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Regional Interests

Women Are Underrepresented In The Trades Industry

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The infrastructure plan going through Congress now is poised to provide a lot of jobs in fields known as the trades, like plumbing, electrical, ironworking. And some of those jobs will go to women, based on federal benchmarks. But here's the problem. Women only make up 3% of this workforce in the U.S.

Katia Riddle has this report from Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's Friday at quitting time on this job site at a community college where a crew is prepping classrooms for the fall.

LESLIE COTTON: Sink this down on my pipe vise so - it kind of holds it in place. I don't need...

RIDDLE: Thirty-three-year-old Leslie Cotton is finishing up installing copper heating lines. As usual, she's the only woman on the job. Cotton lives with her dad and her disabled brother. She got into plumbing after her dad had a health scare and nearly died.

COTTON: When that happened, I was like, I need a stable future for me and my brother. I need something we can retire on.

RIDDLE: She's now in her second year of her apprenticeship. As she and her male co-workers look to beat the weekend traffic home, they banter about who's not pulling their weight cleaning up.

COTTON: You're just killing time with that one little pile?

RIDDLE: In the trades, relationships matter a lot. That's because learning happens on the job. Cotton needs these guys to teach her the wisdom of the craft.

COTTON: I'll take those.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

COTTON: That's not your job.

RIDDLE: She's working now under a journeyman plumber named Ty Nhamahouane. As the two of them pack up, he says he's never had a female apprentice before.

TY NHAMAHOUANE: It's different, so...

COTTON: Why's that?

NHAMAHOUANE: Well, you know, sometimes I got to watch what I say, you know, because, you know, us guys, we - construction workers, sometimes we say stuff that, you know...

RIDDLE: Cotton knows exactly what he means. On just this one day with the crew, she overheard a raunchy reference to the male anatomy and a lunchtime chat about a strip club. She's seen a lot of women in the industry driven out by this body culture, or worse.

COTTON: I've had friends who've been touched inappropriately on the job. I've had people who have had inappropriate comments made to them when they were working in a stairwell alone, super-isolated. And they felt like they were almost in danger.

KELLY KUPCAK: Doesn't matter how many women we get in the pipeline if we can't keep them in.

RIDDLE: Kelly Kupcak is with the nonprofit Oregon Tradeswomen. She says it's devastating when women feel forced to leave these jobs. The industry offers a rare ticket to the middle class without a college degree. And sometimes the reasons women leave aren't obvious. Often, men don't even realize their behavior is a problem.

KUPCAK: We hear a lot of folks say things like, well, I was complimenting her. I told her she was a good operator for a girl.

RIDDLE: The federal benchmark for these jobs going to women is 6.9%, more than double the current percentage of women in these fields. Kupcak and other advocates have worked hard to increase the number of jobs for women in the infrastructure package and to mandate training to keep women in the trades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So what creates an unwelcome work site?

RIDDLE: This is a video from a program called Rise Up, run by a nonprofit that works to change the workplace culture in the trades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Touching somebody, hugging somebody, maybe trapping somebody in an uncomfortable spot so they can't move or get out.

ROD BELISLE: Everybody that watched that video, it was silent. And it - when it was over, everybody just sat there with, like, the hair on their neck standing up.

RIDDLE: Veteran electrician Rod Belisle is using the Rise Up program as he trains new apprentices. It's caused him to reconsider his own behavior.

BELISLE: Maybe people are afraid of women because they're - they think differently. And they might come up with a better way. You know, they might prove them to be the stronger person on the job site.

RIDDLE: Belisle says part of what the training does is help the men in these trades realize women are just as good at the job. And it's better for everyone when they're treated with respect.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.