Women craft workers convened en masse in Chicago earlier this month to boost their connections and industry visibility and find ways to gain a larger share of industry apprenticeships and funding. The 1,500 attendees, including many male supporters, at the sixth annual Women Build Nations gathering, also included participants from Asia and Africa.

Organizers voiced concern that, despite the Obama administration’s plan announced by Vice President Joe Biden on April 21 to distribute more than $90 million to states for apprentice training in construction and other non-traditional sectors for women, the concentration on opportunities for women is getting diluted. Melina Harris, president of Seattle-based Sisters in the Building Trades, says that, in 25 states with U.S.-managed apprentice programs, women make up 3.2% of participants. Oregon’s state-managed program is at 6.9%. 

The three-day agenda included seminars on how to get and survive apprenticeships, fight discrimination, become politically active and grow union memberships. “All the workshops and plenary sessions were packed to the gills—these are women who want to learn and took advantage of every opportunity,” said Debra Chaplan, director of special programs at the California Building and Construction Trades Council.

Women boilermakers and elevator constructors attended in record numbers. “Being in a room of other tradeswomen who have similar experience is key to helping women break the isolation they may feel,” said Bridget Martin, a boilermakers’ union executive. 

Andrea Thomton Montague, a second-year apprentice elevator constructor in Montana who rarely sees women in her trade, said, “Hearing stories from women in the trades for over 30 years teaches me how to be a better elevator constructor and person.”

A new initiative has intensified global outreach. “Whether you are in London or Johannesburg, women just want decent jobs to support families,” said Harris. First-time attendee Tes Borgoños, a Manila-based project coordinator for a regional construction union, said her group continues “to advocate non-traditional skills training for women, especially young women, so that they can choose whatever career they want and are not confined to traditional roles.