Twenty years ago if you'd asked Violet Henderson what it took to make a good foundation, she would have recommended oil-free concealer and a cosmetic sponge. Henderson, after all, was a makeup saleswoman, earning her keep hawking beauty products while raising two children on her own. The hours were long and the paychecks small, but the job included health insurance. So when Henderson was downsized without warning, she took a long look in her pocket mirror. Hard times stared her in the face.
"I knew for my own sake, but mostly for my children's sake, that I had to find something different," Henderson says. "I needed to make a change to secure the future."
Henderson went to the San Francisco Public Library, where she poured over a book called Women in Blue Collar Jobs. It was an interesting read and the start of a dramatic career makeover. From that point on, the former cosmetics saleswoman would never think of foundations in the same way.
At 50, Henderson today is a longstanding member of the Laborers Union Local
304, a seasoned construction worker with nearly two decades of experience
under her tool belt. She has dug tunnels and built freeway overpasses. She has stacked stories onto skyscrapers and laid pipe under public roads. In recent months, Henderson has been working on the Bay Area's most prominent public project - the new Bay Bridge. Five days a week, eight hours a day, Henderson serves as a carpenter's assistant, helping piece together the giant pier tables that now rise from the water, the sturdy legs of the eastern span.
"I've worked on a lot of exciting projects, but this one is unlike any other I've been on," Henderson says. "How many times in your life do you get to build a bridge?"
As a woman in the heavy construction trade, Henderson is unusual but not unique. Of the 360 craftspeople working on the Bay Bridge on any given day, 23, or roughly 6 percent, are women. They hold a range of responsibilities—pile drivers, welders, forklift-operators—the same jobs carried out by their male counterparts. They play a vital part in the ambitious bridge project, but they are not its public face. To the average motorist passing the site, the new bridge-in-the-making has the rough and tumble look of most large construction projects, an intimidating world of concrete and steel, widely perceived as an exclusive blue-collar club for men.
"I'm sure the average person probably thinks of a construction site as a bunch of guys with hard hats and lunch pails in heavy work boots," says Greg York, assistant project manager for KFM, the contracting company working on the bridge. "And certainly there are more men than women. But women play an important role in the industry, and for most men on the job, women are a welcome presence. They make life on the job feel a lot more normal than it otherwise would."
When Henderson got her start in construction, the industry's male-dominated culture didn't always offer women a warm embrace. Henderson's first job was on the Broadway Tunnel. Her responsibility - hauling wheelbarrows full of wet concrete.
"First of all, I showed up in khakis and tennis shoes, which obviously wasn't the right clothing for the job," she says. "But the guys weren't exactly thrilled to have me either. They said, 'Well, we've got her here, so we might as well keep her.' I worked one day before they laid me off. I was discouraged. But it was the first time I'd been paid more than $150 for a day's work. That inspired me to keep going."
Unlike Violet Henderson, Kimberly Newman, another female worker on the bridge project, never faced a steep learning curve. Construction is the only work she's ever known. The daughter of a pipe-fitter, Newman picked up trade skills early.
"My dad was a versatile guy," she says. "He taught me how to use power tools, but he also taught me how to make apple pie."
On a recent afternoon, as the sun beat down on the San Francisco Bay, Newman eased her way down a narrow metal stairway, 40 feet beneath the water's surface, into the cofferdam surrounding pier table 14. As work settings go, this one was surreal, with the futuristic trappings of a sci-fi film: the skeleton of a concrete footing rising up from the bay floor into an open clearing, a man-made dry well in the middle of the water, with giant cranes swooping overhead. At the bottom of the cofferdam, Newman crouched to inspect the rubber tubing surrounding the foundation—one of many steps taken to keep things dry.
"Working in a marine environment is very different from working on land, for obvious reasons," Newman says. "You've got the salt, the water, the sea breezes. But a lot of the same skills apply—you have to be organized, you have to pay attention. We're all a team here, and the quality of the job and the safety of the workers depends on everything we do."
Although she began doing "man's work" early—she was a union welder in her early 20s—Newman has never tried to be one of the guys.
"I've had guys say to me, 'A woman's job is to cook and have children,'" Newman says. "Sure, it makes you mad. But you have to have wit. What I say to them is, 'Look, I'm not trying to be a man. I'm just trying to support my family.' That's something everyone can relate to."
Women, Newman says, may not have the muscle power of their male counterparts, but they bring different strengths to the job.
"This might sound like a stereotype, but I think women can be more sensitive to their surroundings," Newman says. "And we're definitely neater, and you can't overestimate the importance of being clean and organized on a construction site. That's a factor that plays a huge role in safety."
Over the years, Newman has never tried to act like a man, but she has learned how men communicate.
"A woman might say, 'Will you please give me the hammer?' very politely," Newman says. "Whereas a man might, 'Hey, give me the hammer.' They can be very blunt and will tell you straight up what they're thinking. You have to learn not to take it personally."
Debra Carrell, a forklift operator on the bridge project, used to let male gruffness get to her. She got into the trade 17 years ago, when a divorce left her raising five children on her own.
"My first six months in construction, I went home crying a lot at night," Carrell says. "But I never thought of quitting. I had to keep my eye on the bigger picture, and I knew that this line of work was a good way to provide for my family."
Now the hard-hat world is old hat to Carrell, and operating a forklift is second nature. On the bridge project, she handles incoming material for the post-tensioning crew, hauling tons of wire and concrete with a 25-foot extendable boom.
"As many construction jobs as there are, construction is still a pretty small world," Carrell says. "I like to think that over the years I've earned a pretty good reputation. I've moved around a lot of iron. And that experience is what got me this job."
In the end, Carrell says, gender isn't what matters.
"We're all just out here trying to do the best job we can," she says.
Kimberly Newman agrees.
"What I like most is the feeling of being part of something historic," she says. "I like knowing that 100 years from now, my great-grandchildren will be able to look out on the bay and see the work we did."
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