When Andrea DiFabio started her career in construction, she made $5 an hour.
“The men I worked with made twice as much as me,” she said. “I was the only woman on the site.”
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But DiFabio had few options, so she kept at it. Now, she is happy as an account manager at GEM Mechanical Services in Aston. She has a female boss, and since she started, she’s seen more women join the trade.
So, in the middle of a sweltering week earlier this summer, she volunteered as at the Mentoring Young Women in Construction (MYWIC) day camp, a free weeklong program put on by the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction.
Since 2009, women who are used to being in the minority at work have come together to show middle and high school-aged girls the possibilities of working the building trades: construction, carpentry, finishing, insulation installation, and more. The camp started with just a handful of girls. Ten years later, there are 26 enrolled, but it’s growing.
In partnership with Girls Inc., the free camp outfits each girl with a backpack filled with boots and socks, tools, and a journal. Each day, they travel to a different training center to get hands-on instruction from women in each industry. Monday, they learned about woodworking at a carpenter’s union; Tuesday, they painted, finished dry wall, and hung wallpaper during a demonstration on finishing trades. They learned about sprinkler fitting and insulation installation, and visited a laborer’s job site. Friday, the group toured the site of the future Penn Medicine Pavilion being built by PennFirst.
A frenzy of highlighter-yellow vests, pony tails and hard hats, the campers were bent over wooden boxes outfitted with wiring and electrical units at the IBEW 98 Electrician’s union training center, learning how to wire receptacles connected a light bulb.
In the next room, clusters of girls watched and learned how to bend huge wire conduit pipes, a series of angles and formulas scribbled on a nearby dry-erase board, the pipes bent like Bo Peep’s cane all around the room.
Madison McBride , 13, likes to help her dad fix stuff around the house, so she liked the hands-on work she got to do at MYWIC camp. “I liked working with big tools, like drills and saws,” she says.
Other girls, like Nyobi Murphy, 14, are thinking about their future careers in earnest. Murphy loves art and has even sold custom-embellished bags and shoes.
“I like to make things,” says Murphy. “But even if art makes me happy…$57 an hour sounds good to me.”
MYWIC doesn’t shy away from pragmatic details like pay and benefits. They tell campers about the prospect of getting done with work early in the day, about apprenticeships that pay for on-the-job training, and union membership. They really emphasize union membership, in part because of its guarantee of equal pay for men and women.
Overall, the gender pay gap is much narrower in the construction industry than the national average. Women earn 93.4% of what men typically make. In comparison, women earn 82.1% of what men earn across all professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So why aren’t more women in the building trades? The camp directors say they think girls just don’t know about opportunity.
Erin O’Brien-Hofmann, a commercial painter and chair of this year’s MYWIC camp, had no idea growing up in South Philadelphia that a building trade was an option. “You either went to college or you joined a union,” she says. “For girls, you could do something in culinary work, and here I was burning things in my home ec class.”
Struggling to pay her way through college at Penn State, she applied for some union jobs. When she got a call from a painter, “I didn’t know how to open up a gallon of paint.” Now, she’s a successful journeymen in the finishing trade, and the apprenticeship instructor for Union Council 21. “I have a really good life because of this job,” she says.
On MYWIC camp’s last day, the campers reflected on their experiences that week. “Making friends, eating good food” were on a list of “pros” written in marker on large butcher paper sheets. “Wearing pants,” was one con. “Too hot.”
“I liked the electricians,” says Khy Pullins, 13, who wants to be an architect. “I liked messing with the wires and making something work.”
“It was cool to see the hospital being built,” says Maria Barron, 13. “When you look at a building, you never really know what goes into it.”
It was Octavia Jackson’s second year at camp before she heads to college to get a bachelor’s degree in construction management. “At first I thought I wanted to be an engineer, but I realized I liked more hands-on stuff,” says Jackson, who is 18. Though none of her friends is interested in a similar field, she says it’s no different than her friend who wants to study film. “I am one of the only girls, though.”
Catherine Glatts, vice president for career and technical education at Mercy Career and Technical High School, tries to push her female students toward building trades.
“They change their mind a lot at that age, though,” she says. “At a certain age I think they just don’t want to get dirty, do that kind of work.”
She sees girls shy away from another male-dominated vocation — technology. “I see that girls might not think they are smart enough to do it. And I think with the physical work, the trades, they think they won’t be able to keep up. But I tell them that’s not necessarily true.”
According to a study from the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Employment Equity released in March, skilled blue-collar jobs are on the rise – but women are underrepresented in that growth. Though according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43% more women are working in transportation, material moving, and warehouse jobs in 2018 than in 2000, the inclusion of women in lucrative skilled labor trades is slow.
Mike Neill, director of training at IBEW Local Union 98, says the percentage of women in the electrician’s union hovers at around 12.5%, but that the number has doubled in the past five or six years. Part of this may be the result of a statewide mandate from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor to attract more women, racial minorities, and veterans to the trade. With a grant from the department, IBEW revamped its website with a highlighted section for each group, made a promotional video featuring women in the union, and an app that connects potential apprentices with the union. They also visit college fairs and schools, and focus on female applicants.
Camille Paglia, professor at University of the Arts, has written for many years about gender differences and called for a “revalorization” of the trades.
“Today’s much-touted disparity in pay is primarily due not to gender discrimination but to women gravitating toward lower-paid jobs in the safe, clean ‘pink ghetto’ of office work or people care,” she said. Having women join building trades would help repair our country’s infrastructure, she says, and rescue thousands from crippling college debt.
Women thrive in trade work when given the chance, says O’Brien-Hofmann. “We’re detail oriented. We’re multitaskers. There are deadlines and high stress levels in this job.”
The MYWIC camp directors have seen several of their campers go on to get degrees in construction management, become apprentices, and pursue careers.
For Maura Hesdon, general manager at Shoemaker Construction and one of the founding members of the MYWIC camp, it doesn’t matter whether every single girl chooses a career in construction after going to the camp.