"Anything you can do . . . Female construction
workers offer concrete proof the Big Dig is women's work,
Wednesday, August 23, 2000 -- BY AZELL MURPHY CAVAAN
The closest Katie Perham has ever come to playing
with Barbie dolls is the sticker she has plastered
on her hard hat.
"I thought it'd be an ironic twist,'' said Perham,
a 20-year-old Big Dig construction worker. "I'm
in a male-dominated environment, working hard and
getting my nails dirty. There's nothing Barbie-ish
about the Big Dig.''
Indeed, working with 15 million yards of dirt (enough
to fill Foxboro stadium 15 times), 1,820 miles of
steel wire and 29 miles of utility lines is not
for the dainty.
But that doesn't mean it isn't women's work.
"Women are doing some backbreaking work out there
in the field,'' said Sean O'Neill, spokesman for
the Big Dig.
According to statistics, the number of women in
the construction trades is expanding.
The National Association of Women in Construction
reports that in 1993, 617,000 women were working
in the industry. By last year, the figure had jumped
But Elizabeth Skidmore, a local carpenter who has
worked in the industry for more than a decade, said
more men also have entered the field. Overall, the
numbers might be rising, but the percentage of women
has plateaued, she said.
Addison accepted a construction job with the Big
Dig to support herself and her son.
- Staff photo by Nancy Lane
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports
that women comprise about 10 percent of the construction
work force today, Skidmore cautions that the number
of skilled tradeswomen in construction is significantly
"When you exclude secretaries, surveyors and the
like, it's more like 2 to 3 percent,'' she said.
Still, she is optimistic.
"What's really encouraging is the fact that women
are moving into decision-making positions,'' said
Skidmore, who has worked on the Big Dig and is now
chair of the Carpenters Union Women's Committee.
At the Big Dig, the largest public construction
project in American history, 205 of the 4,110 field
laborers are female, according to O'Neill.
Throughout the Dig, mothers and girlfriends are
operating cranes and turbo trucks. There are female
pile drivers, engineers, iron workers, welders,
electricians, steel workers and field technicians.
The pace, she says, can be grueling.
Sally Addison, a 36-year-old pile driver whose father
and two brothers worked in the field 25 years ago
(one brother was killed on the job at age 21), has
worked on the Big Dig for nearly three years.
A former credit consultant, Addison turned to construction
six years ago to earn enough money to support herself
and her son. Now she works with massive cranelike
rigs that shake the ground while driving metal,
concrete or wood pilings into the earth. She also
is required to install heavy timbers and weld or
cut large metal beams.
"I've broken fingers and toes. My hair has gone
up in flames and I have small metal burns all over
my arms,'' said Addison, who put in 18 hours on
While women such as Addison have proven they can
meet the deadlines and pressures of construction
work, they admit the job comes with conditions many
women - and men for that matter - would find intolerable.
"Weather conditions can be excruciating,'' said
26-year-old Heidi Blanc, a field technician who
has worked in 90-degree heat and sub-zero temperatures.
Perham's Big Dig hard hat sports a Barbie sticker.
- Staff photo by Nancy Lane
Blanc with co-worker Katie Perham.
- Staff photo by Nancy Lane
I wore coveralls and put Vaseline on my face,''
she said, "but I still froze."
Severe temperatures are not the only difficult climates
female construction workers must weather.
Twenty years ago, Mary Ann Cloherty tried the construction
business but quit because of the sexist atmosphere.
"The hostility toward women was unbelievable back
then,'' said Cloherty, who re-entered the field
in 1987 and is now a carpenter steward.
Today, the climate has changed.
"It's light years ahead of what it used to be,''
said Cloherty. "There will always be a jerk in the
crowd but eventually even they get over it.''
It would be costly not to.
Already, women have contributed more than 1 million
hours of labor to the Big Dig. And women-owned businesses
have billed the project for more than $350 million,
according to O'Neill.
Most construction workers won't see such big bucks.
Blanc and Perham, both newcomers and field technicians,
take home less than $30,000 a year.
But the earning potential is impressive. Skilled
tradeswomen can earn $50,000 a year. Foremen make
up to $80,000, and senior project managers can take
home $150,000 or more, plus benefits.
The booming economy has helped open the door for
women to one day hold high-paying positions in greater
"There's a labor shortage, which means if the economy
stays strong, women will go to work in a heartbeat.
Especially those who have built up supervisory experience,''
Getting women to stay in the trades long enough
to experience those gains requires ongoing recruitment
and retention efforts.
Two years ago, the Boston Tradeswomen's Network
initiated a recruitment program in which women in
the business attend high school career days and
speak at welfare-to-work conferences.
"When you consider that the national goal for tradeswomen
on a construction site is 6.9 percent and we attain
only about 2 percent, you realize how poorly we're
doing as a nation,'' said Felicia Battley, the network's
The network also runs a multifaceted mentoring program
that matches women who are new to construction with
those who have 10 and 20 years of experience.
The program has increased the retention rate of
women in the business by 20 percent since 1998.
"It's a concrete start," said Battley. "We've begun
shattering the image that construction work is not
© Reprinted with permission of the Boston Herald