Dale McCormick knows this fight. As the first female "journey-level" carpenter in the United States (the term "journeyman" refers to a tradesperson who has completed an apprenticeship in their given area of expertise) and founder of Women Unlimited, an organization focused on helping women gain vocational skills, McCormick is familiar with the struggle to get women to pursue jobs in carpentry, construction, and other male-dominated trades.
Though McCormick, who completed her apprenticeship in 1975, went on to serve as a state legislator, as state treasurer (the first female constitutional officer in the state of Maine), and now as head of the Maine State Housing Authority, she's never lost sight of the social and economic importance of increasing female representation in certain sectors of the workforce.
She views it as an economic justice issue, defining the big question of her life as: "How do you get women and people of color to be able to compete on the same level playing field for those jobs as white males?"
"Women in non-traditional jobs have to cease to become novelties — we need to become an economic justice issue," she says. "It's just a waste of human potential. That women are underrepresented . . . in high-paying jobs. Let's just take blue-collar jobs. These are valuable to many people because they are the kinds of jobs that pay a living wage, and for some of them, you don't need to go to four-year college."
Diversifying the workforce is good for employers, too, McCormick says.
She recalls, during the push to get more women involved in the trades during the 1970s, trying to convince unions that if they wanted to survive, "they needed to expand their perception of who could be a bricklayer."
That justification makes sense now, as baby boomers retire from lifelong careers in technical trades and infrastructure repair becomes a more pressing concern. If construction companies are after so-called "shovel-ready jobs," it behooves them to look beyond the stereotypical pool of who can wield a shovel.
But, while McCormick acknowledges that employer awareness around sexual harassment and "hostile work environments" has shifted, the underlying prejudices may still exist.
"The hardest part of my apprenticeship . . . was the context, the overriding sense that what I did did not matter," she says. "That I was extra."
That you were a novelty? I ask.
"Yes," she replies firmly. Her 1977 book, Against the Grain, was part of her response, offering women in the trades advice from a peer.
Combating subtle chauvinism is difficult, requiring enforcement of existing diversity-promoting policies and laws, money for outreach to women and girls, enhanced support systems once they are recruited, and a deep understanding that encouraging females to explore atypical career paths could provide a lifeline out of a cycle of poverty. But it all starts with simply presenting the option.
As McCormick puts it: "You've gotta make it okay for the girls to try it."