field is ripe."

Even for women with the basic skills, breaking into the trades can be tough. And once in, further challenges await. For smaller women, it might be hard to find gloves and work suits that fit properly (though Pam Tuttle notes she recently found a pair of women's steel-toed work boots for a reasonable price at Wal-Mart). And though some working mothers can make their own schedules, certain jobs are not exactly family-friendly.

"If you're laying asphalt, you've got to stay with it until it's done, sometimes well beyond the end of the day," Bluemle notes. "A lot of employers are facing these challenges with both men and women."

Then there's the bathroom issue. Lisa Marchetti worked at one job site that had no bathroom for a while. "The guys didn't care, they'd go behind a tree. I wasn't going to do that, so I'd get in my car and drive to the gas station," she says. "I hated having to do it, but no one gave me a hassle about it."

Another age-old gender issue can also come up: A report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that most of 475 respondents had been sexually harassed at one point in their careers.

The situation Warren faced as a twentysomething apprentice went like this: "First everyone's really nice to you, and then they try to get you to have sex with them, and then, when you don't, they're not nice to you anymore."

Warren began her four-year apprenticeship in Minneapolis in 1979 but halfway through moved to Vermont with her husband, who had accepted a college teaching job. She completed her apprenticeship in Vermont and found a huge difference in attitude. "Here, I have never, ever experienced sexual harassment," Warren says. "Right from the start I was treated with absolute respect."

Some men, such as Harry Atkinson, welcome women on the job site. "I noticed back in the early '70s a huge change in the civility of construction sites, which are usually disgusting pits of male bad language and poor behavior," he says. "There was a tremendous increase in the civility of the whole site when women appeared on the job."

Though harassment can and does occur on Vermont job sites, Bluemle notes that it's hard to know the true extent of the problem, since women who have faced harassment either leave the field or that particular job, just as in any other occupation.

"A person's experience is very much dependent upon the company that hires her and the subcontractors and the individuals she works with," Bluemle says. "But I'm happy to say that we're not often put in the position of trying to run interference for people."

Women in the trades might also have to try harder to inspire confidence in clients and colleagues. Warren went on to work at Sherman Electric, eventually earning her master's license and opening her own business, which served the Cham-plain Islands. Today, she sometimes has to prove herself when inspecting the work of electricians she hasn't met before. "The ones who don't know me, they're like, 'Well, what's your background?' Once I give them a verbal resume, we very quickly get rid of any suspicions."

Pam Tuttle knows she can hold her own with any crew, but sometimes senses gender bias from higher up. "It seems like it takes me longer to get anywhere," she says. "People don't treat me the same, and they're watching me all the time to see if I mess up."

Finally, a sense of social isolation can take its toll. When Warren moved from Grand Isle to Burlington a year and a half ago, some customers on the Islands asked her to recommend another master licensed female electrician. She couldn't find one. Lisa Marchetti concurs: "I almost never work with other women and I've only met one other woman carpenter," she says. And although she reports positive experiences with male co-workers, she adds, "I would certainly love the opportunity to work with more women."

Despite the lure of higher wages in the trades, the challenges may drive some women away. After all, the percentage of women in trade occupations has remained a steady 3 to 4 percent for the past 30 years. "More women are going into the trades, but more women are leaving, too," Bluemle confirms. She hopes NNETW's new mentoring program will help women feel less solitary and more supported, even if it just provides an opportunity to commiserate with a colleague.

Tuttle was one of the first women to sign up as a mentor. "You have to have a good strong will to handle the stress of the job sometimes," she says. "Maybe I can help somebody, give them insight or offer a little bit of information on how to deal with things I've faced."

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