March 2, 2012

Why Would A Woman Want To Be An Ironworker?

[Next week is International Women's Day and Fire on the Mountain will be publishing a couple of pieces in observance. This is a version of an article originally solicited for the IWD issue of the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there.]

by Jeanne Park

Ironworkers create the framework supporting the structure of our cities. We place the columns and girders of skyscrapers, the trusses and decks of bridges. We bind the rods holding highways together and roadways arching over the ground. We set the handrails and stair stringers that ascend to lofty tower heights.

Our work with metal puts us constantly on the move and always on the watch for danger. We work with crane operators to swing tons of steel in to place hundreds of feet in the air. When we weld and burn steel, sparks and molten metal fly. We walk on bare steel. We work in the fog, sun, and rain, pounding the steel with beaters, wedging it into place with our sleever bars.

Ironworkers have a reputation for being tough and taking risks. Our nicknames range from “the cowboys of the sky” or “skywalkers” to “ironheads.” Because of the nature of our work, we tend to trust each other quickly or not at all. As hard as we work, we have a notorious reputation for drinking and “partying”. Some take to these things to sustain the adrenaline, others to shake it off.

Working with iron seems a very masculine trade, one by which many men use to judge their manliness. The guys like to say that their job is their life, and their coworkers their brothers. They like the image they convey of being tougher than steel, and much more dangerous than so many other trades.

These are some of many reasons why it’s also tough to be a woman ironworker.

Some believe that women aren’t interested in these jobs--that women can’t and don’t want to work so hard and with such heavy equipment. This is a load of crap. During America’s involvement in WWII, women en masse worked welded and worked with metal. That era demanded a patriotic duty from some. For others, the war created a great opportunity and calling. Women were quickly trained and put to work. Tasks that were awkward were made more ergonomic (in an age before that consideration) to account for the size and strength of women. Safety became a priority. On many jobs women refused work until their concerns were addressed.

To oversimplify: After WWII, factory owners, employers, and unions shut women out of the trades quicker than returning soldiers could take their places. Not all soldiers wanted to go back to factories and many took advantage of the GI Bill. As the need for skilled workers grew, unions found solidarity. They were able to demand better wages, benefits and conditions, even as they shut out their sisters, who had worked so hard to open doors for all workers.

With the strengthening of unions came the realization of workers’ strength. Industrialists, employers and politicians feared the communist and socialist groups, which had helped to inform the unions. The “red scare” of the 50s panicked unions and many quickly cut their ties to their communist origins. Even now, many union oaths to membership and office exclude those with any affiliation to the communist party.

Culturally and economically, women were forced into domestic roles in the home. American markets and advertisers, as well as television and radio producers idealized the homemaker. In this narrative, the homemaker became a willing servant to the male breadwinner and their family. Entertaining at home became a social “must.” Cleaning products, recipes and the newest household gadgets (produced by post-war manufacturers) became social obsessions. The bored housewife was disregarded and de-legitimized. Drugs such as Valium and Percoset and speedy “diet-pills” became regulars in medicine cabinets.

Every woman that I know in the ironworker trade has had to fight for respect at her work and in her union hall. Most of us realize that being a member of the union provides the most rights and protected conditions. Still, it’s a battle to make the many male members realize that once a woman becomes a member of the union, she is an equal member--not a member of an annex or co-union. Prejudices and preconceptions are constantly being addressed. We are so few, that coworkers, bosses, and employers constantly scrutinize each women and judge all by their experiences with one. We cannot make mistakes, as our whole gender is often painted with the same brush.

I’m not trying to say that all of our brothers are so suspicious and unwelcoming. But it is rare to see a respected member take a stand to support a sister on the job. One or two men who don’t speak up against the derisive comments, sabotage, or harassment can ruin a whole jobsite. It takes active leadership and some true courage to undo those wrongs.

Women can also find strength on the jobs by gaining the support of other women who face the same problems. By networking the women that exist in the trade to each other and with the women who are new, we are able to build on our successes and avoid old mistakes. This is my current role.

There are so few of us ironworker women that we rarely learn about the existence of one another, much less work with each other in the same company or jobsite. Less than one percent of ironworkers are women. Because of some limited affirmative action by the federal government, ironworker companies find it beneficial to have a woman on the payroll. The near impossibility of sharing experiences with someone who understands the particulars of your job experience puts us at a severe disadvantage. It’s very tough to be doing such a physically strenuous job, feeling and being told that you are physically inadequate, mocked and molested, and not being sure if this treatment is because of you as an individual, or perhaps something not so personal. Or maybe it’s all in your head--you’re just crazy.

My solution has been to put together the Ironworker Women Calendar. The calendar features pictures of women working in all aspects of our trade. These pictures literally show that women can do the work. Our diverse and capable membership is highlighted. Hopefully this will encourage young women to consider our trade as an option for themselves. By providing the calendar for free to female members and encouraging their participation, the calendar helps to develop a database with which to network our sisterhood as well. [You can order it here. FotM]

The benefits to ironworker women have grown as our network has grown. We exchange advice on basics such as where to get proper fitting work clothes or protective equipment. We all tell stories about our days at work: some amusing, some. Not all of us have the same experiences, but all of us understand our situation. This feeling of not being so alone keeps many of us going even when work gets rough.

Social networking has been a huge benefit to our sisterhood, since we are spread so far and wide. My local union, for example, extends about five hundred miles from the northern boarder of California to the city of Monterey. In all we have roughly twenty women ironworkers. For all of us to meet in person is impossible. Through email and the Internet, we can stay in touch with little effort, which is lovely after a hard day’s work.

Finally, one may ask, why bother? If it is so difficult for a woman to be an ironworker, why fight the current culture inside and outside of the job? The simple answers have to do with the good wages and benefits of a reliable trade. The health insurance and retirement funds, especially in uncertain economic times are very attractive. The benefits of physical work and the variability of tasks and location draw many of us to the trade. Then there is also the feeling of strength, the ability to bend steel to your will and swing it through the air to rest precisely in its place. There is the moment you are able to stand on a structure, look across the skyline, and note which towers, skyscrapers, and bridges you’ve touched the bones of and helped to raise from the ground.

Why wouldn’t a woman want to be an ironworker?


Christie said...

Thanks for this, sincerely Christie email

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said Jeanne! Dot Walters IronWorker 17 yrs. Local 399 Camden Nj

Jan Jenson said...

FABULOUS and well-written article by Jeanne Park! I agree with EVERYTHING she said. I was an ironworker from 1976 thru 2002 and loved most all of it (except when I had back surgery from a short fall). I worked in ND, MT, WY, CA, HI and NC...
and my daughter is a JIW too. She started in 1983 in San Francisco.
I applaud Jeanne for her dedication in creating the Ironworker Womens calender and helping support social networking for us all!
Jan Jenson, retired... Locals 793 and 377

Lisa Abram said...

I' v been looking into getting into iron work as a trade. I have no idea where to start! I'm living in Calgary Alberta, I know a few iron workers, and that there's a lot of steady work. I talked to them about it one day, let's just say their response was not a supportive one. Anyway, any ideas where I should start?
Thanks Lisa

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I am a Red Seal Electrician. I am very lucky here in Newfoundland that we have the Office to Advance Women Apprentices. The are a wonderful support.
We all need each other to confirm that we are normal and we are as good as any man on the job.
Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Very helpful! Im starting my apprenticeship tomorrow. Needed the boost. Please send me links to support groups for women in this field. Im going to have a lot of questions.

Unknown said...

I start my iron worker boot camp training Monday to get into the ironworker apprenticeship program any words of encouragement and advice for me please?