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Testimony of Japlan "Jazz" Allen

Good Morning and thank you Chair Burrows, Vice Chair Samuels, and Members of the Commission, for this opportunity to join today’s hearing on discrimination and harassment in construction. I am Japlan Allen, and I go by “Jazz.” I speak to you today as a 21-year member of the Ironworker’s Union Local 1 in Chicago—a career that offers me and my family the economic security that comes with Ironworker’s wage of $54.83 per hour, and a benefits package of an additional $55/hour which pays for full health care coverage, and contributes to my pension. Through my apprenticeship, a learn while you earn program, I built a set of skills that are highly valued and in demand in our industry. Apprenticeship training meant I was earning while learning without going into debt to pay college tuition. I have an amazing career and it’s not just the good wages.  I take great pride in my work and know that the bridges and roads I build matter to my community, my city and our country’s infrastructure. And I love showing them off to my kids, family and friends.

This is a long way from where I started. Coming out of prison I felt like I had two options, I could continue to scrape by in my low-paying job, or I could return to the streets. I didn’t like either of those options. Everything changed for me when a friend brought me a flyer for Chicago Women in Trades. CWIT’s 12-week pre-apprenticeship program opened doors I never even knew about that led to the career I now have as a journeywoman ironworker. CWIT’s 12-week training program not only introduces women to the trades, it helps women become competitive candidates, well-prepared to pass the apprenticeship entry tests. CWIT teaches women to be their strongest selves, and most importantly we provide essential support services: our motto is Build a Career, Join a Sisterhood. I am a proud to represent that sisterhood today as a Board member of Chicago Women in Trades.

Construction trades are great careers, but like me, few women learn about these careers in schools, have the basic knowledge to be a competitive candidate for apprenticeship or feel prepared to enter a male-dominated, and primarily white workforce. Women in Illinois make up only 4% of construction registered apprentices. And while programs like CWIT are making a difference in getting the word out and helping women become competitive candidates, we are a small community-based organization with only limited reach.

Getting into the trades is just the first hurdle to overcome. Getting accepted into an apprenticeship program is tough, you are competing for highly desirable jobs with men who have a whole lot of advantages that most women don’t have. But even once we’ve overcome that challenge, women still find that the good hourly wages and benefits are offset by a whole new set of significant and persistent barriers.  I’ve been lucky to have a good career, but 21 years after I began my career, 40 years after CWIT’s founding, I know too many tradeswomen who are struggling to stay in their careers, and too many tradeswomen say that they are seriously considering leaving the trades. Their stories are borne out by the 2021 Tradeswomen Survey conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of over 2600 tradeswomen. 47.7 percent of the respondents said that they have seriously considered leaving their careers altogether.[i] There are three primary reasons:

  1. Not working regularly to get enough hours so that wage actually translates into a good annual salary.
  2. Not getting the training to have the skill set to be a productive and in demand worker.
  3. Not being able to go to work in a workplace that provides a safe, healthy and harassment free environment or find respect on the job or in the union.


1. Lack of steady employment

This is by far the biggest problem. In the IWPR survey 26.5% reported that they are not treated equally during layoffs, and 22.1% said they are not treated equally during hiring. The most common complaint I hear from our members is that they cannot find stable work. Tradeswomen are often the last hired and first to be let go. Many are directly told they are only there to fill a quota. Or that they can’t be sent to a job because the company didn’t specifically ask for a woman. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m an ironworker. That’s what qualifies me to work. One tradeswoman said: “I actually got told by one other journeyman a few months ago actually, he's like, "You know, I'm going to be honest with you, I'm not afraid to say it, you're only still here because you're a minority."

In the IWPR study, 32.7% of the tradeswomen reported unequal treatment in hiring. This means you aren’t getting enough hours for the high hourly wage to translate into the good annual income it promises. It also means you’re not banking enough hours to build your pension benefits. For apprentices not working can mean being held back in your apprenticeship program – an economic hardship when your wages increase significantly every year. But earnings are also affected by overtime assignments. As a 3rd year apprentice said: “If you're working with another third year apprentice, they are technically making the same amount of money as you because everything is equal. But the reality is that as a male third year apprentice, he may bank more money than you this year based on overtime alone. And you guys could be on the same job doing the same damn thing, but because he's getting overtime and you're not, that's how he's going to make more money than you for that year. That's definitely one of the things that's not equal on the job sites.” And in the construction employment world, where layoffs and changing worksites and employers is the norm, retaliation for complaining is a reality.  If tradeswomen seek redress, they are put on a “do-not-hire” list, seen as a trouble-maker.

2. Not getting the training

One reason that tradeswomen may find it difficult to get steady work is rooted in not getting good training. In the IWPR study, more than 20% of the tradeswomen said that they were not treated equally to men in terms of work assignments or on-the-job training. This means a tradeswoman might not be as productive or doesn’t have the array of skills to handle a variety of different aspects of the work.  It also impacts our safety and health. If I’m not trained adequately, I’m more likely to get hurt, or overcompensate doing something the wrong way. It also means a tradeswoman’s co-workers will be able to point to her and say “See, I told you women don’t belong here”. Or as one tradeswoman shared: 

“As a woman you have like a double minority stamp. I’m a woman of color, but I’m also a woman. They don’t question male apprentices; they are like, ‘Oh, he’s here to learn.’ [But] as a woman, as soon as you step on the field or into the shop, they’re like, ‘What is she here for?’”.  Another tradeswoman said, “My first day as an apprentice, I was told that I was hired to satisfy goals on public jobs. Many of the men in my apprentice class easily found mentors. I did not. Some of the journeymen on my jobs were willing to teach me, while others obviously felt that women didn't belong on construction jobs. I had to fight to get the training that I needed to become a successful journeyworker.”

Another said: “They don't put me to work in the electrical room, they put a first year to work in the electrical room and send me to go get the deliveries first. So, I don't know if it was to do with what, but I was definitely downstairs picking up bundles and counting it and he was upstairs learning how to install panels, which is something I need to know how to do. It seems like women have to fight to advance and to learn new aspects of the trade that men automatically get to do.” One tradeswoman said that what’s making her want to stay “is seeing the Black apprentices come in and seeing how a lot of them are just kind of shifted to the side, or they’ll get the job where they’ve been on for months and months at a time, where it’s, ‘Okay, I learned this already. Give me something new,’ or they’re the one pushing the broom, or they’re the one helping load the truck instead of being the one knocking the ductwork and learning the trade.”

This issue is at the root of problems for more than half of the females of one specific trade in Chicago. I’m not going to say which one because I don’t want to put these women in more jeopardy. Not surprisingly, all of the women that are facing training and employment problems are women of color. Their complaints range from being assigned to menial jobs, (for one woman this meant she worked for three years just in the tool room learning no skills), having problems getting work assignments, or being disciplined by her apprenticeship program for working for too many employers, a situation she had no control over. The tradeswomen, already banded together for support, chose to try internal channels at multiple levels of responsibility to resolve their complaints. These efforts have not been successful and have in fact led to retaliation that has hurt tradeswomen’s reputations, ability to work, and kept a number of them held back in their apprenticeship program for not having enough work hours or getting poor evaluations without explanations or guidance. In an industry with multiple employers, and an apprenticeship program that dictates hiring opportunities it is extremely easy to be “blacklisted” and

find it impossible to work. These courageous tradeswomen are paying a big price and while they are fearful about taking their complaints to another level, that is on the table now.

The problems of training, which persists even after completing an apprenticeship, impacts women’s access to steady work and advancement.  Even after reaching journey-level status, another tradeswoman said, “they just persistently saw me as an apprentice when I was already at a journey level.  So, they would give me work that they would give a first year apprentice.  And I would talk with the guy that's running that project and I'd be like, "Dude, why do you have me doing this?  You should be having the apprentices put up insulation," I felt like I had to leave that company because I felt like I was never going to grow as a tradesperson and they were going to keep me limited in my craft.”

3. Workplace culture:

So, let me put it simply, the construction work culture is not like an average office workplace. Yelling, cussing, hazing, raunchy behavior, off color jokes, bullying are the norms. A “macho culture”, or what some might call the “locker room” culture, is typically the norm for behavior, communication, and practices in our workplaces. This means an environment where sexualized conversations, jokes, stories, graffiti, and pornography are commonplace. Even equipment, tools and parts can be referred to in sexual terms. For many tradeswomen it can feel unwelcoming and uncomfortable, and it’s inappropriate for any workplace. Women feel enormous pressure to fit in – to be “one of the guys” and complaining about it or trying to change it just feeds into the idea that women are just not cut out for this type of work.

And we risk a lot if we ask for it to change. Women want to be accepted and included in the camaraderie of their coworkers, and don’t want to be seen as whiners or complainers. Women are told they are “just too sensitive”, or “we should not have to change the way we work just because a woman is here”, or “if you cannot take the heat get out of the fire”, or “women are whiners who don’t belong in a dangerous and dirty job” and, “if you don’t want to tolerate the working conditions, then don’t work in this field”.  So, women who enter these fields may feel that they have no choice but to adapt to the locker room environment and not risk being labeled a “troublemaker”. In construction you will generally work for many different companies meaning we have to prove ourselves over and over at each new job, with a new group of co-workers. When you work for a new company, they definitely see you as, "Great, I'm getting a girl.  I'm going to have to pick up her weight."

Or tradeswomen may find that supervisors or co-workers withhold training, assistance, and safety information or equipment. Tradeswomen report they often feel that they cannot ask for help because that would start the scenario of "See, I told you she couldn't do it." Women report being more reluctant to report workplace safety and health problems because they fear they be may tagged as complainers and risk straining further their workplace relationships and jeopardizing their employment situation. A huge health issue for women is a lack of sanitary facilities, or the inability to use the ones provided because they are too filthy or full of degrading graffiti. And, if you have to go a significant distance to find a facility can use – and this can mean going offsite, you may face the hostile glares of co-workers who think you are slacking off, or a supervisor who wants to dock you for taking too much break time.

Women find themselves more often than not alone on a jobsite. According to the IWPR survey, Black women have a one-in-a-hundred chance to work with another Latina or Black woman on a building site. A Latina apprentice explained that, “In the last four years, this is my 11th job, and I’ve been the only female except for one of the jobs.” Another Chicago tradeswoman said: “I think that for the most part, in every job I think I've been the only woman.  For the most part I'm the only woman on the jobsite”.  Being the only woman, and possibly the only person of color at work means you stand out, people know you even before you show up on your first day and you often feel like you have to carry the weight of representing all women and all people of your race.

Working as the only female on a job site, being ostracized by co-workers, or facing harassment can add a layer of stress and distraction to a job with dangerous and hazardous conditions. When you are isolated, even less serious forms of harassment or discrimination are molehills that can quickly become mountains. Because the work is physically demanding and dangerous, harassment, discriminatory practices, and isolation do not just jeopardize employment opportunities and livelihood, but can, in fact, sometimes be life threatening. Tradeswomen have faced threats of physical harm, sabotaged work, and being placed in dangerous situations by male co-workers and supervisors

An unwelcoming environment can also quickly turn into a hostile workplace. Harassment can take many forms, including hazing where tradeswomen report that their physical strength is often "tested" by their male co-workers asking them to lift or carry materials that normally two people would do. Many new male apprentices experience a period of hazing at first, but for women, the poor treatment can persist and it is intended not to "test," but to drive the women away. Tradeswomen say they often overcompensate in their work to "prove" themselves to their co-workers and bosses or are reluctant to ask for help or for safety equipment. A woman may risk performing unsafe work without this equipment to prove to her male co-workers that she can and will do unsafe things to be seen as “one of the guys” and not someone who expects preferential treatment.

In the IWPR survey of 2600 tradeswomen, nearly 60% report that they always, frequently, or sometimes face harassment based on their gender.  That’s over 1500 tradeswomen! 47% reported facing sexual harassment always, frequently, or sometimes. In dangerous and physically demanding working conditions, harassment is not just about our rights and respect, it’s also a safety & health issue. Tradeswomen have faced threats, being put in harm’s way, and even violence, including sexual assault and murder. Dealing with this can bring chronic stress reactions or make you distracted, unable to focus, or not take proper safety precautions, which also can result in on-the-job injuries.

Women tell of not complaining or reporting out of a fear of a lack of job security, on the current job, and for future employment opportunities. In an industry like construction, with multiple employers on a jobsite, it can be complicated to get relief from just complaining to the leadership of your own company, apprenticeship program or union. And leaving a job to avoid a harasser doesn’t provide any guarantee that the same employee won’t show up on the next job. Since layoffs are common in the construction industry, a layoff may be explained as lack of work, but in fact might be a way to retaliate against someone who complains of sexual harassment or unfair assignments. And the tradeswoman goes back to the bench or hustling her next job while her coworkers go on to the next job with the contractor. Regularly changing workplaces, employers and co-workers adds challenges to addressing and redressing sexual harassment. Women also don’t complain because nothing happens. 55.7 percent of the survey respondents reported the harassment to their company or to their union or to their apprenticeship program, but of those, 57.9 percent of those said that the incident of harassment or discrimination was not addressed effectively. All this has a big toll.  In the IWPR survey, 44.4 % of those reporting said that they have seriously considered leaving the trades, citing “lack of respect/harassment” as the primary reason for discouragement. 58.5% report that they are always or frequently or sometimes harassed just for being a woman.

A predominantly white male workforce can be especially hostile to women of color. 48 % of women of color report that they are always or frequently sometimes racially harassed. Over 40% of respondents to a Construction Dive survey said they had seen racist graffiti on a jobsite, 38% reported hearing verbal abuse and racial slurs hurled at Hispanic and Black employees, and 15% said they had seen nooses or racist objects at work. More than four dozen nooses have been reported at 40 building sites and offices across the United States and Canada since 2015, according to a Washington Post analysis.[ii] In a recent survey by Construction Dive, 2/3 of respondents witnessed a racist act on the job and 77% who were victimized or witnessed victimization said that nothing was done about it. [iii]

In CWIT’s joint report with IWPR in 2021, Here to Stay: Black, Latina and Afro-Latina Women in Construction[iv], one tradeswoman said, “I feel like there's a lot of anti-Black culture in construction and -- I've had to speak up for the apprentice that I have right now, because they always want to downgrade-- right away they're like, "Oh, how many rooms did she do?"  And I'm like, "She did as many as that other young White guy that was over there. Why is your attitude like that?

Another tradeswoman told us: “There's definitely a lot of racism for sure towards Latinas or Latinos and Blacks, I haven't encountered it to my face, but they'll definitely put me on a shitty duty on a job that nobody else wants to do, the job that's the most nitty-gritty.”

It’s Time for Solutions!

I’ve laid out the problems, but I really want to make sure I share the ideas we have to address these problems. We know that many of the recommendations we offer are doable—in fact, if a small community of tradeswomen at Chicago Women in Trades can offer women support, promote policy and provide guidance and training to industry stakeholders, surely, an agency like the EEOC, other government agencies and our contractors, unions and apprenticeship programs can do the same and more—amplifying it times 100!

  1. I hope my testimony has raised your awareness: Now, you can do the same: host hearings, roundtables/listening sessions for contractors, developers, and unions.
  2. We have lots of examples of best practices and guidelines for industry stakeholders. You can find these on our National Center for Women's Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment website, My own International Union has set some high bars with their pregnancy accommodation and maternity leave policy and the Be That One Guy campaign. Help us get these ideas out to our industry.
  3. Require anti-harassment and respectful workplace training industry wide. It needs to be intensive, interactive, and when possible in-person, and not just a lawyer telling someone “Don’t Do This!” and it needs to be reinforced with strong policy and clear guidelines for how to complain in a safe manner that minimizes further risk.
  4. To ensure equity, contractors, unions, and apprenticeship programs should be required to develop equity and inclusion plans and submit annual reports that document employment data, trainings conducted, complaints, and actions taken to redress.
  5. Reporting the numbers of employees or union members is important, but it only shows one part of the picture. Looking at data, disaggregated by gender and race of hours worked over a year or years, is more accurate. This data exists because it’s how our unions keep track of our pension benefits. Find the baseline and monitor annual improvements of failures.
  6. Target specific trades based on high-impact, high underrepresentation. This would be especially important to align with where the federal investments of infrastructure are being made.
  7. Work with Chicago Women in Trades and groups like ours to identify strategies to uncover discrimination without putting individuals at risk and to address the persistent micro-inequities that in other workplaces might be understood and treated as pattern & practice of a hostile workplace but are hard to establish because of fluid construction employment situations.
  8. Collaborate with DOL’s agencies – Office of Apprenticeship and the Office Federal Contract Compliance, and the Department of Transportation and the Infrastructure Oversight team at the White House.


[i] Ariane Hegewisch and Eve Mefferd, A Future Worth Building: What Tradeswomen Say about the Change they Need. (Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2021)