Written by...Tara Johnson...
Considered taboo by traditional standards, women engaged in the construction industry have frequently been detoured by discrimination and prejudice away from the work zone.
Resistant to this type of chauvinism, Deise Gravina, a civil engineer in Brazil is leading a successful program to train extremely poor women in well-paying trade positions.
Gravina’s vision to empower and improve the lives of disadvantaged women in her country materialized in 2007 after a survey of 216 women living in the suburbs of Rio de Janiero expressed interest in civil and home construction.
The findings inspired Gravina to develop Mão na Massa, a non-profit vocational training program in Rio de Janiero.
Roughly translated to “get your hands dirty”, the program educates women in bricklaying, concrete, plumbing, framework, and electrical work.
Following 460 hours of classroom training, participants are guided by a team of professionals including civil engineers and technicians to “perform a work of truth” at an active work site.
The program targets the most vulnerable projects in the area, including community centers for children and the disabled, providing free labor and charging only for the purchase of materials.
Once certified, students are presented with a diploma, protective equipment and a tool kit to jump-start their career. Graduates are also encouraged to browse the website’s “job bank” for employment opportunities in their field of study.
According to Mão na Massa, graduates have seen a rise in monthly earnings from 44 reais ($21) to 631 reais ($309). For many women, this is the first time they have provided financially for themselves and their families.
Prior to entering the program, student Maria Paula described her existing life as struggle to survive. After completing the program in 2009, the young female searching for a “dignified” way out finally felt like a confident, contributing citizen in her community.
A recent study by the Annual Social Information (Raid) of the Ministry of Labor and Employment revealed a 65 percent increase in Brazilian women in the construction industry in the last decade. According to the program’s website, it is estimated that the participation of women in construction may be higher than indicated, taking into account women who work autonomously.
Although more than three million Brazilian employees are registered in the construction sector, the industry continues to suffer from a lack of skilled workers - placing certified women with hands-on experience at an advantage for hire.
With over 22 years of experience in the construction industry, Roxanne Rivera chief executive of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico and the author of“There’s No Crying in Business” knows first-hand the difficulties women are facing behind the yellow tape.
In an article for the New York Times, Rivera wrote, “In 1981, when I began my construction company, it was a different world. Women in construction could only be found answering the telephone in the front office. When contractors called, and I told them I was the boss, they would ask for the other boss. They wanted to talk to a man.”
Rivera “developed a thick skin” drilling concrete, operating heavy machinery and working side by side with men.
“I learned to get my hands dirty. Nothing helps you succeed like knowing a company from the ground up. I took the time and made the effort to understand how my industry worked, and wasn’t afraid to be out there doing things that I never thought I would or could,” she wrote.
A common topic of debate is the issue of physical and emotional “female delicacy” at the job site. Traditional concepts imply women are too sensitive and frail to handle construction tasks.
According to Mão na Massa, advances in technology mean physical strength is no longer considered the main attribute in the industry.
“Management is starting to recognize that women can perform as well as men — and that we bring qualities to the table that men often lack. In addition, many male-dominated companies are actively looking to hire women because of pressure to become more diverse,” Rivera wrote.
In September 2010, inspired by the program’s efforts, the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro pledged to draft a bill requiring five percent of jobs be reserved for females in construction.
With support from companies like Petrobras and Eletrobras, Mão na Massa is now pushing for other large-scale employers to sign on with the program.
Although Brazilian women remain a minority on construction sites, the numbers are growing.After five years, approximately 400 women have already completed Gravina’s program and about 60 percent are currently generating income from employment in the construction industry.
The most recent national figures from 2007 to 2009 indicate at least 173,000 out of 2.22m workers in construction are female.
According to Rivera, there has never been a better time for a woman in construction.
“Many traditional barriers are falling, leaving more opportunities for women. As older generations leave the work force, more women are gaining leadership positions in many industries. And men who are coming up in the business world are typically less sexist than those of previous generations.”