Dangerous Sexism

Thirty five years after affirmative action, the number of women in construction remains flat. A travelling exhbition about the field's sexism, racism--and physical danger--points to why those numbers remain so low.

By Von Diaz Oct 30, 2013

In the 35 years since affirmative action passed, there’s been growth in nearly every field dominated by men but the construction industry isn’t one of them.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, the number of women in construction trades and related work has remained steady at 2.6 percent from 1983 to 2010. In contrast, the percentages of women in other occupations where women have been traditionally underrepresented, such as police work, firefighting, butchering and engineering, have increased substantially.

An exhibition by artist Susan Eisenberg points to some of the reasons why the construction sector continues to have low numbers of women employees. The traveling exhibition, titled "On Equal Terms," was first installed at Brandeis University in 2008, and has since traveled to the Michigan State University Museum, and landed at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The exhibition is made up of a multifaceted melange of objects that symbolize both the camaraderie among women workers and the harassment, threats, and sexual violence many experience on the job. The space is layered with glitter and ribbons, splashed with neons and pastels, then juxtaposed with raw industrial materials such as plywood and power tools. It’s a busy space, peppered with poetry and quotes from public hearings, but made harmonious by a reflective, somber space to commemorate women who’ve passed away. 

There are multiple jarring moments in the relatively small renovated classroom gallery at Clemente Soto Vélez, among them a life-sized model of a construction site bathroom, scrawled with vulgar drawings of genitalia and phrases such as "fucking lesbian electrician bitch."

And in the center of the gallery space is "Stella," a sculpture of a tradeswomen with fabric dreadlocks, a diamond hardhat, and Eisenberg’s own Carhartt coveralls from her days as an electrician. "Stella" stands at the top of a ladder holding up electrical chords, adorned with dozens of small white gift tags that have words or phrases women have heard on the job, including "job stealer," "incompetent" and "nice buns." Eisenberg says Stella is meant to represent every woman, but that women of color have particularly had it rough.

"There has always been more violence for women of color than white women," Eisenberg says.

Women of color are prominently featured throughout the exhibition in photographs and written pieces, and she says she hopes her exhibition will give voice to those who can’t or won’t speak up about abuse or harassment for fear of repercussions. "It is about reflecting on that systemic failure to have a workplace that’s welcoming to everyone."

>The New York edition of this exhibition brought together tradeswomen from across city, and I got a tour of from two women construction workers who connected their personal experiences with the works on view.

Melinda Hernandez was born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents in 1956, and says she began working with her hands while helping her father fix cars as a kid.  After graduating high school, she attended Bronx Community College but was dissatisfied with the experience and left after one year later to enroll in a program called "All Craft," which taught the basics of various construction trades.

In August of 1978, after the affirmative action ruling opened doors for women to work in male-dominated professions, Hernandez decided to join the more than 1,200 people camping outside of a union office for three nights in order to receive an apprenticeship application. There she got a real sense of the gender-based discrimination she’d be up against. Of those camping out, there were only 12 women and only five were accepted. Hernandez says one women was forced to refuse the opportunity after being physically assaulted by her husband.

"It wasn’t like they had a parade waiting for us. All the men on the job were bent on discouraging us every way they could" she says.

Throughout her almost 20-year career as an electrician, co-workers continuously sexually harassed her.  She says instructors also purposefully kept women apprentices from advancing in their trades, sometimes sending women out for materials while they looked at blueprints to developed plans for a job.  

Hernandez says that women rarely have their own bathroom on construction sites, and often the shared bathrooms would be covered with vulgar language and images, similar to those shown in the exhibition. "There were things written on the walls about you. One time a pornographic picture from a magazine, with semen on it, was slid under the door of a wooden shack I was given to change my clothes in. Things like that," she says.

She was also once threatened with a physical attack by a colleague, who was consistently propositioning her, while working with him alone to install temporary lighting in a subbasement–a pitch black space three levels down from where anyone could hear her. 

She was forced to leave the industry due to a permanent lung condition in 1992, and afterwards became an advocate for other women working in construction jobs. While we talk she stands in front of an installation titled "Wallpaper," representing a series of 14 hearings for the NYC Human Rights Commission under former Mayor David Dinkins–the transcripts of which peek out from behind ripped wallpaper. The recommendations that came from those hearings were never implemented.

Another construction worker, Lisa Narducci, was born in South Brooklyn to Puerto Rican and Italian parents, and was recruited into becoming a tradeswoman in the 1981. She began her career as a carpenter in California, and then decided to move back to New York.

"I was not welcome," she said, recalling her first days as a carpenter in New York at age 25.

"Things would go missing from my toolbox," she says. "And people would say things that were truly inappropriate."One partner on a job site threatened her with violence. "He tried one day to either hurt me or kill me. He pushed a panel onto me and we were 50 to 60 feet up the air. All I had behind me was a thin wooden rail. Would he have done that somebody bigger, somebody heavier? No," she says.

Narducci also says she experienced the way women of color were particularly discriminated against, and that male supervisors often created a racist, hierarchical culture.

"The saddest thing is that black and white women were pitted against one another because of the way they were treated," she says. "I think it was the a scenario that the men created because they didn’t know what to do with us. Traditional households have their hierarchies, and I think that’s what they set up on the job. We were subordinates as employees, but also subordinates as women in that particular kind of family."

The field continues to be an unsafe, and unfriendly environment for women despite advancements in so many other traditional male careers, the military among them. Both Narducci and Hernandez say they’ve felt solidarity from other women construction workers, but not as much from those outside the field. They both express feeling alone, and invisible as women construction workers, and say that younger generations have expressed similar sentiments.

"On Equal Terms" is on view at through November 1. The exhibition closes with a poetry workshop for women in the trades, followed by a public poetry reading by artist Eisenberg.

Featured slideshow images: 

  1. Installation shot of "On Equal Terms" "Stella," 3-D mixed media. Lifesized figure on a ladder in artist?s Carhartt coveralls and a diamond hardhat.
  2. "Stella," detail. Tags filled out by tradeswomen in response to question, "How have you been labelled on jobs?"
  3. "Stella, detail." "Sunshine" tag and poem by Susan Eisenberg.
  4. "Cynthia and Melinda outside Manhattan courthouse: Justice for Bianca," C-print; with Melinda Hernandez
  5. "Wallpaper," 3-D mixed media, detail. Wallpaper, paneling, packing material, enlarged pages of testimony from "Public Hearing on the Construction Industry in New York City"
  6. "Wallpaper," detail.
  7. "Bathroom shack," detail. 6? X 6? plywood bathroom shack.
  8. "High School Students Speak element;" with Melinda Hernandez.
  9. "Two Ladders," detail. Mixed media, ladder, ribbon, leather boot.
  10. "Gangbox," detail. Mixed media, ribbon, power tools.
  11. "Photographs Contributed by Tradeswomen;" with Lisa Narducci.
  12. "We Remember," mixed media installation, photographs, names of deceased tradeswomen; with Melinda Hernandez "Photographs Contributed by NY Tradeswomen," detail.