Helping support women in the construction industry is an important mission of ours. As part of this mission, we recently donated the book Girls Who Build, by Marisa Richards, to 12 libraries across the Sheboygan Area School District. We wanted to highlight Marisa’s story, so we reached out to her with a few questions.
Question: What drove you to start a career in union leadership and advocacy for women in construction?
Marisa Richards (MR): I can honestly say that I stumbled upon the career of a lifetime. In 2010, I received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, rhetoric, and gender and women’s studies from the University of Illinois. I wasn’t sure what sort of career I wanted upon graduation, but I knew I wanted it to involve writing. I applied for a job as a specialized writing associate for Painters District Council No. 30 (PDC 30), a union labor organization in Aurora, Illinois. As I learned more about the organization and the impact unions have on middle-class workers and their families, I knew I found something special.
Over the last five years, our organization has been invested in bringing more women and minorities into the trades in an effort to diversify union membership. In joining these efforts, I’ve been fortunate enough to reignite my passion for gender studies and continue these important conversations about diversity now in my career. Together, we are working to change the culture of construction, so every individual feels welcomed, safe, and empowered to embark upon a career in this industry.
Question: What do you feel are the main obstacles women in construction face?
MR: I think the main obstacle women face in the construction industry is breaking down the outdated stereotypes of previous generations and destroying the notion that careers are gendered. Women can do these jobs, and they shouldn’t have to face discrimination or harassment along the way in order to do them. They deserve equal opportunity to these lucrative careers and the lifestyles afforded by them. When there are only one or two women on a job site, those women are often given the unfair responsibility of representing their entire gender. Any error, weakness, or issue they may convey is often taken as a universal truth—something that all women will exhibit.
There is also a large barrier for female mothers in construction. Most construction companies don’t offer maternity leave benefits (although this is changing rapidly), which forces pregnant women to have to choose between having a family and continuing a career. And most childcare centers aren’t open early enough for women to be able to drop their children off in the morning before their workday begins.
The solution here is strength in numbers. As more women enter the construction industry and begin to fill these jobs on a larger scale, they will begin to receive fairer treatment.
Question: What was your experience in the construction industry once you were established?
MR: For the last 12 years, I have served as Outreach & Engagement Program Manager for PDC 30. I also serve as director of our local labor-management fund. Our organization represents finishing trades workers. We advocate on their behalf to increase work opportunities, provide state-of-the-art safety and skills training, and secure better wages, benefits, and working conditions. In my role, I oversee our community outreach and membership engagement efforts, as well as efforts to advance our industry and increase our organizational development.
Our organization works to recruit and train the next generation of trades workers, and we are continually identifying ways to diversify our membership. Over the last few years specifically, I’ve worked with many teams to develop and deploy innovative strategies that aim to encourage more women to join the trades. Recruitment and retention efforts are key in this strategy, but our team also seeks to improve the work environment, so women feel safe and supported once they embark on a career in construction. Joining forces with various union leaders and employer partners, we’ve updated sexual harassment policies, developed a unique sexual harassment course for construction workers, and created an initiative that urged our members to become allies and advocates for safer, more supportive working environments.
Question: What inspired you to write this book?
MR: I first set my sights on writing a book during my college years. Because of my focus on gender at the time, I knew I’d feature a strong female lead. And throughout my career at PDC 30, this desire to amplify female voices only grew for me.
When I became a mom in 2017, my passion for gender equity really came full circle. Today, I’m the mother of two young girls, Adeline and Lucy. My husband and I both work in the construction trade industry, so we wanted to introduce them to books about construction. When I began my search though, I couldn’t find anything that included girls. It’s then that I realized there was a need for female representation in the children’s career book market, especially regarding construction.
I began the writing process in 2021 and two years later, Girls Who Build was published. The concept was simple: introduce young readers to construction jobs while showing girls doing the work. But this story is really a culmination of the three driving forces in my life—my family, my career, and my education.
Question: Why do you feel it's important for girls to read this book?
MR: I’ve always been a firm believer that conversations about representation and diversity need to start much earlier, when girls are learning about their place in society. I believe girls can do anything, and this book helps prove that. My hope is to inspire the next generation of young girls, so they not only begin to learn about construction jobs at a younger age, but they also begin to believe that there is a place for them within the industry.
It’s important to me, however, that this book is shared with all children, not just girls. This story teaches boys that girls belong in these careers too, and receiving that message at an earlier age can help them grow more comfortable with the idea as they grow into adulthood.
Question: What are some of the main lessons you hope readers of this book learn?
MR: The main lesson I hope readers take from this story is that representation can change the future. It’s true when they say “you cannot be what you cannot see.” By showing young readers images of girls in construction, we can begin to dismantle old notions of what a construction worker looks like and start to question the idea of “men’s work” versus “women’s work.” And by showing these images to girls, an entire new realm of possibilities can open for their future.
Now more than ever, it’s important that we don’t define our children based on their gender. Careers are not gender specific. We should teach girls that they, too, are allowed to get dirty, to work with their hands, and to be part of the construction industry.
Question: What are the biggest issues you see for women in this industry?
MR: I think the biggest issue is the disparity between men and women in leadership and the incorrect notion that women have the sole responsibility of finding the solutions to problems related to diversity and inclusion. But instead of placing blame, I think we need to encourage more learning and intention. We can’t expect 3% of the trade population (women) to make all the change—the male majority has to be invested in the work as well. By bringing the male leaders into the conversation, we can encourage them to be more inclusive in their hiring and promoting, in their attitudes/behaviors, in their understanding of gender stereotypes/barriers, and in their language choices.
Question: How do you feel construction companies can foster a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness?
MR: I think the best way to foster a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the trades is to intentionally include women in the narrative—because they’ve been left out for far too long. Advertising and marketing predominately features men, and most leadership positions within the industry have been held by men. When the trades are promoted to children in school career fairs, they have historically been presented as an opportunity for boys only. It’s imperative that we begin marketing this industry as a viable option to girls too.
Right now, trades are focusing on marketing more specifically to women, so they see the construction industry as a welcoming place and a viable career option. And we are working to better align with high schools, so they include trades work among the list of post-secondary education options, and with middle schools, to ensure that females are also invited to participate in the career expos and trade fairs that highlight construction work.
Question: What are the hopes you have for your daughters?
MR: I hope my daughters get to grow up in a world that doesn’t try to define them as one thing, based on their gender. I hope they learn to speak their minds and know their worth. In seeing their mom publish a children’s book, I hope they are inspired to take their own risks and push for their own dreams, whatever they may be. I hope they learn that they don’t have to be just one thing. They can be business leaders, trailblazers, wives, moms, authors, construction workers, all at once. And most importantly, I hope they see that, if they choose to take on many hats, they don’t have to be perfect at any of it.