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This paper examines barriers to women's participation in the construction trades using a case study of a carpentry apprenticeship program. It finds that women, though they continue to face obstacles to working in the Wade, remain determined to participate. It also suggests that though external efforts to open the trade to women have met with resistance, attempts to upgrade apprenticeship training and attract qualified applicants may inadvertently help ease the way for women to enter the trade. The paper concludes with speculation about the value to the union of welcoming qualified and determined women apprentices.
Index Terms: Apprenticeship/Carpenters Union (UBCJ)/Women, union.
Since the late 1970s, with the growing awareness of the feminization of poverty and the persistent wage gap between men and women, considerable attention has been paid to the skilled construction trades as a non-traditional source of high-paying jobs for women workers. There have, however, been only slight gains in the proportion of women in construction occupations after a series of initiatives intended to promote progress in this area, such as the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; the issuance of Executive Order 11246 in 1978; the filing of law suits; the organization of trades women's advocacy groups; and the allocation of millions of dollars in grant funding for ameliorative programs. Although women workers entered many male-dominated occupations in significant numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, the building and construction trades remained seemingly impervious to women's entry. There is no construction craft category that, at present, has more than 9 percent female representation. Most have well below 3 percent. In the carpentry trade, which is the focus of this study, the 1998 figure is 1.6 percent (Table 1). Moreover, interviews with women who are working in the trades today tell a now-familiar story of harassment, discrimination and isolation from other women on the job (Kane and Miller, 1981; Schroedel, 1985; Chicago Women in the Trades, 1992; Shaw, 1996; Eisenberg, 1998).
Neoclassical economists and human capital theorists tried to explain discrimination in terms of individuals -- employers whose "taste" for discrimination led them to prefer male workers, and the workers themselves, whose education and work experience determined their productivity and thus their pay (Becker, 1957, 1975; Thurow, 1969). Sociologists identified the roots of discrimination as being located in the male-dominated culture of the work site, characterized by gender based definitions of what constitutes a "good worker, and the resistance of male workers who feel threatened by the women's ability to do their work (Harlan and O'Farrell, 1982; Lillydahl, 1986; Weston, 1990; Padavic, 1991; O'Farrell and Moore, 1993). Studies of occupations which have shifted from predominantly male to predominantly female have shed light on some of the dynamics at work at the institutional level (Reskin and Roos, 1990).
None of these studies, however, give reason for optimism that conditions for women in the construction trades will change significantly. Individual attitudes as well as institutional practices in the construction industry continue to impose formidable barriers to women's entry, and government enforcement of affirmative action requirements, sporadic and weak as it has been, has had little impact.
This paper reports on a study conducted by the author of women's participation in a union carpenter's apprenticeship program. While it finds strong confirmation of the barriers facing women in the trade, it also suggests that pressure to recruit better qualified apprentices and improve the quality of apprenticeship training in general may have an unintended, positive impact on women's participation in the trade. It also suggests that women's commitment to the craft, pride in their work, and enthusiasm for the opportunity to work in construction might benefit the carpenters union as it works to regain its membership levels and market share.
Background and Method
In 1996, the carpentry apprenticeship program had been in existence for almost ninety years. It had admitted its first woman apprentice in 1973. The healthy construction economy in the state during the 1990s caused the apprenticeship program to grow rapidly, from 166 apprentices in 1993 to 508 in 1997. This should have created opportunities for increased outreach to non-traditional candidates, like women and minorities. However, during that time period the percentage of women apprentices fell (Table 2).
During 1996, the city in which the training center is located, in response to changes in the law requiring documentation of discrimination in order to justify affirmative action programs for women and minorities, commissioned a study of the construction industry. The study, which alleged widespread discrimination, received considerable public attention. The state's apprenticeship and training agency began to put serious pressure on registered apprenticeship programs to comply with its affirmative action mandate. The carpenters' program was challenged to improve its female representation or suffer sanctions. Female enrollment goals were established and the program was required to overhaul its apprentice selection procedure. Unfortunately, these changes did not produce an increase in the proportion of women apprentices and did produce a backlash of sorts, with contractors and others expressing increased resistance to state intervention.
The study described here was conducted in 1996-1997 for a Carpenters' Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), the labor-management group which administers the selection and monitors the progress of apprentices and oversees the maintenance of training standards. Its purpose was to identify the barriers to participation of women in the apprenticeship program and to make recommendations regarding retention of current women apprentices.
The study methodology included the following:
* Analysis of statistical information on program applicants and continuing apprentices by gender.
* Telephone interviews with female apprenticeship applicants who had completed an orientation class at the training center between Fall 1995 through Spring 1997) but never enrolled as apprentices. Of the thirty-one women, it was possible to locate and interview fifteen. For comparison purposes, sixteen male applicants to the program from this time period were also interviewed by telephone. The interviews lasted from twenty to forty-five minutes and covered reasons for applying to the program, related work experience, and experience looking for carpentry work.
* Interviews with twenty current female apprentices in groups of four to five. Interviews lasted one to one-and-a-half hours and covered reasons for entering the apprenticeship program, experience looking for work, and on-the-job experience. In addition, these women were also asked their opinions on what could to be done at the training center to reduce barriers to women in the trade.
* Less formal discussions were also conducted with training staff and members of the JATC. Some of these latter interviews included job site visits.
The findings from data-gathering and interviews are summarized below under three separate headings: learning about apprenticeship, finding work, and sticking with the program.
Learning About Apprenticeship: Recruitment Issues
The application procedure in effect at the time of the study was based on what is sometimes called a "first job requirement." The applicant was required to: complete an application at the state apprenticeship office; deliver it in person to the training center; sign up for an orientation class …