Hardhats and Hard Conversations–Lean In Circles Bring Tradeswomen Together to Navigate Bias and Ask for What They Deserve

SAN FRANCISCOMay 11, 2021 — Today, LeanIn.OrgNorth America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), and Canada’s Build Together announced Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen, a peer mentorship and training program to help women break new ground in an industry that’s been historically dominated by men.

“Women in the building trades are talented and determined—but they are often alone,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and LeanIn.Org founder. “Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen will connect them with each other and help them gain valuable skills for self-advocacy and navigating bias. This is an important step toward empowering more women to take advantage of the pathway to economic security that trade union jobs provide.”

Less than 4 percent of construction workers are women, and because there are so few of them, they are often the “Only” woman on a crew or at a job site. Being an Only is a major barrier to women in any industry. Women who are Onlys face more bias and sexism than women who work with other women. They are more than twice as likely to be asked to prove their competence, over three times more likely to be mistaken for someone more junior, and about twice as likely to be subjected to demeaning or disrespectful remarks. The challenges of the Only experience make it exponentially harder for women to gain a foothold in male-dominated industries like construction. This is a problem, because these jobs tend to offer higher pay and better security than other industries and provide critical benefits for workers and their families. As investment in infrastructure grows and jobs in construction increase, having access to these kinds of trades represents a crucial opportunity for women.

Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen addresses head-on the issues tradeswomen face. The yearlong program brings tradeswomen together in small groups (virtually for now) to connect, share advice, and learn new skills. Tradeswomen discover how gender bias can play out on a work crew or at a job site, gain practical skills for navigating bias, and explore strategies they can use to advocate for themselves and other women in the trades. Each monthly meeting covers a specific topic—such as how to respond when your abilities are questioned or how to advocate to your boss for a leadership role, like foreman—and includes real-world examples and scenarios to prompt discussion. At the end of each meeting, tradeswomen commit to one action they plan to take to push back on bias at work or advance their career.

“Unions are all about collective voice, and this innovative program offers the perfect opportunity to enhance that solidarity,” said AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler. “We need more women in the trades, more women in leadership roles, and having programs like this is a meaningful step to create lifelong leadership skills and real tools that will guide tradeswomen throughout their careers. Connecting with other women in similar situations and sharing strategies through networks is invaluable.”

Two years in the making, the program was developed by LeanIn.Org in partnership with AFL-CIO and NABTU leaders, subject matter experts, and tradeswomen to address the specific experiences of women in the building trades. The program was piloted in St. Louis, Missouri, and throughout Canada in 2019 and 2020 and received positive feedback from participants: 95 percent of Circle members said they built strong connections, and 90 percent of group moderators reported gaining leadership, facilitation, and organizing skills. As one tradeswoman put it, “The confidence I feel when a Circle member looks to me for advice is immeasurable. I take that confidence with me to the job and demand respect through my actions.” Following the success of the pilot, the program began rolling out across the United States and Canada; so far, more than 700 tradeswomen have signed up.

“We are committed to doing whatever it takes to break down barriers for tradeswomen within our industry and address the issues they face head-on through a number of initiatives, including our Apprenticeship Readiness Programs, Tradeswomen Build Nations, and BuildTogether,” said Brent Booker, secretary-treasurer of NABTU. “The Lean In Circles model is an innovative strategy that creates space for tradeswomen to mentor, support, and learn from one another through curriculum created by tradeswomen, for 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—this includes being an ally and supporting women at all levels of the construction industry.”

The Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen program is modeled after Lean In’s Circles program. Since it began in 2013, more than 50,000 women around the world have started a Lean In Circle for camaraderie and peer support. Circles provide a safe space for women to share the challenges they’re facing in their careers, give and get advice, and celebrate each other’s wins.

“There is something powerful that happens when women come together to support each other,” said Rachel Thomas, LeanIn.Org cofounder and CEO. “Circles are a place where women can be unapologetically ambitious, give voice to our dreams, and get the push we need to start chasing them. No matter what industry you’re in or where you are in your career, having a community of women around you makes a huge difference.”

For more information on Circles, visit leanin.org/circles. For more information about Lean In Circles for Union Tradeswomen and to sign up to join the incoming cohort, visit leanin.org/tradeswomen.