Outnumbered on the job site, tradeswomen find camaraderie, support via new ‘Lean In Circles’

Minnesotans from the United Association participating in the 2019 Tradeswomen Build Nations conference gathered on the steps of Ascension House in Minneapolis for a photo after volunteering inside.

Building Trades unions in the U.S. and Canada have launched a peer mentorship and training program to help tradeswomen thrive in an industry historically dominated by men.

Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen, a partnership between unions and LeanIn.Org, brings tradeswomen together in small groups – virtual gatherings during the pandemic – to connect, share advice and learn new skills.

Lakeville resident Jean-Marie Baudhuin, a member of Twin Cities-based Laborers Local 563, serves as co-chair of a circle that brings together 13 “fabulous” tradeswomen from several states. She said she looks forward to the meeting each month.

“We’re open, confidential and respectful of each other,” Baudhuin said. “We can share things that have happened to us on the job site. We bounce off each other different things that are going on and how we can support each other.

“I think that’s extremely beneficial for women.”

Jobs in the unionized construction trades guarantee fair pay and are in high demand. They offer an earn-as-you-learn training model and family-supporting benefits.

Still, less than 4% of construction workers are women.

In recent years, Building Trades unions have expanded efforts to recruit women into their apprenticeship training programs – and to support women throughout their construction careers. The idea for a mentorship and peer-support program grew out of feedback from participants at the union-sponsored Tradeswomen Build Nations Conference in Minneapolis two years ago.

Today, some 700 tradeswomen participate in 76 Lean In Circles across the U.S. and Canada, and organizers are hoping more women will join as awareness spreads. Tradeswomen can find circles that work for them at leanin.org/tradeswomen.

“Increasing opportunities for women in our unions is incredibly important, and we want to provide them with all the tools needed to be successful,” Brent Booker, secretary-treasurer of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said. “This includes being an ally and supporting women at all levels of the construction industry.”

Peer-support “circles” connect thousands of women across the world who work in a wide range of industries, according to LeanIn.Org, a nonprofit backed by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, author of a 2013 book with the same name. The model offers women a space to share career-related challenges, give and get advice, and find support.

Jean-Marie Baudhuin is a member of Laborers Local 563 who participates in Lean In Circles for Tradeswomen.

“Unions are all about collective voice, and this innovative program offers the perfect opportunity to enhance that solidarity,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said. “Connecting with other women in similar situations and sharing strategies through networks is invaluable.”

Baudhuin describes her circle as both supportive and informative.

Each monthly meeting covers a specific topic. Sometimes, the conversation focuses on practical matters, like where to find work clothes and boots that fit women comfortably.

Other times, the conversation is more reflective, with tradeswomen discussing challenges they face working in a male-dominated industry and how gender bias can play out on a job site. Participants share practical advice for coping, responding and advocating for themselves.

“Often you’re the only woman on a crew,” Baudhuin said. “And the experience really depends on that crew, whether they’ve worked with women before, whether they know you belong or whether they look at you like you’re taking some guy’s job.

“All of us, without exclusion, have had incidents where we have been sexually harassed or dealt with inappropriate behavior or just felt isolated because we are women.”

By providing greater opportunities to share advice and support, organizers hope more women who try out a career in the trades stick with it. LeanIn.Org reports that 90% of tradeswomen participating in a circle say they are building strong connections and bonds, while also gaining leadership, moderating and organizing skills.

Baudhuin counts herself among them.

“We’re all trying to prove ourselves, and sometimes we question ourselves and whether we belong,” she said. “In sharing, we realize this isn’t a personal thing, but a systemic thing that’s working itself out over time.”

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