Wellesley College takes heat from electrical union over female construction jobs

Wellesley College, the nation’s preeminent women’s campus is in unfamiliar territory: defending itself against charges of sexism in an in-your-face advertising campaign launched by the local electrical workers union.

The IBEW Local 103 has taken out newspaper and online ads — and over the summer hired a plane to fly over the campus during a Wellesley alumni event — criticizing the college’s commitment to hiring women electricians for its new $206 million science center construction project.

The union, part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said that the college has “undermined women construction workers” by using a nonunion subcontractor to do the work on its new facility.


In Massachusetts, more than 90 percent of the female electricians who hold licenses and are in apprenticeship programs belong to the union, said Lou Antonellis, the business manager for the Local 103. By choosing a nonunion electrical shop, Wellesley is shutting many women from this project, he said.

The campaign called #WhatAboutMeWellesley features videos and images of female construction workers questioning the college, juxtaposed with speeches from Wellesley’s president and its most famous alum, Hillary Clinton.

“Wellesley should be held to a higher standard, especially when it comes to women construction workers,” Antonellis said. “It’s their project, it’s their campus, they have all the control.”

Wellesley officials said they remain firmly supportive of women in the construction industry and set out goals for hiring women and minorities to build the science center.

Wellesley aimed to have women and minorities make up 10 percent of its construction workforce, said Tara Murphy, a spokeswoman for the college. So far, about 6 percent of workers on the Science Center project are women and 27 percent are minorities.

The share of women electricians is even higher, Murphy said.

As of July 15, 10 percent of the electrical workers on the project were women, much higher than the 2.4 percent of the entire electrical workforce nationwide.


“IBEW’s contentions are belied by the actual numbers of women and minorities that are part of the construction workforce for the Science Center at Wellesley,” Murphy said. “These numbers are tangible evidence of Wellesley’s track record of advancing women and minorities in the construction trades.”

The union lost the bid for the electrical work earlier this year and has responded with this ad campaign, Murphy said.

The clash between the two sides has been brewing for several months.

The union and Wellesley officials have met and exchanged letters and e-mails about the science project and the representation of female workers since the beginning of this year.

The project, which involves both preserving portions of the existing Brutalist building and expanding on to it, is one of the bigger projects Wellesley has undertaken in recent years. The work is scheduled to be complete in the fall of 2021.

The college has awarded work to 96 subcontractors and suppliers so far, Murphy said.

About three-quarters of the contracts have gone to union shops, Wellesley officials said.

Still, the construction trades remain a male-dominated industry. Unions have been trying to diversify their ranks and have been recruiting and training more women and minorities.

In Massachusetts, women hold almost 9 percent of union apprenticeship positions, which are the pipeline to permanent positions, double the share in 2012, according to PGTI: The Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues, a local collaborative working to increase that rate of women in construction to 20 percent.


Nonunion apprenticeships in the state are 3.5 percent women.

Susan Moir, the research director of PGTI, said most of the women are in the unions.

“They are coming in for the opportunity,” she said. “I don’t understand what Wellesley is doing.”

Antonellis said the union wants to ensure that as more women join there are jobs for them. More than 300 of the union’s 7,500 electricians are women, according to Antonellis.

Antonellis declined to disclose how much the union has spent on the advertising campaign against Wellesley. But he said this is an important issue for the union.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Staff writer Katie Johnston contributed to this report.