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"Anything you can do . . . Female construction workers offer concrete proof the Big Dig is women's work, too"
Boston Herald.com

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 to 886,000.

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.

Sally 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 lower.

"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 Sunday.

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.

Katie Perham's Big Dig hard hat sports a Barbie sticker.
- Staff photo by Nancy Lane

Heidi Blanc with co-worker Katie Perham.
- Staff photo by Nancy Lane
"Last winter, 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 numbers.

"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,'' Skidmore said.

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 president.

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 ladylike."

Reprinted with permission of the Boston Herald


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