Photo credit: North America’s Building Trades Unions  
IBEW members pose for a photo with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, in blue in the middle, at the Women Build Nations conference in October.
Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, addressed the 2,000-plus attendees and was joined on stage with some of her sister apprentices.  

It took Briane Montoya two days, but she finally found another woman who was an outside lineman like her. For someone who’s often the only woman on her job site, it was a big moment.

“It felt really good to meet her,” the Denver Local 111 pre-apprentice said. “It was cool to see someone who’s going through what you’re just getting into.”

They met at the Women Build Nations conference in Seattle, and it’s moments like theirs that encapsulate the three-day event: it’s a space for tradeswomen to see each other.

Members of Kennewick, Wash., Local 112 march in the banner parade during the Women Build Nations conference in Seattle.

“We can go for long periods without seeing other sisters on job sites. The feeling of isolation is real,” said Erin Sullivan, Third District representative for the IBEW’s International Women’s Committee. “This conference is a reminder that we’re not alone.”

The 2,000-plus attendees traveled from the U.S. and Canada – even Ireland – to share stories and strategies and, for a few days, experience what it’s like to be around other women who are like them; women who know what it’s like to be on the tools. 

Held in October at the Washington State Convention Center, the conference was hosted by North America’s Building Trades Unions and local nonprofit Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women. It’s grown over its eight years, and this year, IBEW women led the way with the largest contingent at approximately 300 attendees. Roughly a third of them were apprentices.  

“I think that shows that our sisters feel valued,” Sullivan said. “When women see value in their union and the union sees value in them, the circuit is complete. And that union becomes even stronger.”

The conference included a community service project that hit capacity with about 80 women, including IBEW members, building tiny houses for the homeless community.

The IBEW was also represented at the opening plenary when AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, addressed the conference with apprentices joining her on stage.

“Women know how to build, and right now we are building a powerful movement,” Shuler said. “We’re seeing women from every city and every state and every town across America standing up and speaking truth to power.”

'We Can, We Will'

IBEW sisters also participated in panels covering topics including careers beyond the tools and Robert’s Rules of Order.

“This conference lets women know they can be more than just a worker, that other opportunities exist like becoming a foreman, project manager or owning their own company,” said Boston Local 103 business agent Kenell Broomstein. “Or even running for office.”

Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 member Emelia Colman-Shepherd sat on a panel on career options and shared her story of recently becoming a coordinator with the B.C. Centre for Women in the Trades, a new initiative to recruit and retain women in the western Canadian province.

The session was packed, with people sitting on the floor and standing on the sides. Many in the audience shared their stories and many more shared advice, from union training opportunities to the benefits of a women’s committee. For Colman-Shepherd, it was analogous to what tradeswomen often do for one another.  

“Tradeswomen are a powerful force,” she said. “We want the opportunities to move into leadership positions, and we want to help each other get there.”

Portland, Ore., Local 48 member Val Madsen said one thing she’ll take back with her is the opioid toolbox talk, a resource offered by the Center for Construction Research and Training and highlighted during a plenary session to help attendees talk to their co-workers about the deadly epidemic at weekly safety meetings.

“We’ve got 52 weeks in a year. We always talk about ladder safety, inspecting your lifts, but we don’t talk about opioids or addiction,” Madsen said. “This is one tangible thing I cannot wait to bring back.”

'There’s Somebody Out There Who Has Your Back'

For Colman-Shepherd, attending Women Build Nations is about empowerment.

“It’s about making women feel heard,” she said. “It’s not to give them something special; it’s about letting them see their own strength.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Detroit Local 58 Business Agent Grace Trudell, the first woman to serve in the role at her local.

“You get so drained with everyday stuff, then you come here and it’s like, ‘This is why I’m here.  This is why I’m doing what I’m doing,’” Trudell said. “The energy in every room is incredible. There’s inspiration at every turn.”

Trudell noted the pervasive refrain of being the only woman on a job, and how for a lot of sisters, especially early on, it’s not something they’re used to.

“This is why we have our women’s committee, to lift each other up,” said Trudell, her committee’s co-chair. “We’ve been through it too. It helps to know there’s somebody out there who has your back.”

Madsen noted the conference’s importance for another reason.

“At the end of the day, it’s about organizing,” Madsen said. “Women are often the movers and shakers of their unions, I see that. To be surrounded by that energy, it nourishes my soul and propels me through the year.” 

Trudell noted the importance of having men, especially those in leadership, as allies. She was elected business agent after being asked by one of her brothers, Michael Richard, who was then running for business manager. Current business manager, Brian Richard, has carried on that legacy of inclusion, she said.

“They’re great guys,” Trudell said. “It makes a big difference to have that support.”

For Seattle Local 46 retiree Nancy Mason, who worked on the first IBEW women’s conference, IBEW allies go all the way to the top.

“It’s such a breath of fresh air to have Lonnie [Stephenson], as [international] president,” Mason said.

The conference held an award ceremony honoring IBEW sister and retired director of the Civic and Community Engagement Department, Carolyn Williams, who was also recognized for her pioneering work at the IBEW caucus.

Theresa Moss King, the IBEW’s Fifth District Women’s Committee representative, read a brief list of Williams’ accomplishments, which include being one of the first women – and women of color – to become a journeyman wireman with Atlanta Local 613. She was also instrumental in creating the young members initiative, Reach Out and Engage Next Generation Electrical Workers, and the unanimous resolution passed at the 2016 International Convention to establish women’s committees in all 11 districts.

“You are truly a woman of honor and dignity,” King said of Williams.

If being the only woman was something attendees came to Seattle to get away from, something they came to share was their love of the work and that sense of accomplishment that comes from building something with your own hands.

“I really loved being an electrician,” said Mason, who now works as an apprentice consultant with South Seattle College. “I can drive around and point to all these buildings I worked on. That’s a great feeling.”

That job satisfaction is something Montoya is experiencing as she goes through her training. She loves that linemen and women are like “secret superheroes” that restore power and help places like hospitals. And she loves doing it as a union member. Now she knows there’s an entire sisterhood to help her.

“When I’d tell other women what I was doing, they’d say, ‘We’re all behind you.’ That meant a lot to me,” Montoya said. “It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.”