Washington state has the highest percentage of female construction workers in the country: 9.9 percent.
Just a hunch, but I think women could use a little boost right about now.
So here’s something: Washington state has the highest percentage of female construction workers in the country.
That number: Roughly 10 percent. Like I said, it’s a “little” boost.
In Seattle, where we’ve had the highest number of cranes for three years in a row, 9 percent of the orange-vest and hard-hat crowd are women — three points ahead of Detroit.
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So when 2,000 construction tradeswomen and industry leaders from around the country descend on Seattle Friday for the 8th Annual Women Build National Conference, there will be a lot of talk about creating inclusive and diverse workplaces.
But in this time of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer, there will also be sessions devoted to combating sexual harassment and violence.
“We’ve always talked about how to deal with these things, but these are new sessions,” said Karen Dove, the executive director of Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Employment for Women (ANEW), a nonprofit centered on increasing the number of women in construction.
It’s not just the physically challenging work, the heavy equipment and the heights and digs that can threaten a tradeswoman’s safety. Sometimes it’s the men who stand beside her.
Last October, a female drywall apprentice working for a Woodinville-based wall and ceiling contractor was summoned to a job site by her foreman at 3 a.m. When she got there, charging papers say, he raped her — and then forced her to work for five hours.
A few weeks later, two other men employed by the same contractor were charged with raping the same women — one of the men twice over three days. She reported the assaults to her union representative in late November, according to police reports. The charges against all three men were dismissed on Sept. 28 “due to evidentiary considerations.”
Still, “It’s terrifying for women to go to work,” said Lauren Sugerman, the national policy director for Chicago Women in Trades, who will be in Seattle for the conference. “And if you are walking onto a site where men have just heard the message from President Trump that men are the victims, and you have to go to work with men who already think you don’t belong there? You’re enabling that sense of male power and male privilege.”
It’s apt that the conference is being held here, because Seattle is experiencing a construction boom not seen in decades; the area is building the fifth-most apartments of any metro area in the nation right now.
New projects have dominated the news: The demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct next spring. The expansion of light rail, including tunnels. An expected National Hockey League franchise, with a practice facility planned for Northgate.
At the same time, Dove said, baby boomers are retiring, creating a shortage of 4,500 construction workers over the next five years — and plenty of room for women.
Dove sees it as an opportunity to change the culture of the construction industry, to bring an influx of diversity that could increase the bottom line for businesses, and give women a chance to make a living wage.
“Women have never had exposure to construction as an option,” she said. “We’re not trying to tell you to hire women who don’t have skills. We’re saying, give women an equal opportunity to be successful. We expect them to be treated respectfully.
“This isn’t about thick skin. This is about the culture of construction.”
Dove told me about a woman who was called a vulgar name over the loudspeaker on a site for turning down a co-worker who asked her on a date. And one woman laid herself off after being harassed because she didn’t want her harasser to lose his job. He had kids, she said.
“No tolerance is impossible,” Dove acknowledged. “But there have to be boundaries, and once someone has crossed them, it has to be reported. If we don’t do something, the behavior continues.”
The city of Seattle and Sound Transit have shut down job sites and put entire crews though sexual- harassment training, Dove said. They’ve kicked people off job sites. But it affects the bottom line when sites are shut down, when workers are pulled off or others call in sick because of harassment.
So it helps everyone — women, business owners and workers — to diversify construction sites.
“I honestly feel like someone couldn’t have picked a better place or time to make change,” Dove said. “We think that 17 percent is the tipping point. Once you have that many women on the job, the culture changes.”
We’re at 9 percent now. So we have something to build on — and a toxic culture that needs to be demolished. Now.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the charges against the three men accused of raping a female co-worker were pending. The charges were dismissed on Sept. 28.