NoVo in the Media

A great job for New York’s women—and one they rarely get

13 April 2018
BY Pamela Shifman
PUBLISHED IN Crain's New York

Judaline Cassidy is a rarity: a woman who makes her living in the construction trades. “It makes me feel like I have a superpower,” she says. While the member of Plumbers Local Union No. 1 of New York City can’t fly or lift cars over her head, she has a competitive salary, retirement and health benefits, and access to jobs in one of New York’s largest and fastest-growing industries—powers that, as a single mother in New York City, have made her a hero to her daughter.

Yet, despite the attractive pay and benefits—including near parity of wages across race and gender—Judaline remains part of a very small sisterhood in her profession. As women have made gains in other male-dominated industries over the last several decades, the proportion of women working in the construction industry has stayed stubbornly flat—under 3%.

Women’s virtual absence from the trades should concern everyone. The construction industry provides workers and their families with financial security and a pathway into the middle class. Blocking this route limits women’s opportunities, forcing more into lower-wage, less stable professions. The exclusion of women from middle-class jobs perpetuates the gender wage gap and traps women disproportionately at the bottom of the income ladder.

Moreover, as has also been the case in Silicon Valley, the low number of women in construction contributes to workplace harassment and abuse. This fuels a toxic atmosphere that makes work sites hazardous for all women, as well as LGBTQ workers and workers of color. Hostility from coworkers, restricted access to restrooms, ill-fitting clothing and equipment, and insufficient training are just some difficulties women in the industry face—all of which affect their ability to do their jobs safely and effectively.

To finally make progress in this area, New York has an opportunity to step up as a national leader in expanding professional opportunities, especially for women in construction. Over time, this will force the industry to reckon with these challenges and create change.

At The Women’s Building—a future hub for women’s activism that will be constructed in West Chelsea at the former Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility—the NoVo Foundation will assemble a construction team that is at least 35% women, with a specific commitment to ensuring opportunities for women of color. We have made this pledge because the onus is not just on contractors; it’s also the responsibility of those who commission projects to make greater demands for gender equality.

Mission-driven organizations should not be alone in this endeavor. Government agencies, for-profit developers and construction firms should understand the benefits of creating inclusive and diverse work environments:

  • More equitable and inclusive construction teams allow women to serve as mentors for others in the field, combatting harassment and leading to higher retention levels and job satisfaction.
  • The construction industry has an undeniable image problem. A recent survey found that only 3% of adults aged 18 to 25 were considering construction as a potential career. By hiring more women and refusing to tolerate sexual harassment, the industry would encourage more girls to dream of a career in it.
  • Finally, including more women on teams creates better workplaces for everyone—providing a greater range of perspectives, improving collaboration and teamwork, and ultimately improving outcomes and the bottom line.

The term “inclusion rider” has been trending steadily since the recent Academy Awards, and now is the time to talk about steps needed to diversify New York’s construction industry. It will take a culture shift at all levels to end the discrimination associated with this male-dominated industry and expand the talent pipeline to include more women. Judaline and her organization Tools & Tiaras are at the forefront of this change, using monthly workshops and a summer skills camp to, as she says, “let girls start touching tools earlier.”

Meanwhile, those with the power to commission construction projects should insist on inclusive and equitable building teams, and increasing the demand for—and visibility of—women in the industry. The more collaborative productive workplaces that result will have ripple effects on construction sites nationwide.

Pamela Shifman is executive director of the NoVo Foundation.