Last year saw an encouraging increase in the number of women in the construction trades. But the numbers are still remarkably low: Just 3.4 percent of construction trades workers are women. Here in New York City, women in multiple trades — plumbers, electricians, laborers, sheet metal workers — are not only working to build the buildings that we use every day. They are also working to build solidarity and forge paths for other women throughout the industry.
Many are setting up women’s committees within their unions. A of women builders is championing the needs of tradeswomen across New York City. Some foundations are leading the way in ensuring a high proportion of women workers in the construction of their buildings: NoVo, at its Brooklyn headquarters and in the conversion of the Bayview Correctional Facility into the Women’s Building, and the Ford Foundation in the renovation of its midtown headquarters. Jobs with Justice is calling for other foundations and investors to follow suit.
Plumber Judaline Cassidy is a part of this sisterhood. While she is a powerful advocate for women in construction, she is quick to emphasize that her voice is one among many. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Judaline moved to New York at 19. She first worked as a housekeeper and nanny, before a neighbor introduced her to a plumbing apprenticeship. She became the first female plumber in Plumbers Local Union 371 in Staten Island, and recently had a major breakthrough when Plumbers Local 1 officially recognized the “” women’s committee.
In 2017, Judaline set up the nonprofit Tools & Tiaras Inc. Recognizing how important it is to introduce girls to construction tools at a young age, Tools & Tiaras runs workshops during the school year, and summer camps in New York and New Jersey. As Judaline’s words below make clear, teaching girls how to use tools is about far more than construction. It’s about power. – AS
I didn’t want any little girl to grow up like I did. I didn’t have confidence in myself. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world. And I knew how construction changed all of that for me. I went from being a poor girl, growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, to having a union salary that enables me to have a house, to start Tools & Tiaras. You always have a job as a tradesperson. That is powerful. That’s why more women need to know about it. The freedom.
When you realize that you can do something that most women and a lot of men can’t do, it gives you this bravado. You even walk differently. Because the minute you start working with tools, the mind shift happens: “I can do this. I can do anything.”
That’s what I’m trying to do with Tools & Tiaras: Have girls start envisioning that it’s normal for a woman to be an ironworker, to be my sister, to be working with me. Our stories are not told; no woman really knows: “Wow, she looks like me. She’s only four feet eleven and seven eighths and she’s doing plumbing? I can do it.” Society needs to change the way we portray what is women’s work and what tradespeople look like.
I literally googled, “how to start a nonprofit” and “how to choose a board.” I’ve been funding it mostly with my salary, until I got some funding from the NoVo Foundation. And companies that already exist within construction have been helping.
We publicize Tools & Tiaras through social media and word of mouth. The girls follow us every month to the workshops, and they bring their friends. The girls who came to camp brought their friends. A lot of the tradeswomen, once they teach the workshop, they’re hooked. To see little girls crying that they didn’t finish their architecture project, or they want to finish their light so they can take it home, or they want to be the one threading the pipe. Oh my gosh, these girls will inspire you that the future is gonna be brighter.
Every day when we had the camp, the girls would not want the tradeswomen to leave. They would hold onto them, hug them — they say they’re like superheroes. Now, when somebody asks for a plumber, they’re not going to automatically envision a guy.
The other thing the girls learned this year is that as women, we belong to a sisterhood. If they know that, they won’t let the world tell them we’re supposed to compete with each other. Construction is a team effort. Everybody has a role, and everybody’s role is important, down to the laborer who cleans up the job site. We teach them that they need to know who’s doing what task, who’s drilling, who’s going to put the screws, and they have to do it as a team.
I have six-year-old girls installing toilet bowls, soldering. That is empowering. At graduation last year, all of the girls got a tool belt with a four-head screwdriver, a tape measure, and a hammer. On a phone call with one of the parents from New Jersey, he was telling me that they had a leak under the sink, and he’s freaking out. And his daughter Izzy said, “Don’t worry, I can do this. I have my tool belt.” That’s what’s good. Not all of these girls are going to be carpenters and plumbers. That’s not the point. But they’re going to be so empowered that if she becomes a lawyer, she’ll never doubt herself.
The guys, over the years, they’ve gotten a lot better. Especially when I first started, 23 years ago, a lot of the guys who were my age didn’t want us there. The younger gentlemen, even some of my Black brothers, saw it as a job I was taking that could’ve been theirs. Imagine you walk in every day to an office, and nobody talks to you.
At first I was the only woman, and then it got the point where I was the only plumber, but there were other tradeswomen like electricians, carpenters, and laborers. And then I started being on jobs with other plumber women. That was awesome.
I think construction women have helped make the change within the industry. The women on the construction site, including the tradeswomen, are forging the path.
Women might have one bathroom in a 70-story building. Sometimes the one bathroom is on the first floor. Construction companies didn’t want to listen to us. Once companies like Turner, and Bovis, and the general contractors started hiring more project managers and superintendents that were women, the trickle-down effect started happening for us. They had women back in their offices saying, “I was walking around and the guy’s toolbox was open…” Because guys used to have toolboxes with naked pictures — I mean Penthouse, not just Playboy. Women working for Turner or Bovis saw that while walking around the job site, and that was the end of that.
You can look at the leadership of the unions and the construction industry, and you see there are no women reflected or minorities, or there’s one. That doesn’t send a message to people that they are welcomed.
Brenda Berkman sued the Fire Department to get women in. And she got in, and she took all the abuse, and now there are 89 or 90 women in the firefighters. I feel like the unions could do a better job of really supporting women’s committees organically and not wanting to have control of it. Women are better carriers of information and stories. They would recruit for you.
It’s not difficult to grow the network, because tradeswomen are passionate about that. The problem is getting the visibility. What if Vogue decided to do a piece and put a whole bunch of tradeswomen in a photo shoot? Oh my god, what visibility would that be!
The women in New York in construction now have the ability to be on a job site and not be the only one. That’s huge. That empowers you, to know you have a sister on your job. I would see other women on the job site, introduce myself, and let them know, if they need something, they can reach out to me. I know when I’m struggling, I can call another tradeswoman that I can vent to and I don’t have to blow up on the job. It’s a life saver. Because she’s been through what I’m going through, or she’s still going through it. And they give you solutions. That’s what’s good about the sisterhood.
I don’t like being on Instagram and Facebook — I do it because of Tools & Tiaras — but that has been a very powerful tool for linking tradeswomen and inspiring each other. They have groups, and they post, “Oh, you should try these boots,” or “This happened to me on the job today, what should I do?” or “I’m pregnant, and what disability…” Because the information is not readily available. But they answer quickly and help you.
There are still women in other parts of the country where she’s the only one on the job site, and she’s getting hazed, and she’s getting pushed out.
Women in the Trades, Oregon Women in the Trades, Girls That Build, Iowa Skilled Trades: There are a lot of other organizations that are flipping the script to include more women in these roles. The more we started to do it on our own, and because of social media, more women are learning they can do it. I have so many women that DM me: “I want to be an electrician. How should I start?” I can point them in different directions, because now it’s visible. From three percent, the share of women in the construction trades went to 3.4, in 20 years. We’ve been waiting. The goal is to get to 20 percent. But I think we’re going to finally get there. And I’m going to use my platform to really encourage more women to try it. And let them know the lucrative careers that are available in construction.
My vision is ten years from now one of the girls in Tools & Tiaras ends up being the executive director. It doesn’t belong to me. I feel like it belongs to the universe. When I first started, I was really protective, but our demand has been outgrowing our infrastructure.
My goal is for Tools & Tiaras is to be like the Girl Scouts: there are chapters all over the country, all over the world. “I went to Tools & Tiara’s camp and now I’m an architect, I’m an engineer, I’m a plumber.” Girls everywhere and women everywhere are building and constructing and changing stuff.