The job on the light rail platform was to be one of her last as an apprentice sheet metal worker, and Vanessa Carman was relieved. She was one year shy of achieving journeywoman status and the higher pay and better treatment it typically afforded — at least to men, who account for virtually all her coworkers.
Carman, a muscular 5 feet 8 with raven hair, had endured a litany of injustices since entering construction. On her first job as an apprentice in 2008, men called her “the pookie princess” after the sealant she used to close ducts that snaked along the ceilings of the tract homes where she worked south of Seattle. Her foreman sometimes had her stand for hours next to his ladder, handing him screws. On another job, male coworkers sliced off the padlocks and vandalized the only portable toilet for women. Men hit on her, yelled at her, groped her and pushed their groins against her. She white-knuckled her way through the work, hoping that, as a journeywoman, things would get easier.
Then came the assignment on the light rail station at the University of Washington in 2012. A coworker who had also served as an acting foreman grabbed her buttocks. After another colleague told a supervisor, she endured persistent retaliation: her tools tossed around the job site, her bag covered in spit. She felt she had two choices — stay quiet or end her career.
(An official with the company asked to comment on Carman’s experience said he disagreed with her description of the facts but declined to provide specifics. “We welcome and encourage women to enter the trade, and do everything we can to ensure they are treated equally and with the utmost respect,” he wrote in an email.)
“When you’re an apprentice, you don’t want to rock the boat,” said Carman, 43. “You don’t say things when someone grabs your butt, you don’t say things when someone spits on your tools, you don’t say things.”
Apprenticeships have been around nearly as long as work itself, but in recent years policymakers on both sides of the aisle have begun to embrace them as an alternative to four-year college.
The programs, which are often run in partnerships between unions and contractors, give workers free classroom training and on-the-job instruction while they work for gradually increasing wages.
But it’s only in male-dominated fields like construction that apprenticeships have historically offered a true portal to the middle class. And for women, these training programs are often hostile, even dangerous, environments.
Men, who make up more than 97% of the employees in construction and nearly all of its leadership, have tended to view females entering the trades as intruders, routinely denying them equal opportunities for training and work.
“Every woman has faced discrimination; if she hasn’t yet, she will,” said Meg Vasey, a former electrician who now runs Tradeswomen Inc., an Oakland, California, nonprofit. Vasey entered the trades in the late 1970s, after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed workplace sex discrimination and around the time that the Department of Labor put in place regulations banning sex discrimination in apprenticeships and requiring sponsors of those programs to recruit more women. Today, the number of women apprentices remains roughly the same as it was then: 3%. Women are essentially being pushed from one of the clearest pathways to the middle class.
In interviews with more than 40 tradeswomen, most said they had been mistreated because of their sex. They spoke of men grabbing and groping women with impunity, of women being told to go home and work in the kitchen, of being given the most dangerous jobs and the jobs that kept them from learning valuable skills necessary for their careers. The uniformity of some of the stories of abuse was striking: Women who did speak up said they’d had their tools stolen or destroyed, that they been denied dispatches to jobs by their union, or that they’d been blackballed across their trade.
And yet, many of these women loved their jobs — not just the pensions, health care and pay, which was enough to raise a family and take vacations and retire — but the physical labor and skill involved.
When the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017, tradeswomen wondered if it would prompt changes within their industry. In California, Vasey used the momentum of #MeToo to push successfully for legislation encouraging contractors and apprenticeship programs to recruit women and establish worksite cultures to protect them.
“But I don’t think there’s a voice,” she told me. “I still don’t think the voices that represent women in the blue-collar trades have come.”
Many younger tradeswomen felt the movement had glanced over their industry, despite the brazenness of the abuses.
“I really don’t think it’s had an impact,” Carman said.
And yet, with few allies outside of the industry, and little attention to their cause, women within construction have started to speak out and fight for change.
‘Change that culture’
Carman grew up in Bellevue, just east of Seattle, the only girl in a family of four children. After high school, she found work as a cashier and barista and helping with the books for a wholesale florist. One day, her brother Mike, who’d started working in heating and cooling, asked his sister to help him repair the furnace in their uncle’s house. Watching Mike bend sheet metal into a new duct for the furnace, Carman knew she’d prefer this physical work to a career behind a desk.
Carman applied to a local union, hoping to join an apprenticeship program, but she was told there wasn’t any work for her. For a time, she picked up non-union work, but by her late 20s she was raising three sons on her own. She knew a union apprenticeship would offer free education and better health insurance. Carman visited the local sheet metal union, where she took a 20-minute math test and had a brief conversation with an apprenticeship coordinator. It was early 2008, and there was a building boom; the union was taking just about everyone, including women. At orientation, she was one of just six or so women in a crowd of about 100.
While working in construction, she started to feel like everyone wanted her to quit. One supervisor had her sweep all day and pick up garbage, which kept her from learning the skills she needed to advance her career. Another laid her off the first chance he could.
After the work slowed down and she was laid off from the light rail job, she called a company she’d worked for previously and was given a position in the shop, fabricating sheet metal. The next year, 2013, Carman journeyed out in front of a crowd of 50 or so at the union hall.
After that, the work got a little easier but the culture didn’t. A month or so later, Carman was standing twenty feet in the air on a scissor lift, repairing a duct in a Microsoft building, when she shouted to the journeymen below to crank her up a few inches. The men were stationed there for that purpose, but they refused and insisted she descend from the lift and do it herself. A few days later, she was working inside a duct near the ceiling when the same men moved the scissor lift, stranding her in the duct. She sent frantic text messages on her cellphone to coworkers, asking for help.
“I thought I was being left to fall to my death,” she said later.
It was around this time that the possibility of doing something to help other women began to absorb her thoughts. More women were joining the sheet metal apprenticeship, but few finished. Without more women in the trades, she saw little possibility of the industry becoming a safe workplace for females.
She began calling every female apprentice and asking about their struggles. The women started talking. In nearly every conversation, sexual harassment topped the list of problems. Being denied training was another. Carman found an ally in the union’s new business manager, who encouraged her to move forward with a formal mentorship program and a women’s committee that could help recruit and retain more women in their trade.
That led to changes beyond their local. Carman was invited to attend sessions at national conferences and to speak to union business managers and agents about how their practices discouraged women from continuing in the trades. She and a handful of other women across the country helped to form a women’s committee to advise the international sheet metal union.
The timing was right: The economy was booming and the construction industry was desperate for workers. The international iron workers union had recently won praise for becoming the first building trade to offer paid maternity leave, up to eight months.
Joseph Sellers, Jr., the international sheet metal union’s general president, began to hear from Carman and other women at conferences.
“I was shocked, and maybe it’s naïve, when I heard and listened to the stories of my sisters,” Sellers said. “I recently had a sheet metal sister tell me she was pinned down on the job. That’s not 25 years ago, that’s not 10 years ago, that’s right now, that’s happening in the moment on jobs across North America.”
By 2019, the share of female apprentices in Carman’s local had risen to about 10%, among the highest in the international union. University of Washington researchers reached out to help replicate the program at other locals.
That August, union leadership had voted to update the organization’s constitution to add gender neutral language, define harassment and discrimination, and make them chargeable offenses. The union also committed to double the number of women apprentices and add an amendment stating that no one would be denied union membership based on race and sex, among other categories.
“Our history, our culture, has not been good,” Sellers said at a national conference for women in trades, “but we are going to change that culture one local at a time.”
‘Our unions are broken’
Carman’s optimism and progress with her union were relatively rare. Kimberly Brinkman, a sprinkler fitter in her 50s who lives near Minneapolis, sued her union and two contractors in 2019 after what she described as years of harassment, discrimination and retaliation that included having her car keyed.
“Our unions, they are broken. Women and people of color, we don’t get treated as a brother in the brotherhood,” said Brinkman. “We are the distant cousin and nobody wants to talk about us.”
In July, a judge dismissed Brinkman’s complaints against the union, but the discrimination lawsuits against both contractors are ongoing.
Women in trades have few options for recourse. Unions represent all their members and may be reluctant to take a stand against any one party.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked under Title VII with investigating claims of workplace sex discrimination and granting workers the right to sue, is notoriously understaffed and provides remediation in just 18% of cases, according to a 2019 Center for Public Integrity investigation.
Under federal law, apprenticeship programs are required only to make “good faith efforts” to recruit women and people of color, a vague principle that is difficult to enforce. And because of the transient nature of the construction workforce, it’s difficult to prove that any one employer or union is responsible for discrimination.
“It’s like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act never got to the construction industry,” said Lisa Stratton, Brinkman’s lawyer. “This is the kind of systemic practice that class action lawyers should be all over, and the reason they are not is they’ve [the unions and contractors] been so successful at discriminating and keeping the numbers of women so low in every single union, local, there aren’t enough [for a class action].”
Stratton has won cases involving undocumented workers and women in paper mills and processing plants. But when it comes to construction, she said, “the law is not set up well to deal with these kinds of situations.”
In late 2019, Carman was offered a job as a detailer. The position, creating computerized drawings of sheet metal for installation, was coveted and recession-resistant. It would also spare her back, which had started to bother her. But for the first time in 15 years, she’d work behind a desk.
That desk is behind a gray divider with her name tag in white letters, up a flight of stairs from the shop of the sheet metal company where she’d finished her apprenticeship.
“Remember how I told you I got into construction because I hated office work?” she said. “Well here I am at an office job. It’s a little bit like being an apprentice all over again.”
At a certain point, though, her work on behalf of other women had almost begun to feel like her real career. And yet she wasn’t sure how optimistic to be.
“We can’t save all the trades,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of people who won’t work with you and you can’t do anything about them.”
But even when she was feeling discouraged, she could still see the industry changing, if only one person at a time.
“The culture, it’s not changed of course, but they see the support our leadership gives us, and they are kind of scared to do the actions they might have done before,” she said of male coworkers.
Ultimately, it might come down to a matter of waiting out the misogynists.
“There are new generations coming in,” she said.
This story about apprenticeships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.