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How women break into the male-dominated world of construction

A brilliant young law school student in her early 20s started up a coffee shop to pay tuition.

Her senior year studying political science, she needed to sell the coffee shop — but first, she needed a renovation. So, she called up carpenters — an all-female crew.

“I realized in that moment, that’s what I wanted to do,” said Amy James Neel, construction manager and job developer with Oregon Tradeswomen. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a carpenter until I saw her, and I was over 20 years old.”

Women, especially women of color, are invisibilized in skilled trade industries such as construction. The topic brought Oregon Tradeswomen and similar organizations to a Metro-sponsored forum and showing of Sista in the Brotherhood at the Portland Art Museum.

SUBMITTED: DAWN JONES REDSTONE/OREGON TRADESWOMEN - Stephanie Ryznar, a graduate of Oregon Tradeswomen and former student of Dawn Jones Redstone, is a pile driver working on the Sellwood Bridge.

A 20-minute narrative filmed locally at the Sellwood Bridge construction site, Sista in the Brotherhood won Best Short Film and Best Oregon Short Film at the Portland International Film Festival in February.

The original story is inspired by co-producer Roberta Hunte’s doctoral thesis, incorporating themes on the experiences of women and women of color working in male-dominated trades industries and directed by Latina, journey-level carpenter/filmmaker Dawn Jones Redstone, who both spoke as panelists.

“Different apprenticeships that didn’t want more women to come in found ways to exclude women and create barriers to application,” Hunte said. “Some would say that you could only become an apprentice if a journeyman wanted to work with you, if a journeyman picked you ... so they just didn’t pick any women.”

According to Hunte, the institutionalized thinking draws historical roots back to women’s rights movements of the ‘70s, civil rights movements of the ‘60s and World War II, which opened workplace opportunities to women while the soldiers were abroad. Black Rosie the Riveter is a recurring theme throughout Sista in the Brotherhood.

“Women came in in high numbers, were very eager to do the work and were met with a lot of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment,” Hunte said. “What is important to think about watching this film is on one hand, it’s a snapshot, a day in the life, but it could be a stressing point that pushes people out of the industry.”

For her thesis, she interviewed women who have been in skilled trades for six to more than 30 years, and heard about microaggressions that surfaced throughout everyone’s careers.

According to Hunte, women make up 2.6 percent of skilled tradespeople nationwide, and women of color make up 1 percent.

“That is not indicative of women’s interest in getting these jobs,” said Neel, adding that in Oregon the number is closer to 7 percent. “It demonstrates if you give women opportunity and support, they want the work.”

SUBMITTED: DAWN JONES REDSTONE - Sidony ONeal stars as Laneice in Sista in the Brotherhood, an award-winning short film about a black tradeswoman facing discrimination in the skilled trade industry.

Sista in the Brotherhood’s director and co-author, Dawn Jones Redstone, worked in Oregon Tradeswomen for nine years after six years working as a carpenter and filmmaking part-time. Three years ago, she started making films full time and has created more than 20 shorts about tradeswomen.

“I experienced on a first-hand basis a clear pattern I saw happening on a larger scale,” Redstone said. “The reason we wanted to shoot on Sellwood Bridge and highlight a project like that is because federally funded projects have workforce diversity requirements, and part of what we’re seeing is how in theory that’s a good idea, but it may not be enough.”

Throughout the movie, construction colleagues continually refer to the main character, a woman of color, as ‘Quota.’

Redstone earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies at the University of Texas, and followed her passion of international traveling to Guatemala.

JULES ROGERS - Panelists spoke on women of color in skilled trades industries at the Portland Art Museum. From left to right: Dawn Jones Redstone, filmmaker with Hearts and Sparks Productions; Lauren Holmes, project manager with Crutcher Lewis; Michael Burch, community relations with Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters; Amy James Neel, construction manager with Oregon Tradeswomen; Dr. Roberta Hunte, assistant professor at PSU; and Gabriele Schuster, procurement manager with Metro.

“I didn’t know how to practically do anything ... it really appealed to me when I found out about carpentry earning a living wage,” Redstone said. “We have women who want to do this work, but like hires like and men are immediately taken under someone’s wing ... often a series of microaggressions, when look at individually may not seem significant, but can collectively drive someone away.”

What Redstone calls “like hires like” — a.k.a. “FBI” for father, brother, in-law — demonstrates the old-fashioned hiring process. Minorities who aren’t FBI are checkerboarded across different work sites to meet diversity policy requirements, never finding a mentor or accruing a record of training and skills.

Gabriele Schuster, Metro procurement manager, works on policy surrounding diversity in the workforce in Oregon and also spoke on the panel.

“To help us form the policy — government employees like me — I need to understand what’s going on out there so I can go to our elected officials and recommend policies,” Schuster said. “Something we already learned is that when we create policy and try to increase diversity in the workforce, Metro doesn’t have enough construction projects to create a pipeline, so we need to work together and collaborate with other government agencies and organizations.”

Neel worked as a contractor for two decades before beginning to teach other women. Skilled trades make a profitable wage, some starting at $17 an hour, without the need for a college degree.

“It was hugely satisfying and a perfect fit for me,” Neel said. “There are so many things we can do to support women in the field, but to make it simple, reward contractors who have demonstrated the capacity for diversity on their crew.”

JULES ROGERS - The Sellwood Bridge was chosen as the set of Sista in the Brotherhood to highlight federally funded projects with workforce diversity requirements.

The Sellwood Bridge project, built by joint venture teams from Slayden Constructors and Sundt, was funded by Multnomah County ($164.4 million), the City of Portland ($74.4 million), the State of Oregon ($35 million) and federal funds ($33.4). Because of the government backing, the project aims to meet hiring goals of 20 percent minority and 14 percent women workers.

“The utilization is tracked as a percentage of total labor construction hours, rather than counting how many people who are women or minority in race have worked on the project,” said Mike Pullen, communications officer with Multnomah County. “Many employees have been here for the majority of the five-year project, as Slayden Sundt tries to keep a steady workforce.”

Currently, the Sellwood Bridge project is tracking at 28.01 percent minority labor hours and 13.03 percent women labor hours, counting a total of all subcontractors and the Slayden Sundt joint venture team, which in itself has 24.4 percent minority and 14.05 percent women labor hours.

However, policies requiring diversity can’t shake all the unconsciously biased microaggressions that exclude minorities, such as how mentors choose whom to take under their wing and whom to ignore. Alongside policy, that’s one piece of the puzzle Oregon Tradeswomen is working to equalize.

“Their knowledge base, it resonated with me the way nothing else had, and that’s how my head works, how my heart works and how my hands work,” Neel said. “Now, I want to be out there and show other women ... Now, I’m the mentor I should have had.”

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Multnomah County requires contractors and subcontractors with county-funded projects of more than $200,000 and $100,000 respectively to agree to workforce training and hiring program specifications.

• Conduct a workshop with minority and women employees to enlist their assistance as recruiters and request their ideas on how to increase employment of underutilized groups.

• Make reasonable and necessary efforts to employ a diverse workforce, including requests for minority and female applicants.

• Request female or minority apprentices from the union or open shop apprenticeship program if such an action will remedy historical underutilization in the contractor’s or subcontractor’s workforce.

• Endeavor to retain minorities, women and disadvantaged individuals by implementing steps such as maintaining a harassment-free workplace.

• Take steps to reduce feelings of isolation among minorities and women to curb hostile attitudes and behavior, such as having several minorities and women at the job site, providing access to a support group system.

• Provide adequate toilet facilities for women on the job site.

• Match minority, female or disadvantaged apprentices who may need support to complete their apprenticeship programs with a journey-level mentor.

- Source: Multnomah County

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