By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Vanessa Casillas has worked as a bricklayer for 10 years. But when she stopped by a job site recently looking for work, she said the foreman’s right-hand man looked skeptically at her slender frame and red nail polish.
“I was like, these are no-chip,” Casillas, 34, said, drawing a burst of laughter from about a dozen fellow tradeswomen gathered for a roundtable discussion last week with Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, to mark National Equal Pay Day.
As members of Chicago Women in Trades, a nonprofit that trains women for high-paying, skilled jobs traditionally held by men, Casillas and her peers have worked to close their own wage gap, with many making well over $40 an hour as welders, electricians, pipe fitters, plumbers, iron workers, carpenters and other union-backed tool-wielders.
But they say barriers to entry and advancement have kept their numbers low.
Women represent just 4 percent of the workforce in natural resources, construction and maintenance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Their underrepresentation in such high-paying industries is one key reason that women earn, on average, 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, the agency said.
As metals clanged and welding torches hissed in the background, Lu, whose office partnered with Chicago Women in Trades to host the discussion at its industrial campus on the southwest side, asked to hear the challenges.
The list was long, from inadequate bathrooms on construction sites to insufficient outreach to girls in high school and younger grades.
Many of the hurdles are cultural, as women continue to battle low expectations of what they can accomplish.
“Every time you walk into a job as a new hire, once again you’re going back to your first year of apprenticeship and you have to prove that you’re worthy of being there,” said Latisa Kindred, 40, who has worked as an electrician for 19 years. “Because you’re constantly questioned, you’re questioning yourself.”
Kindred, who earns $44 an hour, teaches the electrical program at Simeon Career Academy, the only electricity vocation training in Chicago Public Schools. Until she arrived, many girls didn’t realize it was an option, she said.
Others don’t always think it’s a good option, as apprenticeships and trades don’t carry the same respect in many U.S. households that they do in other countries.
After Sarah Liles graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in art education, she didn’t enjoy her teaching job or her student debt, so she set out to become a pipe fitter, catching initial resistance from her father. He has since come around, she said.
Liles, who earns $49 an hour as an estimator and project engineer, feels good that she never has to depend on anyone for financial security, and takes pride that her work matters. Many of her projects are in infrastructure or wastewater treatment.
“At the end of the day you go home and take a shower and put on nice clothes because you can afford nice clothes,” said Liles, 38.
Liles said the perception of women in the trades is a few decades behind the rest of the workforce, “like a 1980s mindset of women don’t belong here.”
It is particularly pronounced, and injurious to career advancement, when some male co-workers are reluctant to teach women new skills, sometimes out of misguided chivalry that they shouldn’t have to handle the heavy drill, Liles said.
“You have to take responsibility for your own education,” Liles said. “And men don’t, they can just sit there passively and other guys will offer to teach them.”
Programs to train men how to mentor women would help ease discomfort and build trust, she said.
“We need to teach men that it’s OK,” she said. “We’re not there to get in their pants, we’re not there to sue them.”
Meantime, the women are there to teach each other, with Chicago Women in Trades providing a critical support system they call “a sisterhood.”
For some, it has also been a lifesaver.
Margarita Arnold was a single mom making $60 daily cleaning suburban homes when she decided she had no choice but to go on food stamps.
After waiting at the Department of Human Services for several hours to sign up, she noticed a poster on the wall that pictured a woman in a hard hat alongside the question: Do you want to make $19 an hour? She left and went to the orientation session.
Six years later, Arnold is earning $42 an hour as a taper, preparing drywall for painting. A native of Mexico, she recently became a U.S. citizen, bought a house and is training to be a foreman.
“I’m very surprised and very happy,” Arnold said of her career move.
Japlan Allen said she was two years out of prison, mostly jobless but for a stint as a janitor, when she accompanied a friend to the unemployment office. She was waiting in the car when the friend returned with a flier for Chicago Women in Trade.
Allen, who grew up in public housing on the South Side, said she started taking classes for eight hours daily “trying to become somebody, trying to learn how to speak well.”
“I’m a completely different person now,” said Allen, 39, who has worked as an iron worker for 14 years and makes $43.75 an hour. A single mom to four kids, she is among the more than half of U.S. households that rely on women breadwinners, according to the Department of Labor.
While some employers pay women less than men for the same work, and lack of child care and paid leave can dilute women’s wages, one factor in the pay gap is career choice. Women account for less than 30 percent of employees in some high-wage sectors and more than 70 percent of the workforce in low-wage sectors such as personal care and health care support occupations, according to the Labor Department.
Female-dominated occupations earn, on average, about $11,000 less per year than male-dominated occupations, it said.
Apprenticeships in the construction trades, which rarely require a college degree, start at about $17 an hour, and many women are making over $40 an hour within two to five years, said Jayne Vellinga, director of the 34-year-old Chicago Women in Trades. About 70 percent of women who complete the free training programs at the nonprofit find a job within a year, she said.
It isn’t easy to break in. Some trades require unpaid pre-apprenticeship programs, which are tough for low-income women on their second or third careers with families to support, Vellinga said. The jobs are competitive and seasonal, and offer no paid sick or vacation days.
In addition, she said, some contractors skirt a federal law that requires construction contractors to make “every good faith effort” to have women constitute 6.9 percent of their workforce. The organization has long advocated for stronger enforcement by the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, and is awaiting new regulations, which haven’t been updated in 30 years.
“The whole equal pay thing doesn’t work when you don’t have equal hours,” said Kina McAfee, a carpenter.