Let's face it: women are underrepresented at the State Capitol. Of lawmakers elected in November 2014, 67, or one-third, are women - down from 70 a few years back.

Their workplace is undergoing its first major renovation and restoration since its construction in 1905. As of October, about 300 workers were on the Capitol project - of whom 17 percent were tradeswomen.

However, this statistic is cause to celebrate: The goal for female participation on such projects is 6 percent.

For state-funded construction projects, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights sets goals for the share of hours worked by women and people of color. The female participation goal is 6 percent; the goal for people of color varies by region, from 3 percent to 32 percent. Companies must make "good faith efforts" toward the goals.

Kimberly Brinkman, a sprinkler fitter on the Capitol project, has 17 years in the trades. Many times, she's found herself isolated on job sites as the only woman.

"I noticed early on that things were different for women than for men," she says. "From education and apprenticeships to actually getting the jobs, it's harder for women. Once we do get in - once we do get the mentoring - there's still no equality in that. And if we voice this in any manner, we're labeled as troublemakers and, more than likely, you're not invited back to the job. Coming into the union apprenticeships, we became deeply aware of the dynamics of that inequality."

Brinkman headed to an April 2015 AFL-CIO leadership conference in California, titled "Women Build the Nation," excited to network with other tradeswomen.

In speaking with them, she says, "Unfortunately, I heard my story echoed across the nation."

Which made her even more determined to do something about it.

Brinkman met Joanne Hager, a Minnesota laborer, in California. Once back home, they got together for "a cup of coffee that ended up being about five hours," Brinkman says. From there was born MN Tradeswomen, which the two women co-chair.

The group's goals include:
• Increase demand for hiring women by boosting the 6 percent to at least 20 percent on targeted jobs, and asking project managers to hit these goals outside government-funded jobs.
• Improve the work environment for women.
• Improve retention and end the "revolving door" of women in the trades. These goals are shared by Christa Seaberg, Diversity Manager for JE Dunn Construction, which has the Capitol project contract. When Seaberg came on board, the project was still at the beginning stages, so the full workforce hours weren't even available at that point. Once the hours became available, she says, "We ramped up the women's participation in the project."

"Christa knocked it out of the park," Brinkman says. "She showed that it could be done."

Seaberg emphasized outreach, working closely with unions and subcontractors, among others. In addition, Seaberg says, she treated the Department of Human Rights "as my partner - not my compliance manager."


During the first two years of interior work on the Capitol, women's participation ranged from 20 percent to 22 percent. Through her association with MN Tradeswomen, Seaberg says, she learned that "our project was number one in the nation [for female participation]."

Hiring more tradeswomen benefits the industry, Seaberg says: "For years, women were an amazing untapped resource. Finally, the right people in the right positions saw that."

Brinkman points out that the more women are on jobsites, the safer and more respectful the workplace becomes. "There's strength in numbers. You're not isolated. Someone has your back," she says. On the Capitol project, Brinkman says proudly, "We have the strength in numbers to have each other's backs."

BEACHANGEMAKER:
• Hire tradeswomen for your personal or business construction/renovation projects.
• Get involved with MN Tradeswomen: www.mntradeswomen.org/
• Encourage girls and women in your life to consider careers in the trades. www.saoic.org/training-options/women-wear-hard-hats-too/