Tradeswomen Tuesday: Darlene Glass, Journeyman Carpenter, Local 435, Cleveland

What is your trade, Local, and where are you from?

My name is Darlene Glass, and I’m a journeyman carpenter with Local 435 in Cleveland, Ohio.

When did you join the trade? What attracted you to it?

I always liked building things and had I known it was a career option when I was younger I may have gone that route instead of going first to college.

I graduated in 1991 with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and went on to a career in healthcare, finally leaving my job as Business Coordinator for the Orthopedic and Surgery Clinics in 2002 for a career in carpentry. I took a pre-apprenticeship training course at Hard Hatted Women and after the first hands-on class I was hooked. I finished the course and without having a job lined up, I gave my 2 weeks’ notice at work. It was scary, and I had never quit a job before without having another one lined up, but I knew it was what I had to do. I hit the ground running and within a week of quitting my job at the hospital, I had my first job in carpentry, working on bridges in Youngstown, Ohio. 14 years in and I have never looked back.

What do you love most about your trade and your job?

I love building things, creating things, being able to have something to see at the end of the day. I love driving around the city/cities and showing off my work. I love watching the staff/residents come into a building I worked on and seeing them using and appreciating the structure, cabinets, anything that I built.  I love that I am putting my mark on the world building hospitals, schools, libraries, homes, bridges, museums, my city.  I love that my job is always changing. I get bored easily and my job is always changing and products are always changing so I am constantly doing different things. And if I am doing work I don’t like or not too crazy about challenging coworkers, I know it won’t last forever. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.   I am always learning something knew. I had a foreman, Don P., who loved to teach people who wanted to learn (I’m the same way) and he said to me “The day I stop learning something is the day I quit.” I love learning new things and this field gives me that opportunity.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Having a clean bathroom. Ha!! I never thought I would be so excited to get to a job and know there is a women’s bathroom. People who work in offices take that for granted, but on the job site, most times you are sharing a port-o-potty with a bunch of men, who pee in a trough and smoke in the small box and isn’t always cleaned as often as it should be.  Seriously though, for me the most challenging part is accepting that as a 47-year-old person, I can’t compete physically with a 22-year-old. Seems obvious, but many times I still feel that, as a woman, I constantly have to be better and faster and smarter in order to be taken as an equal.

To us old-timers, we know it’s age, but some guys still see it as a female thing. Even though I have worked with guys I can lift more than. I have hurt myself doing physical things just to prove I can. And even though I have been in the trades for 14 years, proven myself over and over, I still hear (even from my guy friends) “They need women to fill the quotas for that job.” And no matter whether it’s true, and doesn’t take away from me being a skilled carpenter, it still stings.

Depending on the job and who I am working with, sometimes I can never truly feel relaxed in my skill because I feel I’m being judged. Not all the time. I have worked with many great guys who see me as a carpenter first, a woman second. The dream would be that would always be the case. Over the years, I feel I have made a good reputation for myself and I am proud of that.

Are there any challenges you’ve experienced?  How did you overcome them?

I’ve been made fun of, told I don’t belong there because I am a woman, ridiculed, harassed, hit-on (sexually, not physically), dragged along a parapet wall on a bridge, hurt my back, knees, face, arms, legs (basically my whole body), have arthritis in my hands (which challenges me physically and mentally), all of which I have dealt with head-on either vocally or showing I have the skill to be there.

But the most challenging thing for me was building my own self-confidence in my abilities as a carpenter. I grew up in a patriarchal family being told that women weren’t as strong or skilled in building, mechanical, or physical things in general and it took me a long time to get out of that mindset. It didn’t help that we are still told that in our jobs now. What happens a lot is that a woman will say an idea and no one listens and then a guy says the same thing and then it’s a good idea. So you end up not speaking up even when you know you are right because you just end up irritated, angry and defeated when this happens.

Even though I knew I was just as good, if not better, I still wouldn’t let myself believe it deep down. I used to measure things 3,4 times just to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes because I couldn’t, because then the guys would be right. I did this even though I watched guys all around me making mistakes. We’re human, we make mistakes, but I didn’t see it that way. I fell into that ‘not speaking up’ because it just wasn’t worth the disappointment. But luckily, I have worked with some really good people, women and men, who have helped build my confidence.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes that I go back to all the time:

“What makes a good carpenter is not that you don’t make mistakes, but that you can fix them when you do.” – Toby R.

“It ain’t messed up until it can’t be fixed.” – Glen M.

“We can’t change what happed, so let’s figure out how to fix it.” – Dolly Parton

One of my good friends, Matt, a carpenter, a guy, my own self-declared guru, said what he liked about working with me was that I can think. We should never forget that with all the tools in our pouches, boxes, aprons, our brain is the most important.

Now I speak up, even if they don’t listen; but now I call them on it. I go in to a project, knowing I have the skills to do it or figure it out or know when to ask for help (one of my other challenges).  I had a guy recently say to me, “I want to know how you got those up there.” My first instinct was to get angry, but I took a breath and didn’t say anything. I held up both my arms, elbows bent, Rosie style, and looked at the right and then the left and then back at him. He left the room. So worth it.

What skills or traits have made you successful?

Although my carpentry skills are plentiful – I am artistic, keen hand skills (the touch), an attention to detail, problem-solving skills, what has made me most successful is a good work ethic and my thirst for knowledge. It takes good mechanical skills to be a good finish carpenter, which I feel I have. But to be a success in anything you do, you also have to be determined, be able to think on your feet, be adaptable, be able to problem-solve, learn and show up. You have to want to do a good job – and do a good job -  if you want to be treated as a professional, an equal, a bad-ass carpenter.

So basically,

  • Show up. On time.
  • Work hard.
  • Constantly be learning.
  • Use your brain.

Seems simple, doesn’t it?

What advice would you give to other women interested in becoming a tradeswoman?

First and foremost, know that being a woman does not inhibit your ability to do the job. The first argument is always that we physically can’t do it. I’ve seen a 5 foot, 100 lb. woman sling 12 foot sheets a drywall like they were nothing and I’ve worked with guys I can lift more than –and if not, I’ve figured out how to get the job done without ‘manhandling’ it. If we are anything, we are problem-solvers. Props and leverage can be your best friend. Work smart, not hard. And determination helps too.

Be willing to get dirty. Because believe me, you will. Say goodbye to your manicured nails and daily mascara and your nice clean clothes. The nice thing about that is you never have to fix your hair for work. You can get cleaned up on the weekends. And you will appreciate being dressed up like you never have before.

Get used to pain. We hurt, a lot. So take care of your body. Lift with your legs and get some exercise. I personally like yoga, it’s good for physical and mental health. If everyone did yoga, the world would be a better place.

Get ready for self-fulfillment. My favorite thing is seeing my finished product at the end of the day. “I can build some shit,” I often like to say to myself. And maybe your thing is electrical or laboring or hanging wallpaper. Whatever it is, it’s awesome. You are building homes, hospitals, schools, bridges, museums, the world. Let that sink in. How many people can say that?

You will learn some awesome skills. I learn stuff every day. Good, practical stuff that I can use over and over, and anywhere. And some things I wish I didn’t know (oh, those port-o-pottys can be full of useless, offensive, although sometimes funny, rhetoric). Either way, learning is always good.

Keep learning. Keep up your skills by taking classes, asking questions, going back to school, get certified in everything. I’ve been kept on –and requested on- jobs just because I had a certain certification or skill. Knowledge is power. Maybe it’s cliché but it’s true.

And the most important:  Always show up, ready to work, and on time.

What is your vision for the future for women in the industry?

More women, more women, more women. Let me rephrase. More skilled, hard-working women. More of these, please. We need more women foremen, superintendents, instructors, but most importantly field tradeswomen. The more visible we are, doing good visible work, the more we won’t stand out as women.

I want to see us stand out for our excellent work, not our gender.