Founded by tradeswomen in 1981, Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) exists to improve women’s economic equity by increasing their participation in high-skill, blue-collar occupations. Originally established as a support network, CWIT addresses the barriers that prohibit women and girls from entering and succeeding in male-dominated industries by creating opportunities and promoting equitable workplaces and conditions.
In 1978, affirmative action guidelines were first applied to employing women in the construction trades and doors to high-wage, trades careers were cracked open for women. Entrance, however, did not mean equity for women, it meant isolation on the job site, routine encounters with sexual harassment, and discrimination in hiring, training and job retention. In response to this cement ceiling, the sisters in the “brotherhood” of carpenters began a support group and, in 1981, when they were joined in their potlucks and pickets by other tradeswomen, the idea for Chicago Women in Trades was born. Hiring its first staff person in 1984 and its first executive director in 1986, CWIT’s early victories included a successful action against Washburne Trade School, followed, in 1987 by the development of the Pre-Apprenticeship Tutorial Workshop, now Technical Opportunities Program, to increase the number of women prepared to enter the trades. More than thirty years after its establishment, CWIT has grown from a grassroots support group to a nationally recognized tradeswomen’s organization providing leadership in policy development and advocacy as well as models for addressing the still formidable challenge of achieving full career choice and economic equity for women.
The conditions that served as the impetus for CWIT’s development persist. Despite significant gains in careers once thought to be the exclusive province of men, women’s wages remain on average 23% lower than those earned by men, a gap which is at least in part attributable to the occupational segregation that funnels the majority of working women into female dominated, often low-wage, occupations. The under-representation is particularly stark in skilled trades occupations, where women constitute less than 3% of a workforce that numbers over 220,000 in Illinois, despite federal legislation and regulations that prohibit gender discrimination in hiring, set goals for numbers of women working for federally financed contractors, and require the recruitment of women apprentices.
Led by tradeswomen, CWIT continues to work toward changing these statistics by providing support and education to tradeswomen; increasing training for women and girls to enter nontraditional jobs; providing technical assistance to employers, unions, and other tradeswomen groups; documenting trends in the nontraditional workplace; and advocating for improved policies and practices that support women’s access to nontraditional training and jobs, as well as success and safety on the job.
Current programs include:
Established in 1987, the Technical Opportunities Program (TOP) is a pre-apprenticeship program preparing women to compete for and succeed in construction apprenticeship programs and other related nontraditional occupations. CWIT offers three sessions of this 12-week, approximately 180 hour course, serving an average of 75 women annually.
Strong welding skills are sought after in many sectors of our economy. To ensure that women are qualified for and able to advance in these occupations, CWIT is partnering with the Jane Addams Resource Corporation to provide women with welding instruction, primarily geared toward preparing them for entry level manufacturing jobs. The approximately 13 week, full-time training program provide successful graduates with fork lift driving and OSHA 10 certification as well as American Welding Society credentials.
National Center for Women’s Equity in Employment and Apprenticeship
The National Center for Women’s Equity in Employment and Apprenticeship works to level the playing field for women in nontraditional occupations and support their advancement and leadership in these industries. Key strategies include:
To achieve the goal of women’s participation in construction and other industries, institutions must be intentional about their equity goals, implement new strategies, and adapt their policies and practices to ensure that women have an equitable opportunity to learn about, enter and succeed in occupations traditionally held by men. Leading a consortium of nine tradeswomen’s organizations and other subject matter experts from around the country, CWIT works to provide a wide range of technical assistance services and resources that support apprenticeship programs, employers, training providers and the workforce system in setting and meeting gender equity goals. Technical assistance includes EEO planning guidance, toolkits, best practice briefs, curriculum, staff training, replicable program models and other resources and strategies that have proven successful in attracting and retaining women in these fields.
Both locally and, through our leadership of the National Task Force on Tradeswomen Issues, CWIT works to advocate for policies and practices that promote equitable access and working conditions for women entering construction and other nontraditional employment. The focus of this work is on protecting and strengthening the regulations and systems that oversee equal employment opportunity compliance, preserving and expanding public investment in women in nontraditional careers, providing a framework for policymakers, public agencies, developers and contractors to connect women to preparatory programs and promote their retention on publicly funded sites.
Tradeswomen’s Leadership Development
CWIT also works to promote tradeswomen’s self-advocacy to advance policy campaigns and change the industry from the inside, providing education, support groups and women’s committee development and facilitation, mentoring, resources and guidance in understanding their rights, resolving issues on the job, and advancing into positions of leadership.
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