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SEATTLE — 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, who is a muscular 5’8’’ 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. Sometimes, her foreman had her stand for hours next to his ladder, handing him screws. On the next job, a 30-story condo tower in nearby Bellevue, her male coworkers sliced off the padlocks and vandalized the site’s women-only port-a-potty. Men hit on her, yelled at her, groped her and pushed their groins against her while ascending in aerial platforms known as scissor lifts. She white-knuckled her way through the work, hoping that, as a journeywoman, things would get easier. 

Vanessa Carman at her home in Renton, Washington. Carman is one of a number of women who are speaking up about abuses facing female apprentices in the construction industry and pushing for change Credit: Katie Cotterill for The Hechinger Report

Then came the job on the light rail platform at the University of Washington. It was 2012, and construction work had yet to rebound from the recession. Carman had been unemployed for months. The project was to install decorative panels on the new rail platform. The panels, designed in an architect’s shop, featured blue squiggles inspired by the diverse geology of the area. The men were in charge of the installation, though; Carman was assigned the low-skill task of sanding panels that would cover the sides of the escalator.

On the job, Carman struck up a friendship with a male coworker. They chatted about the safe topics she stuck to at work: children, cooking, pets. She bought the coworker a birthday present, a gift card to a coffee shop, and gave him the bike carrier her sons’ bicycles had outgrown. Most afternoons when the work day ended, they rode together on the shuttle back from the job site to the parking lot and caught up about their work days. But one afternoon, Carman missed the shuttle, so she walked the mile or so instead, past the tall steel-and-glass buildings on the University of Washington campus. Midway there, she heard a bicycle screech to a stop, and felt someone grab her buttocks from behind. It was the coworker she’d thought of as a friend. He peddled away just as she realized what had happened.

“I still don’t think the voices that represent women in the blue-collar trades have come.”

Meg Vasey, executive director, Tradeswomen Inc.

The journeymen had told her stories of women who complained about dirty jokes, or who flirted too much — or not enough. She worried what it would mean to be the woman her male coworkers told other females not to become. But she was livid. The next day she told a coworker what had happened. He informed a supervisor. Soon, one of company’s owners showed up on the job site, she said, ordering Carman and her colleague to huddle together. “I don’t want to have to fire either of you,” she recalls him saying. “Sort it out.” Carman dropped her head and closed her eyes as they started to fill with tears. “Suddenly you’re threatening me with being fired?” she thought, but she was too intimidated to speak.

Related: More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

The next day, a Friday, much of the crew was home after working a four-day week; the journeyman who’d groped her was the acting foreman. Carman showed up for work in pelting rain. As she waited for the elevator to carry her underground — man lifts, the elevators are called — her coworker approached. “There’s no work for you,” she recalls him saying. “Go home.” It was barely 7 a.m., and rain was seeping into her insulated overalls below her jacket. She drove home and called the company headquarters in another city. The owner apologized, she recalls, and promised to pay her for that day and take action. But on Monday, her coworker was still there.

He was there the next day, and the next. One afternoon that week, Carman returned from lunch in the job trailer to find her tool bag covered in spit. A day or two later, she found the bag emptied and the tools tossed around the job site. She spoke with a friend in her union, who told her she could file a complaint, but that both she and her male coworker would be represented by the union and word of what had happened would spread. By this time, she had just one year left on her apprenticeship before completing it and journeying out. 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,” Carman, 43, told me the first time we spoke. “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.”

Vanessa Carman says she was the first to be laid off from a job on the light rail platform. Women are often subjected to “checkerboarding,” a practice of moving women and minorities from job to job, hiring them only to fulfill minimum participation goals that sometimes exist on public projects, but laying them off quickly when the goal is met. Credit: Katie Cotterill for The Hechinger Report

Apprenticeships have been around nearly as long as work itself, but in recent years policy makers on both sides of the aisle have begun to embrace them as an alternative to four-year college. Tom Perez, when he was labor secretary under former President Barack Obama, called them “the other college — without the debt,” and the administration of former President Donald Trump pushed apprenticeships too. Labor force experts who are calling for a massive retraining of workers displaced by the coronavirus also point to apprenticeships as one solution. 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 apprenticeships in fields that have been typically perceived as women’s work, such as early childhood education, pay very little. 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 percent 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,” Meg Vasey, a former electrician who now runs Tradeswomen Inc., an Oakland, California, nonprofit, told me. 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, more than 40 years later, the number of women apprentices remains roughly the same as it was then, 3 percent. Women are essentially being pushed from one of the clearest pathways to the middle class.

“It’s a sad commentary, to be honest,” said Patricia Shiu, who led the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs under Obama. “During my tenure at OFCCP, we were largely unsuccessful in ensuring that more women and people of color had jobs in the construction industry.” She added, “You can prescribe until you are blue in the face, but unless you have the leadership and the culture and the commitment from the top to really put life into equal opportunity goals, they won’t survive.”

Related: High-paying jobs go begging while high school grads line up for bachelor’s degrees

In my interviews with more than 40 tradeswomen, most told me they had been mistreated because of their sex. I heard stories 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. Women told stories of being tied to a chair with shrink wrap and of being left high in the air on scissor lifts. 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, toppling prominent men in Hollywood, journalism and academia, tradeswomen wondered if it would prompt changes within their industry. The TIME’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was started by women in the entertainment business, devoted some of its resources to defending females from harassment in blue-collar workplaces. 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 of the younger tradeswomen I spoke with 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 told me the first time we met. 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.

Vanessa Carman and her three sons. Credit: Norinda Reed

Carman grew up in Bellevue, just east of Seattle, the only girl in a family of four children. Her maternal grandfather, who had migrated from Costa Rica on a tuna boat at 16, worked as a fishermen’s engineer on ships that sailed to Alaska and back. Carman’s father followed him into the trades, getting a job as a building operating engineer at the Seattle Center, the city’s downtown entertainment complex. But the women in Carman’s family tended to stay home, and it wasn’t until her 20s that she began to consider a construction career.

Carman and her three siblings were cast in roles only partially of their own making. Joe was the charismatic troublemaker, who briefly dropped out of high school to chase a girl, then ran for class president on a platform of throwing large parties and won. Mike, who was closest in age to Carman, was the peacemaker. Damien was the baby, whom the family had adopted after his biological father abandoned him. Carman was the girl. When she was young, her father insisted she wear dresses, but after school she’d pull on corduroy pants underneath to play outside with her brothers. In high school, she, Joe and Mike begged their parents for a gym membership, and they spent most of their weekends lifting weights, running on the treadmill and playing pickleball. By her mid-teens, Carman could bench press 175 pounds.

After high school, she found work as a cashier and barista, and later, helping with the books for a wholesale florist. In that job, she spent all day in front of a computer in the basement of a brick warehouse full of flowers she never got to see. One day, her brother Mike, who’d started working in non-union positions in heating and cooling, asked his sister to help him repair the furnace in their uncle’s house in nearby Snohomish. Crouched in the basement, watching her brother bend sheet metal into a new duct for the furnace, Carman knew she’d prefer this physical work to a career behind a desk.

“You can prescribe until you are blue in the face, but unless you have the leadership and the culture and the commitment from the top to really put life into equal opportunity goals, they won’t survive.”

Patricia Shiu, who led the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance under former President Barack Obama

Carman began applying to jobs in which she could use her hands — dozens of positions, in plumbing, sheet metal, and one for a dog fence company. But no one called her back. It wasn’t until she changed the name on her resume from “Vanessa” to “Van” that she started receiving calls. Once business owners learned she was female, however, their interest in hiring her evaporated. They didn’t bother to hide their sexism, barking questions about whether she could lift heavy pipes and tolerate the itchiness of insulation. Around that time, 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, doing sheet metal in residences. Carman liked the work, helping to fix the gas piping in Seattle mansions, where she glimpsed private bowling alleys, wine cellars and panic rooms. But by this time, 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. “I don’t think it was necessarily that they wanted me,” Carman told me. “They wanted a human, and I was at their door.” At orientation, she squeezed into a large conference room, in a building in Kirkland, Washington, with 70s-style furniture and dusty cabinets against the walls. She was one of just six or so women in a crowd of about 100.

Related: The pandemic is speeding up the mass disappearance of men from college

A few years earlier, Carman had driven to a commercial strip in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard and asked for a tattoo of an octopus on her left arm. She didn’t know exactly why she’d always loved octopuses, but it had something to do with their multiple means of thwarting attack, by escaping through tiny spaces, using their suckers to lift thousands of pounds or inking predators. The tattoo had become something of a totem, as she realized how routinely she, like the octopus, would have to protect herself. On the job, she’d started carrying notebooks to record the names of tools male coworkers asked her to fetch. Now, while waiting for man lifts and scissor lifts, she began to record what her male coworkers said and did to her. There was no one to whom she might report these things, and no one to listen if she did. But writing them down made her feel a little less powerless.  

Since entering construction, she had felt 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. But most of that disrespect felt like the inevitable price of working surrounded by men. The abuse on the light rail platform by the co-worker whom she’d trusted stung more. “There are bullies everywhere,” she said. “But it was the fact that he did that and it lasted so long, and nobody did anything. There were job sites they could have moved him to.” It was always the woman, never the man, who was moved to a different job site or laid off, she observed. “That doesn’t solve anything,” she said.

If she could, Carman would have quit the assignment. But apprentices can’t quit or transfer assignments, lest they risk being kicked out of the program. Plus, she needed the money, which had risen to roughly $30 an hour. By that point, her sons’ father had moved out of their house in Renton, Washington, leaving her to cover the mortgage and raise her three boys. Many mornings, she was up before her alarm, the worries in her head running in loops. She’d drop the boys at her parents’ house before dawn, carrying them inside if they’d fallen back to sleep, even though her oldest, Jonah, was close to 70 pounds. Then she’d go to work, where the man who’d groped her worked near her every day. One day she noticed red bumps spreading across her hands and dotting her face. A doctor she visited blamed them on stress.

“There are new generations coming in.”

Vanessa Carman, tradeswoman

Finally, many months later, Carman was called into the job trailer. She tried to hide her relief when a supervisor told her the work was slowing down and she’d be the first one laid off. Driving home that day, she felt her life was rearranging itself again in the right ways, despite the injustice of her layoff. She called a sheet metal company she’d worked for previously and was given a position in the shop. Women in sheet metal often end up in the shop, sometimes out of a misguided paternalism, since there’s less exposure to workers from different trades and fewer opportunities for harassment, Carman said. She didn’t want to spend her career in the shop, but it gave her a chance to finish her apprenticeship while avoiding more harassment. Her new supervisor nominated her for training on sheet-metal installation software, putting her on the path to becoming a foreman. It was one of the first times she’d felt encouraged or supported within the industry. 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 near Seattle, 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 told me later.

Related: Are apprenticeships the new on-ramp to good jobs?

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 place for females to work.

Carman began to search for allies among the handful of female sheet metal workers she’d gotten to know. There was Tausha Sheff, an apprentice who sat beside Carman in a class on drafting software at the union hall. There was Liz Fong, a journeywoman she’d worked with during her last job as an apprentice, and Kara Cowles, another apprentice on that job. Before one union meeting in 2015, the four women went for drinks at a nearby sports bar and discussed what it might take for women to feel more welcome. Carman felt something as simple as giving women an opportunity to feel supported and heard might help.

From an office in the union building, 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, along with trouble finding childcare. A month or two later, Carman invited all the women to a meeting at a public library in Tukwila, Washington, a Seattle suburb. Some of the women worried they would provoke a backlash from male coworkers if they spoke out. But Carman had found an ally in the union’s new business manager, a man named Tim Carter, who encouraged her to move forward with a formal mentorship program and a women’s committee that could come up with proposals for recruiting and retaining more women in their trade.

“We can’t save all the trades. There are a whole bunch of people who won’t work with you and you can’t do anything about them.”

Vanessa Carman, tradeswoman

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 told me in an interview. “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.”

I first met Carman in October 2019 at Trades Women Build Nations, an annual conference for women in the trades. The event gathered 2,800 people in a Hilton hotel in downtown Minneapolis, for sessions on #MeToo along with ones on pensions and caring for hair and skin under a hard hat. When we met, Carman was feeling encouraged. Sellers was one of two union presidents to speak at the conference.

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. Sellers, a second-generation sheet metal worker who wears his white hair clipped short, outlined these changes to the crowd after being escorted to the stage by a gauntlet of female sheet metal workers. “Our history, our culture, has not been good,” he said, “but we are going to change that culture one local at a time.” Sellers told me that he credited the women’s committee with forcing him to confront the harassment and sexism within the trades. “The women’s committee has really changed me,” he said.

Kimberly Brinkman, right, says her abuse on job sites began during her first year as an apprentice, in 1999.

Carman’s optimism, and her progress with her union, was relatively rare. At the tradeswomen conference, despair pervaded many of the conversations I had with the women I met. One was Kimberly Brinkman, a sprinkler fitter in her 50s who lives near Minneapolis. In late 2019, Brinkman sued her union and two contractors after what she describes as years of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

“Our unions, they are broken. Women and people of color, we don’t get treated as a brother in the brotherhood,” said Brinkman as we sat in the hotel lobby. “We are the distant cousin and nobody wants to talk about us.”

Brinkman’s mistreatment started as a first-year apprentice, in 1999. On one of her first jobs, her foreman berated her so routinely over the workplace radios, shouting insults and demanding that she run from one side of the job site to another to bring him tools, that a worker in another trade complained. Angry, the foreman lodged a false sexual harassment against Brinkman’s defender and called her into a meeting with company investigators to make it appear that she was the man’s accuser, she said. Brinkman denies she made the accusation, but she nevertheless earned a reputation as someone who complained of harassment. Her car was keyed. On another job as an apprentice, a foreman beckoned her toward him, then said, “I just wanted to see if I could make you come with one finger,” as the crew of roughly 20 men erupted in laughter.

Over the years, little changed. Brinkman said she was consistently subjected to “checkerboarding,” a practice of moving women and minorities from job to job, hiring them only to fulfill minimum participation goals that sometimes exist on public projects, but laying them off quickly when the goal is met. The union has only three journeywomen among 380 active members. But Brinkman said that in roughly two decades in the trades she has never worked a job start to finish. Sometimes she went years without work, collecting unemployment, then turning to food stamps and pulling from her retirement to get by. Brad Hopping, the union’s training director, declined to comment.

“I became a dead person walking,” said Brinkman. Her union, like others, is now — on its face — more open to women, something she and others told me was largely the result of the economic gains of the past decade fueling a demand for workers. “We are taking a lot of women in our apprenticeships, which is fabulous,” she said. “But if the culture doesn’t change, we have really just widened that revolving door.” With workers now facing permanent job losses because of the coronavirus, Brinkman and others worried that whatever progress women have made will be undermined.

Related: Good jobs — a map to the middle class

I met women who’d spoken out against their local boilermakers’ union in northern California. In 2016, a female apprentice alleged in a lawsuit that the union had failed to dispatch her to jobs because of her sex and retaliated against her after she complained by falsely accusing her of making inappropriate sexual comments. Seven women came forward to provide supporting testimony. Genevieve Leja was one. She told me that the union apprenticeship instructor refused to look at her or train her on skills such as welding, and that male coworkers verbally harassed her on job sites. Men drew labia with chalk on metal beams on a job site and asked Leja for her opinion on the drawings’ accuracy. Another apprentice, Sheila Walton, told me she was groped while sanding a vessel. After she complained, the union did nothing, she said. Edith Pastor, one of only a handful of women in the union to make it to journey status, told me that she was refused training and had to learn the trade on her own. “Men won’t help you because they say you are taking a job from another man,” she said. Tajuana McNear told me that after she missed months of work when her son was sick with cancer, she was told she had to restart the apprenticeship if she wanted to continue. The case was settled before trial in 2019. The union declined to talk about the lawsuit but said it was making an effort to recruit female apprentices.

“Our unions, they are broken. Women and people of color, we don’t get treated as a brother in the brotherhood. We are the distant cousin and nobody wants to talk about us.”

Kimberly Brinkman, tradeswoman

The unabashed hostility to women felt, to me, different from the predations experienced by white-collar workers, which tend to be better concealed. In the trades, women also 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 percent 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.

Lisa Stratton, who is Brinkman’s lawyer, was particularly forthright. “It’s like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act never got to the construction industry,” she said. “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.” When we met at the tradeswomen conference in Minneapolis, Stratton told me that working on Brinkman’s case had darkened her view of the legal system as a remedy. “I always felt like the law had power to change things,” she said. “And with this one, I just feel so powerless.” In July, a judge dismissed Brinkman’s complaints against the union, but the discrimination lawsuits against both contractors are ongoing.

Kimberly Brinkman (third from right) rallies with other Minnesota tradeswomen. Brinkman said that in roughly two decades in the trades she has never worked a job start to finish. Credit: Kimberly Brinkman

One drizzly afternoon last year, Carman arrived at a dive bar in Seattle for the monthly meeting of the women’s committee, which she has been running since 2016. She was carrying a small black toolbox that she’d filled with tampons and pads. “Did you hear about this?” Carman asked the two sheet metal workers who’d arrived before her, Tammy Meyen and Jamie Kunnap. “Tampon-gate?” said Meyen. A female apprentice had absentmindedly placed a box of tampons on a table at a job site, Carman explained. “The men lost their minds,” she said. She’d been barraged by calls, texts and emails from male coworkers who were offended by the sight of the tampons.

The men wanted Carman to take the matter up with the apprentice, as if this were a problem that needed fixing. The women saw the problem at hand very differently: Job sites are often in remote locations, far from drug stores and 7-Elevens, and port-a-potties hardly come equipped with tampon dispensers. Getting a period unexpectedly at work often means having to go home without pay. Carman had come up with an idea: She would give the toolbox to a worker attending the meeting to hang in a port-a-potty at one of her company’s field sites. Eventually, she imagined assembling more of these toolboxes and distributing them to lots of women, but this was a start.

Carman had taken a seat at the head of the table, which was slowly being taken over by beers and spicy wings and hummus as more women arrived. Antlers hung from the walls and and kegs ringed the room. The women had taken different paths into construction. Some, like Carman, had fathers and brothers in the trades. Others had earned college degrees before growing dissatisfied in their careers or discouraged by the low pay. One young woman had heard about construction apprenticeships while incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. But nearly all of them had had moments in which they questioned whether they belonged in the industry.

“It’s like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act never got to the construction industry. 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].”

Lisa Stratton, lawyer

Carman rose to speak. She thanked everyone for their contributions of the past year: the career fairs they’d appeared at, the mentors they’d trained. “We’re at about 10 percent women apprentices,” Carman reported. That number was one of the highest for sheet metal locals — the national average was 3 percent. That success had prompted researchers from the University of Washington to reach out to Carman; they planned to help half of the locals nationwide to adopt the program, then study its impact on the recruitment, retention and mental health of female apprentices.

One of Carman’s goals for the year was to get more women in union leadership. There were elections coming up, she said, for positions like secretary, trustee and treasurer. A few years ago, Carman was appointed to serve on the apprenticeship program board. Her photograph, with her hair curled and lips polished with berry-red lipstick, hung by the entrance of the union hall and apprenticeship training facility, the big concrete building north of Seattle. “Everyone who is able should run,” she said. “We have to get in there.”

Carman spoke about the union’s changes to its constitution designed to improve conditions for women, which were only just being unveiled publicly that month. She mentioned that another journeywoman, Emily Wigre, had designed stickers women could distribute to male allies, the men on job sites who trained females and protected them from harassment. This way apprentices would know whom to trust just by looking at men’s hard hats.

Related: Where are all the women apprentices?

S.J. Alexander entered the building trades after getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees and working in tech. Apprenticeships in the trades draw a mix of people, including those who come straight from high school and those who already have some postsecondary education. Credit: S.J. Alexander

Carman’s work on behalf of other women had turned into a second full-time job. The year before, she’d pushed the local to better accommodate apprentices who are pregnant. Two female apprentices had been rotated to new job sites while they were visibly pregnant, putting them at high risk of being laid off. Now, that practice wasn’t allowed. Carman also worked to support the increasing number of moms in their membership. One of the apprentices, Arielle Mayer, had lost her baby when he was 8 months old, so Carman had organized a memorial at the union hall and set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for it. “If it weren’t for her doing all that, this experience would be different. I probably would still be in it but it would have been a lot harder,” Mayer recalled one afternoon last year as her then-3-year-old daughter stretched across her legs.

Another apprentice, S.J. Alexander, who came to the union from the tech industry, turned to Carman for help when a foreman bullied her. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘Are you going to quit sheet metal when you get pregnant?’” recalled Alexander, who is 43 with 15- and 20-year-old daughters. He warned other apprentices not to talk to her. Whenever she asked him questions about her work duties, he would stand within an inch of her, refuse to answer, and yell nonsense at her until she walked away. 

Alexander stopped interacting with him, but that meant there was no way to learn about her job duties. “It’s not like my old day job where you just send passive-aggressive IMs,” she said. “It was just an impossible situation.” She had nightmares about the foreman standing over her bed, yelling at her, and woke herself and her daughter up with her screams. Carman made some calls. A day or so later, Alexander was standing in the yard at her job site, painting a fence, when the union business agent called to tell her she’d be sent to another company. Though it meant Alexander would have to spend a few extra months as an apprentice before journeying out, she felt relieved. “Vanessa did this,” she recalls thinking to herself.

A women’s committee Vanessa Carman established at her local union has had some success recruiting and retaining females, prompting attention from University of Washington researchers and the international sheet metal union leadership. Credit: Katie Cotterill for The Hechinger Report

Carman still lives in the house she bought in 2007, in a quiet, middle-class suburb south of Seattle. I drove there one Sunday afternoon. There was a basketball hoop on the street out front, and football and soccer balls lying on a patch of grass nearby. The family’s dog, Chepe, a spaniel, stood on his hind legs by the large front window, barking. In a back room, Carman’s younger boys, Gabriel and Elijah, were learning to make balloon animals. A Rosie the Riveter doll hung from a picture frame under the television; there was an octopus print on one wall and an octopus pillow on a loveseat.

As we talked, Carman’s family members kept dropping by. First her parents and her brother Damien, then Mike and his son. They were bringing cash to repay her for Cirque du Soleil tickets she’d purchased to celebrate their grandmother’s 100th birthday the next week. As a foreman, Carman earns $63 an hour, more than any of her brothers. Her family had always been close, but in recent years she’d become its center.

Carman’s parents told me they were proud of the time she dedicated to other tradeswomen, but that sometimes they wished she’d take on less. “She has so many irons in the fire,” her father, Stan, said. “I get worried, is she eating right, is she sleeping enough, is she taking her vitamins. It’s real noble and I admire the heck out of her but I just get concerned. She has the boys and their sports and the realities of her job and helping out people in need. But you have to think about yourself too.” Carman, meanwhile, said it had taken her years before she’d found her voice and she didn’t feel she could take a pause.

Related: Career and technical education shuts out Black and Latino students from high-paying professions

A few months earlier, in fall 2019, Carman had been 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 be working behind a desk.

That desk is behind a gray divider with her nametag in white letters, up a flight of stairs from the shop of the sheet metal company where she’d finished her apprenticeship. One weekday we drove to the building in spitting rain. Carman spent the day sitting behind two computer monitors, fitting together a jigsaw puzzle of brightly colored shapes using the drafting software AutoCAD. Occasionally she’d ask the guy sitting next to her for help, then complain to me that she had to ask.

“Remember how I told you I got into construction because I hated office work?” she said at the end of the work day, as we lingered by her minivan before she drove to pick up Elijah and Gabriel from their grandparents’ house. “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, when it came down to it, despite the progress she’d seen, 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. Her sons and their friends didn’t consider gender roles or think twice about their mother working in construction. “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.

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Caroline Preston is a senior editor who edits and writes stories on K-12 and higher education. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with...

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