Getting Stronger: A reflection on the Iowa Women in Trades Network

Ashley Dorn

by Ashley Dorn

“You get stronger every single day”: Learning from Iowa Women in Trades

Iowa Women in Trades (IWIT) exists to connect and support women seeking or practicing a skilled construction trade. Jobs in skilled construction are exciting and challenging, more likely to be unionized, and well-paid enough to build a stable career on skills that remain in-demand. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, labor unions in the building trades fought and negotiated for better wages and conditions. Unions have maintained high work quality standards by providing training, benefits, and community over a lifetime, and by nurturing pride in craft.

Less than 3%

The building trades have long been a male-dominated field with few women workers and even fewer in positions of leadership. In 1978, Executive Order 11246 set a goal to make women 6.9% of skilled construction workers, required employers to participate in affirmative action programs, and made contractors responsible for a harassment-free workplace. Additional regulations set by the Department of Labor specified that women make up a quarter of apprenticeship classes. However, these goals were never met. Ten years later in 1988, women made up only 1 percent of construction workers. Today, both in Iowa and across the United States, less than three percent of construction workers are women.[1] Exclusion continues because women face difficulty building a skilled construction career in two phases: first, women are usually uninitiated in necessary basic skills and social networks; second, conditions of labor on construction jobs often range from inhospitable to hostile for women, including industry-wide problems with harassment and discrimination.  

Launched in January 2020, the distance between tradeswomen in Iowa continues to necessitate a virtual meeting space for IWIT in which tradeswomen and allies meet to hear guest speakers, share information about the industry, and discuss workplace problems and responses. Attendees represent a variety of trades and range from apprentices to recent retirees. In Iowa, the gender-pay-gap and occupational segregation keep many women, especially women of color, from pursuing more stable and lucrative careers. Facing many barriers, tradeswomen are a determined and purposeful group. “Every woman in the trades has her own story,” electrician Amanda Cooling says. My task an intern this summer was to discover these stories by conducting interviews with tradeswomen about how they found their passions and got their starts.[2]

Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program

There are many roads to falling in love with a trade—seeing a graceful painter on stilts, feeling the weight of a hammer, surviving a desk job in finance. Beginning a career in the trades is more complicated and requires information and personal support. At the Labor Center, IWIT and the Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program strive to demystify the process of becoming an apprentice. The Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program provides six weeks of curriculum that includes topics such as construction math, industry awareness, and interview preparation.[3] The Labor Center also maintains a tool library to help apprentices spread out the cost of acquiring their kit. Following the curriculum, the goal is acceptance into one of the nearly twenty different Registered Apprenticeship Programs in Iowa.[4]

Registered Apprenticeship Programs are multi-year training programs that pair classroom instruction with on-the-job learning under the guidance of more experienced tradespeople. Programs are often jointly funded by unions and contractors, united by their commitment to quality of work and the future of the trade. Many apprenticeship programs administer entrance exams or interviews to determine eligibility. However, the same trades recognize and reward jobsite experience and the investment of grunt labor in learning the basics. Temporary summer jobs or helper positions are a common way for people to get a feel for the work and for craftspeople and program coordinators to get a feel for the worker—leading to acceptance in a Registered Apprenticeship Program. The Labor Center works to understand the prerequisites and quirks of each trade to successfully place people in registered programs. As lawyer and program coordinator Paul Iversen put it, “we know training programs that need good candidates, and we know people who need better jobs.” Finding a bridge across the problem of basic skills and social networks is an area where program coordinators, contractors, and coworkers must all participate in sharing useable knowledge with potential apprentices.

“Bombarded with harassment.”

Surmounting the second phase of barriers—inhospitable conditions of labor for women and industry-wide problems with harassment and discrimination—is thankfully a fight a with strong sisters. Over the summer, an IWIT meeting featured ironworker Vicki O’Leary as the guest speaker. O’Leary has served as the General Organizer for Safety and Diversity for the Ironworkers International Union since 2016, where she focuses on maternity care and bystander intervention. O’Leary argues that improving conditions of labor is crucial to diversifying a trade in which less than two percent of workers are women. In 2017, the Ironworkers International created paid maternity leave, recognizing that the physical demands of ironworking could threaten a pregnancy or force women to choose between the trade and a family. Ironworking women now have up to six months of leave while pregnant, and six to eight weeks of post-delivery leave.[5] Maternity leave makes it possible for women to remain in their career field through the life event of having a baby. Bystander intervention makes it possible for women to remain in their career field day-to-day.

OSHA staff interviewing a worker at a job site

Many of the tradespeople who attend IWIT meetings rarely see other women at work. Throughout the industry, the isolation of tradeswomen in their workplaces leads to sexual harassment and loss of professional opportunities. Over the summer, women shared experiences of workplace harassment that ranged from the routine— “Where do I draw the line? I can’t be in the office all day filling out reports!”—to the severe— “I felt like I lost myself because I was so bombarded with the harassment. I started questioning, ‘why am I even here?’ I couldn’t believe how the company protected people. I realized that as a union member I have insurance that includes counseling services and I made use of that benefit! My counselor helped me regain confidence in myself and see that I didn’t have to let these people control my life.” Leaving apprentices and coworkers socially disconnected and excluded from the transmission of skill knowledge creates isolation and pushes them out of the trade as surely as harassment.

Improving conditions of labor

On construction sites, needs of the job and explanations offered by experienced workers determine what apprentices learn. When coworkers withhold information and expertise, apprentices lose access to needed knowledge and skills, social connections that lead to future jobs, and opportunities to specialize. During the group discussion, O’Leary pointed out that bullies don’t take days off when a woman isn’t on the crew. Everyone and anyone who is willing to stand up for coworkers experiencing harassment or discrimination can make a difference.[6] This summer a probationary ironworker in Des Moines reported, “Decking is really hard work. I’m physically exhausted at the end of each day, but I’m with a really good group of guys. They give me tasks and are willing to help.” Maternity care and bystander intervention both come down to retention—time to build a healthy family and workplaces free of harassment make it possible for women to invest themselves and their futures in the trade.  

Iowa Women in Trades thinks long-term about the future of the building trades and the workers that will make it happen. A training coordinator in Des Moines says, “When I was being harassed, there was no woman in a position like mine that I could go to. Now I go check on my female apprentices and make sure they are doing okay. I didn’t understand the process and that the union would stand behind me. I make sure people know that now, both men and women.” Throughout the summer, I found Iowa tradeswomen to be smart, hardworking, and generous people who are devoted to improving conditions of labor for everyone. This is good news for anyone considering a career in the building trades, because as Director Robin Clark-Bennett observed during one of our meetings, “rules on the book don’t mean much if you’re alone.”

[1] Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [ACS 5-year 2015-19]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2020.

[2] For earlier interviews conducted with tradeswomen, see Molly Martin, Hard-Hatted Women: Stories of Struggle and Success in the Trades, (Seattle, Washington: Seal Press, 1988) and Susan Eisenberg, We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction, (Ithaca, New York: ILR Press, 1998).  

[3] For information or to apply, visit

[4] To learn more about Registered Apprenticeship Programs in Iowa, see

[5] The International Painters Union and Allied Trades recently passed a similar policy:

[6]; and on Twitter,