All across Wisconsin, IBEW women are coming together in important ways, from recruitment and retention to leadership and visibility, and ultimately making the IBEW stronger for it.
IBEW sisters Marsha Nebel, left, Michele Robinson and Lisa Goodman are working together and with their locals to recruit and retain more women.
"I'm just thrilled to see all of these amazing women gathering their boots together," said Green Bay Local 158 retired journeyman wireman Marsha Nebel. "The trades have come a long way for women in the years I've been in, but certainly not far enough."
The sisters of Local 158 have recently joined forces with empowHER, a statewide organization that aims to create positive change for women in Wisconsin's construction industry by normalizing women as tradespeople and helping to recruit and retain more sisters to what can be a lucrative and rewarding career. Nebel, who still serves on the apprenticeship committee, is heading up the Green Bay chapter.
In addition to Local 158, other IBEW locals teaming up with empowHER include Madison Local 159 and Milwaukee Local 494.
"I think you could safely say that IBEW women are contributing significantly in helping to take empowHER to the next level and help build a true statewide network," said Local 159 Business Agent Lisa Goodman.
In addition to working with empowHER, Goodman has been active in Local 159's women's group and the Tradeswomen of South Central Wisconsin, the latter of which has become an empowHER chapter and an official subcommittee of the area Building Trades Council. Since the groups had similar aims and partners, Goodman said, they decided to join together instead of "reinventing the wheel."
"This is a story of women in southern Wisconsin who are trying to make a difference," Goodman said. "Each group began on the ground in their metro area, and it makes sense to work together and collaborate."
Goodman says that IBEW women and their trades sisters have been meeting informally for years, sometimes just for drinks and conversation after work. The tradition waxed and waned over time, as often happens, so having the structure and resources of a group like empowHER helps formalize those opportunities while still allowing for a sense of camaraderie and support.
The TWSCW had planned a Women in Construction Open House for March 14 of last year, but the coronavirus forced them to cancel. They quickly shifted to Zoom calls though and were able to keep the meetings going.
"We adapted well to Zooming," Goodman said. "Those monthly meetings definitely helped us all get better acquainted and build our relationships. We even discussed plans for different projects we hoped to do post-COVID."
Now that the TWSCW has formally joined with empoweHER under its statewide umbrella, the chapter is now known as empowHER SC Wisconsin. And the new Green Bay area chapter is now NEW empowHER, in northeast Wisconsin.
While IBEW sisters are certainly taking charge, they're quick to point out that the effort is by and for all tradeswomen.
"Part of the beauty of groups like empowHER is that the entire spectrum of women in the trades is welcome to the table," said Local 494 instructor Michele Robinson, who also sits on the organization's board. "I'm a journeyman wireman with 494 and was very much interested in meeting other tradeswomen and knew that I would have to actively seek out those opportunities, as they do not always present themselves on the jobsite."
Robinson noted that the Plumbers have a website that can track an interested person from the time they click on a link to the time they become an apprentice.
"This is truly valuable data for what works and what doesn't for recruitment efforts and just understanding all the demographics about who is interested in your trade," Robinson said. "Without this sharing of information, people could trudge along to the same conclusions individually. But what works about empowHER is that we're leading the way in looking at all trades as a cohesive community where we have similar wrinkles to work out."
The all-volunteer empowHER is getting a boost from the Wisconsin Building Trades Council, which pledged $20,000 per year to support its multi-year strategic plan. That plan includes a timeline for doubling women's participation rate in the state from less than 3% to 6% by 2028 and doubling the number of women apprentices by 2024. They're also working on getting women into all levels of leadership throughout the construction industry.
"Our business manager, Sue Blue, is the first woman elected to that position in a construction local in the Sixth District. Having her in charge means our women's voices are always heard," Goodman said.
EmpowHER's strategic plan also includes a focus on mentoring and retention as well as recruitment and cultural competency training, among other initiatives. There's even talk of doing community baby showers to specifically target mothers.
"Tradeswomen groups like these benefit the IBEW — and all the building trades — because we're able to pool our knowledge and experiences to find solutions," Goodman said. "These organizations provide a key voice — one that's still not heard enough — on behalf of an underrepresented sector of the workforce. In a broad, big-picture sense, it helps the industry continue to evolve."
Something that these groups are discovering is that, while recruiting is clearly important, it's only part of the puzzle.
"Recruiting, it turns out, is not the hard part. Women like this work and will choose it," Robinson said. "In fact, Milwaukee Magazine featured one of our female members in its August edition. The beauty of this woman's story is that she always wanted to be an electrician, it's not something she just fell into after doing something else. While this path is nothing new for our male counterparts, I think her story is the future of women in the trades, especially as we reach a younger generation and have visible female role models for them to look to."
As any tradeswoman or ally can attest, much work remains, but by combining forces like these groups in Wisconsin are doing, progress is being made. And as more women's voices are elevated, the trades will only become stronger.
"The conversation around women in the trades is not driven enough by the women in the trades," Robinson said. "People on the outside looking in only see the beginning narrative of the unicorn woman in a field of reluctant men. And while that is valid, it's the low-hanging fruit that will never, ever dig deep enough or do justice enough or give enough credit to the amazing women and supportive men I work with constantly and their otherwise untold stories."