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GUEST COLUMN How #METOO Becomes Culture Change; Tradeswomen and Sexual Harassment
by Lauren Sugarman, Chicago Women in Trades
2018-03-28

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From a speech at the Chicago Women's History Center Screening of Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power, Jan. 13, 2018.

Like so many of us, here today and around the world, the #metoo movement has resonated deeply with me, on a personal level because of my experiences while working as an elevator constructor. And on a professional level because, even though I left a job I loved due to the isolation and hostile work environment, I've spent my entire career encouraging women to work in male-dominated jobs in construction, manufacturing and transportation—in the same conditions that were so undermining to me.

Tradeswomen have been fighting discrimination and dealing with sexual harassment since the doors to these still male-dominated jobs opened up as a result of affirmative action in the early 1980s. Women working in construction experience the highest rates of sexual harassment second only to female miners. So, fully knowing that, I have still urged women to pursue these careers. And I constantly reckon with that.

However, I also know that these jobs offer women something invaluable—high wages, good benefits and on-the-job training that is the equivalent of a four-year college degree without the debt. These jobs aren't just critical to ending the gender wage gap and providing women economic security—they also bring a unique kind of empowerment that comes with work that allows you to point to a high-rise, a bridge, a road, and say: I built that!

Nevertheless, the high reward often comes at a high cost. When women are still less than 3% of the construction workforce they often work two jobs at once: the first—working long hard days laying brick, stacking elevator rails, building skyscrapers, and the second—simultaneously as pioneers who spend just as much energy on breaking through the glass ceiling ( concrete floor ). What that means is spending eight to 12 hours a day in the "locker room," often the only woman on a jobsite, facing harassment due to sex, race, sexual orientation, discrimination in hiring and training, gender-related health and safety challenges, and a multitude of micro-inequities that are too small to name. These all still intersect to keep women from succeeding and lasting in nontraditional careers. And often, because we work in physically demanding and dangerous jobs, harassment, lack of training or poorly fitting safety equipment can combine to make discrimination not just work jeopardizing, but sometimes life threatening.

To challenge all of this on an individual basis is risky: to speak up, to complain and to call attention is fraught with all the stigma or stereotypes of being female in a male-identified job. If you cannot take the heat get out of the fire, you are just too sensitive, we should not have to change the way we work just because a woman is here. So, for our sanity, our future and other women's opportunities, we have looked to a tried and true method of survival and fighting back. We organized and gave birth to Chicago Women in Trades ( CWIT ).

Chicago Women in Trades was first and foremost a place to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in each other. To affirm that we weren't crazy, or weak, or incompetent, or too sensitive. To affirm, that we belonged—even if our coworkers or bosses didn't think we belonged on the job—and that we belonged to each other.

Second, we shared and developed strategies on how to cope with the isolation, discrimination and harassment. But we wanted more and so third, we began to strategize on how to fight back—collectively—so we didn't individually have to suffer consequences. Fourth, we learned, that we could do more than complain, we could also identify and offer solutions. Our herstory is going from potlucks, to protests and picket lines, to developing policy and programs. In between there was some litigation, a lot of fundraising and always, sisterhood, support and solidarity.

It hasn't meant that sexual harassment or discrimination—subtle and overt—has gone away, but we have survived, more women are entering and being accepted in the trades and although we have a long way to go, now we ( hope ) are seeing a tidal shift. In many cases tradeswomen individually—and the organizations that have sustained and protected us—have earned the respect of our co-workers and union leaders. As a result of our organizing we have federal funding for our work, new federal regulations in the apprenticeship system that explicitly expand provisions for sexual harassment prevention, women's committees like the Sisters in the Brotherhood in the carpenters union, women being elected as union leaders, hired as teachers and as job site crew leaders.

We are especially pumped by the extraordinary step the International Ironworkers Union has taken to build a culture that supports women and families. Last year they implemented a paid pregnancy accommodation and maternity leave policy that rivals those of most high-tech companies and far outshines our public policies. CWIT and our sister organizations across the country are feeling in demand today: to conduct training for sexual harassment prevention across the country, to set up mentorship programs and to change policy on the jobsite in our unions and in apprenticeship programs.

I think the lessons we've learned along the way are important so this #metoo moment doesn't become just a watershed moment gracing the cover of Time magazine. A moment has to become a movement so this awareness, anger and momentum do not evaporate, but instead fuel the effort to create real culture change.

#Metoo has taken the first step: naming, voicing and sharing our common experiences. It has let the world know that sexual harassment is no trivial matter. Now we need to go out and create the response—and it is not trivial either. The response has to be more than perpetrators being shamed, losing their jobs and public respect—though that is a good start. It is defining solutions that involve training, policy that lays out investigation and discipline practices, and transformative strategies to create equitable and inclusive workplaces that ensure that all workers and especially the most vulnerable workers have jobs that are safe, harassment free and provide dignity. It is building solidarity with our allies so they can join in, speak up, and intervene.

I am excited to be part of that movement and I hope that tradeswomen's examples of organizing, advocating and supporting one another can help light the way for all women.

For more information on training resources on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and how to create equitable and inclusive workplaces for women in male-dominated fields please see:

CWIT website: womensequitycenter.org/apprenticeship-programs/training-and-retention/ .

Contact: Lauren Sugerman, lsugerman@cwit2.org .

Lauren is one of the nation's leading experts on building opportunities for women in jobs in traditionally male-dominated blue-collar industries. For more than 35 years, she has guided policy and programmatic strategies at the local, state and national levels to increase high-wage, high-skill job opportunities for women. A direct beneficiary of affirmative-action policies for federal contractors, Lauren began her career as an elevator constructor in 1980. She helped to found Chicago Women in Trades ( CWIT ) and served as the agency's first executive director from 1986 to 2009. Lauren joined Wider Opportunities for Women in 2010, where she led the National Center for Women's Employment Equity. Lauren returned to CWIT in 2015 where she continues to lead national policy activities and provides technical assistance to employers, unions, and the workforce development system, public agencies, on how to increase women's equal employment opportunity in construction, manufacturing, and transportation. Lauren has served on numerous committees and advisory boards including the U.S. Department of Labor's Federal Committee on Apprenticeship, Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois and the Illinois Workforce Investment Board. She is a founding member of the Tradeswomen Committee of the North America's Building Trade Unions, and co-chair of the National Task Force on Tradeswomen's Issues.


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