NEW YORK – Bethany Mayer didn’t want to go back to work after learning that a colleague at the ironworks implied women like her didn’t belong there.

Jordyn Bieker, a sheet metal fitter apprentice in Denver, said she was uncomfortable that her foreman had asked her specific questions about being gay.

Yunmy Carroll, an experienced steam fitter, said a worker had taught a class that women in construction are “whores”.

The three women shared their stories about Zoom during a Lean-In circle for women craftspeople, one of 76 opening nationwide and in Canada this year by North American construction unions and Lean In, the women’s agency founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg became .

Around 700 women craftspeople take part in the program, which is designed to help them cope with persistent prejudice and harassment on construction sites, from unwanted sexual advances to minor tasks such as traffic control or fire stations.

It is a culture that industry leaders are fighting to change in the hope of attracting more women to a sector with an aging workforce facing chronic labor shortages.

As infrastructure spending increases, construction companies will need to hire at least 430,000 new skilled workers in 2021, according to an analysis of federal data by the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Currently, only 4% of construction workers in the US are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We really only hire half the workforce,” said Brian Turmail, Associated General Contractors of America’s vice president of public affairs, who also drives people development. “We struggle with labor shortages with one hand tied behind our back.”

This comes at a time when the pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on jobs where women dominate, such as waiters and cashiers. Almost 2.5 million women lost their jobs and stopped looking for work during the pandemic.

In the meantime, much of the construction industry was considered indispensable in order to spare it from mass layoffs. For proponents, it is evidence that more women should seek construction careers that begin with paid education and can lead to middle-wage unionized jobs.

For example, the average salary for plumbers and electricians is about $ 56,000 per year, with the top 10% of earners making $ 98,000. But only about 2% of plumbers and 3% of electricians in the country are women.

“We see it all the time. When jobs get paid higher, when jobs are more secure, when jobs are higher, they often go to men,” said Sandberg, who has partnered with North American construction unions to get her signature Lean In. after meeting Judaline Cassidy, a New York plumber and union leader who founded a lean-in circle on her own in 2017 and later discussed the idea with Liz Shuler, now president of the AFL-CIO.

Cassidy often remembers being told to go home and do the dishes when she first tried to join a union more than two decades ago. But her career was also encouraging, and her daughter Carey Mercer followed her into the trade.

“You learn something new every day. There’s always some kind of challenge you might run into when you’re doing math or thinking about something and taking a look, ”says Mercer, a trainee sheet metal worker.

The good news is that profits already made by women seem to have remained stable during the pandemic, unlike the recession that began in late 2007 and hit the industry hard.

The number of women employed in construction had peaked at nearly 950,000 in 2007 before falling to a recession low of 711,000 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It took nearly a decade for their numbers to recover and eventually hit new highs of around 970,000 at the start of the pandemic.

But this time, the number of women fell just briefly in the spring of 2020 before continuing its rise – topping more than 1 million for the first time in history in April. The proportion of women employed in the industry also increased, reaching 13.2% in 2020 compared to 12.5% ​​in 2016.

Since these numbers include office work, it is not clear how much of these increases were made by skilled workers. But the number of women who have completed apprenticeship programs at North American construction unions has also risen, reaching an all-time high of 23% of graduates this year, said union finance minister Brent Booker.

Over the past decade, pre-training programs for women and minorities have expanded, with several thousand women gathering each year for the North American construction unions’ 10-year conference for women craftspeople. As a sign of its growing influence, the Iron Workers Union became the first construction union to introduce paid maternity leave in 2017.

The main challenge is to change cultural attitudes in this area.

Kelly Kupcak, executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, said she recently received a call from an apprentice plumber whose foreman, with racial slurs, said he didn’t care if she was black or Hispanic because he just didn’t like her being one Woman was. That was a year after Kupcak prompted local unions and contractors to launch anti-discrimination efforts after another apprentice found a noose on a construction site.

Even more subtle little things take their toll.

Mayer, the apprentice welder from the Cincinnati area, had been looking forward to a new job where a rearing group would set up the pillars on a new construction site. But then she found out from the colleague who said that women shouldn’t be iron workers. And she was put under fire watch for weeks.

“I don’t even want to go in tomorrow,” Mayer told her Lean In Circle, a group of six women who meet once a month through Zoom.

The women encouraged her at the May meeting and later group texts to be direct and remind her foreman of her skills as a welder. When they met in July, Mayer had insisted on welding and got it.

Patti Devlin, the head of the circle, made the conversation a constant topic in July: constantly having to prove yourself in an industry in which the places of work change.

Veronica Leal, a Chicago painter who teaches a training program, told the group that she has had this problem for 27 years. At first, she said it was amusing to see skeptical customers gushing at her work.

But four years ago she was furious when a customer in an upscale apartment building told her she couldn’t possibly do a difficult job as a woman because she was a woman and shut the door on her face.

Leal’s supervisor told her to stay while he called the customer. Leal refused, telling her manager that she would never work with this client.

“I just got so mad. I’ve been doing this for 24 years and I’m done proving myself,” Leal said.