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Women construction workers seek to build momentum

From left, Jackie Robbins, Peyton Stelzer, Sydney Dole, and Alicia Miksic celebrated national Women in Construction week at a Skanska work site at Brigham and Women's Hospital emergency department.
From left, Jackie Robbins, Peyton Stelzer, Sydney Dole, and Alicia Miksic celebrated national Women in Construction week at a Skanska work site at Brigham and Women's Hospital emergency department.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In high school, Deb Cronin was a cheerleader and a pageant queen.

Now she practices her pageant wave while hanging from the Tobin bridge — she’s a carpenter working on the rehabilitation of the so-called Chelsea Curves.

The 52-year-old mother of two is the only female carpenter on the job, but she is one of a growing number of women on construction sites in and around Boston. They are welders, electricians, project managers — and everything in between.

This week, the industry is marking “National Women in Construction Week,” an effort to raise awareness about opportunities for women in the male-dominated industry.

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Women account for only about 10 percent of the US construction work force, according to federal data from 2019.

In Massachusetts, there’s a statewide effort to increase the number of women in construction ranks, led by the Northeast Center for Tradeswomen’s Equity, a Massachusetts nonprofit that helps women find careers in construction.

In 2017, the NCTE and several union and advocacy organizations launched the state’s first tradeswomen recruitment campaign, called Build A Life That Works. The initiative aims to increase the percentage of women in the industry across the state from 5 percent to 20 percent by the end of this year.

In the last year, six union apprenticeship programs in Massachusetts increased their count of women apprentices by 20 percent, according to the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues. Overall, 9.22 percent of apprentices in the state are women, up from 7 percent in 2016.

“People like to look at construction sites, and a casual observer would see there are more women on the site,” said Bryan Northrop, construction company Skanska’s executive vice president of building operations said. “We want to see the numbers increase — it mirrors society.”

Skanska recently debuted custom-tailored safety vests for women.

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“The more women you see, the more accepted they become,” said Mary Vogel, co-founder of NCTE. “It’s less isolating.”

One of NCTE’s founding partners was the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. As part of the law that legalized casinos, the gaming industry was required to hire female workers to meet state standards for promoting a diverse workforce.

Boston-based construction giant Suffolk, which built the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett, had the highest number of women on a single US job site ever with nearly 500, according to the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues.

“Traditionally, it has been viewed as ‘man’s work,’ but we are trying to change that perception,” said Brooke Woodson, Suffolk’s director of trade partner diversity. “Women are more than welcome and more than capable of doing the work.”

Alicia Miksic, 30, an electrical apprentice who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, left a 7-year office job in design because she wanted to learn how to install the things she was drawing on paper.

Miksic said she’s heard the horror stories of discrimination on the job, but so far she hasn’t experienced it.

“They know that I am there to do the same work as them, and I get the job done right,” she said. “Maybe the fact that I haven’t seen it means there is a shift away from that type of treatment.”

Cronin said such behavior is rare, but her male coworkers have taken tools out of her hands if they needed them, and she’s heard too many derogatory one-liners.

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“Is there still discrimination and harassment? Yes,” Vogel said. “There is more work to be done, but there have been huge changes in the work environment.”

Cronin said she hopes more women enter the field — and she hopes school career counselors encourage it.

“If they would have looked at my interests in wood shop and recommended that I consider construction, I would have been doing this since high school,” she said.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.