Smith College forum focuses on women in construction

  • Alexandra Tourighy,14, of Goshen gets help from class mate Bruce Bielunis, 14 of Hadley, during electrical class at Smith Vocational. The shop had 14 freshman, two female students and 12 male. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alexandra Tourighy,14, of Goshen during electrical shop at Smith Vocational. The shop had 14 freshman, two female students and 12 male. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bruce Bielunis, 14, of Hadley, and Megan McCutcheon, 15, of Northampton work on a project during electrical shop Thursday at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Peter Persson, an electrical teacher at Smith Vocational, works with Megan McCutcheon,15, of Northampton during class. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alexandra Tourighy,14, of Goshen during electrical shop at Smith Vocational. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Scott Miller, a carpentry and cabinet maker instructor at Smith Vocational works with Alisha Pouliot,17 of Westfield, spraying a lacquer finish on some brackets. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alisha Pouliot,17 of Westfield, sprays a lacquer finish on some brackets during shop at Smith Vocational. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alexandra Tourighy,14, of Goshen during electrical shop at Smith Vocational. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alisha Pouliot,17 of Westfield, sprays a lacquer finish on some brackets during shop at Smith Vocational. —CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 2/16/2018 12:18:08 AM

NORTHAMPTON — It has been 76 years since Rosie the Riveter first flexed her bicep in the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster.

Fast forward to 2018, and women still only represent 3 percent of the construction workforce — a statistic that leaves many asking why this is, and how it can be resolved.

That was the focus of a well-attended forum on women and construction Thursday at Smith College, where several women in the construction industry discussed the need for aggressive recruiting of women and ways to help them keep and maintain their jobs in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field.

“These women have demonstrated that women can survive and thrive in construction,” Carrie Baker, a Smith College associate professor and director of the Study of Women and Gender program, said.

The forum included Janet Butler, owner and president of Federal Concrete Inc. of Hopedale; carpenters Lily Thompson of Plainfield and Tyeka Robinson of Springfield; and third-year carpenter’s apprentice Theresa Copeland of Northampton. Moderator was Susannah Howe, senior lecturer in engineering, and director of a collaborative program in the Pickering engineering program.

The women on the panel stressed the importance of recruiting women into the trades through company hiring goals and mentoring programs, having zero tolerance for sexual harassment or discrimination on the job, actively supporting female colleagues on work sites, and raising awareness that in the world of construction, women not only can get the job done but can do it well.

“Some of the best-paid jobs open in the blue-collar sector are in construction,” Baker said. “They have a good living wage, health benefits, and provide on-the-job training, but they have historically only benefited white men.”

Robinson, a woman of color who was raised in the foster system, said that becoming a carpenter changed her life completely, allowing her to support her 7-year-old child and buy their first home.

Her job has not only benefited her, but puts her in the position to help other women coming into the trades.

“I am a union steward. If someone gets harassed, they come to me and I take care of it,” she said. “I have no tolerance for that — we have to support each other.”

Butler, who began her career as “the girl in the construction office” and went on to own her own company with a workforce made up of 8 percent women, said she believes it is important to help women move up the ranks into industry leadership roles.

But for women to get that first foot in the door, some said the key was debunking gender stereotypes.

Thompson said she has been a carpenter for 15 years and until recently has never worked with another woman on a construction site. She said women in the trades are leading by example.

“It is very gratifying to tell my 6-year old daughter that I worked on this building or that building,” Thompson said. “She just has it in her head that it is totally possible.”

Hiring goals

Copeland noted that if more institutions set goals for hiring women in construction it could go a long way in helping bridge the gender gap.

The Smith campus is currently undertaking a $100 million renovation and construction project on Neilson Library.

“Women engineers have been involved in building projects at Smith, and certainly women are involved in funding the projects, but we want to see involvement at all levels, from using women-owned business for building materials, to hiring women construction workers,” Baker said. “If a woman’s college can’t prioritize hiring women for these jobs, who will?”

On Thursday morning Smith posted on its website that it will establish a hiring goal of a 7 percent female and 16 percent racial minority workforce for the Neilson Library project. In addition, it will set a goal for 12 percent combined representation of minority- and women-owned business for the project as well.

“We are thrilled!” Baker said. “We would love Smith to have a general policy for all projects that would have these goals. They are very modest, but still a good start.”

Change on the horizon?

According to Howe, 15 years ago, Smith College graduated 19 students from its first class of engineering students. The school’s engineering program was first in the country at a women’s college. This year, Smith will graduate 48 young women from that program.

But girls can also start younger than that in the construction trades — for example, at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton.

Two of them spoke to the Gazette on Thursday. Alexandra Tourighy 14, of Goshen said her goal is to be an electrician on movie sets. She said the lack of women in trades doesn’t bother her in terms of setting her own goals.

“If you go to a trade school, you learn what you want, and then you go and do what you want,” she said. “It is not up to anybody else, it is up to you.”

Tourighy said she has never received anything but support for her choice of study.

Megan McCutcheon, 15, of Northampton said she knows there are not a lot of women in the construction trades. She said people have asked why she wants to be an electrician, but she’s fine with that.

“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I don’t think that kind of thing will affect me that much. I feel people should be open-minded about it.”

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy