Desiree Wilson
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As far as I’m concerned, Jennifer Beals was never sexier in Flashdance than when she wore her welding hood and wielded a welding torch. Since 1983, I have, on and off, nursed the fantasy of being one of those girls who can hang with the boys and still be a girl. I wanted to be like my neighbor Katie Betz, who showed up in my driveway one day wearing shorts, nude nylons, and sneakers with bobby socks, a look wholly feminine and made extra impressive by the fact that she arrived on her brother’s dirt bike, slammed on the brakes, dropped one foot to the ground, and sent the back tire skidding in an arc on the driveway behind her.

Many years later, I attempted to harness some of that badass female vibe when I drove myself from Boise to Brooklyn in an 18-year-old Toyota Tercel hatchback that leaked oil. Every time I stopped for gas, I stepped out of the car barefoot and made a big show of wiping off the dipstick and checking my oil. I thought I was really cool.

That’s about as far as it goes for me. I have big (dormant) dreams of being able to slide under my car and tinker around, but it turns out I don’t have enough interest to take a class on what to do once I’m under there — not even one that’s free of charge. But my Flashdance obsession has led me to seek out women in the construction industry who can maybe teach me how to be more like Jennifer Beals.

I’m the asset

In 2010, the United States Department of Labor Statistics reported construction as the only industry where the percentage of female workers remained in the single digits — 9%. Mining came in second-lowest at 13%, followed by transportation, 23%, and agriculture, 24%. The total number of females working in construction (800,000) is down from a high of 1,122,000 in 2007, due, in part, to the loss of 2.5 million construction jobs between 2007 and 2010.

Even though the number of women in the construction industry grew more than 80% from 1985 to 2007, that 9% seems rather measly, especially given that women make up 47% of all industries.

I meet Desiree Wilson, owner of Iron Works Fencing, by email. Beneath her contract license number, her email’s automatic signature reads: Certified Woman and Minority Business Owner, DBE, UDBE*, SBE, MBE, WBE, SLBE/ELBE, SB, SDB, WOSB, EDWOSB, MSB, HUBZone.

The asterisk is hers, not mine, and no, I’m not joking.

After we introduce ourselves and set up a time to meet at her company’s headquarters, I write, “Will you have a welding helmet on? :-).”

“No, not exactly! This is the business office,” she responds. “I could always pull out a hard hat and blueprints, but there isn’t much here, although paperwork is a big part of construction.”

I head to her office in Old Town, where I’m ushered in and escorted through the building by a security guard. He leaves me in front of an office decorated with paper screens and other Asian details. A young woman in high heels and a bright yellow pencil skirt steps out from behind a desk at one end of the room. She has the polished look of a fashion-magazine editor, and I’m nanoseconds away from excusing myself for interrupting her and asking her to point me toward Desiree Wilson.

Instead, I say, “Desiree?” and she responds in the affirmative.

She shakes my hand and offers me a seat at a large, shiny table in the center of the room on top of which sits a huge book of blueprints and a hard hat. For the next 50 minutes, the 36-year-old maintains steady eye contact, crossed legs, and upright posture as she paints a picture of her experience as one of the few females in the steel industry.

Wilson describes herself as “the first one in and the last one out.” As the president, company owner, and project manager, she’s the first on the job to look at the plans and make the bid. She’s there at contract signing and at the end to make sure the job is complete and the check signed.

“People always just kind of wonder, What is she doing here?” she says. “I’m always the most random person in the room. So, if we have a pre-bid meeting or something, I’m walking into the meeting and it’s, like, 30 men in their ripped-up jeans and dirty boots.”

If she has to go to a job site, say at the new Cesar Chavez Community College site, she’ll wear jeans, but that’s about as far as she’ll go to try and fit in.

“I’m not going to go and roll around in the dirt just so I can look like one of those contractors,” she says.

Wilson admits that she does at times feel like an oddity, but she never feels the need to downplay her femininity.

“If anything I feel the opposite. I’m going to put it on blast,” she says, laughing. “They need me, and it’s a nice position to be in. I’m the asset. The way I describe it is, I just have a lot of know-how.”

Video:

Desiree Wilson talks construction

Desiree Wilson, owner of Iron Works Fencing, on her experience as a woman in the construction industry.

Desiree Wilson, owner of Iron Works Fencing, on her experience as a woman in the construction industry.

Wilson attended law school from 2003–2005, earned her master’s degree in business with an emphasis in financial planning and taxation from Cal Lutheran in 2008. Her work as an estate planning and taxation specialist exposed her to businesses across a variety of industries. About four years ago, while consulting for a poorly run company, she became aware of the profit potential in the steel industry. After a year of research, education, and acquisition of multiple certifications, she started Iron Works + Fencing, a million-dollar-a-year company that provides metal fencing, stairs, railings, balusters, and banisters for commercial, government, industrial, and residential projects.

The blueprint sitting on the table in front of me is for the new rental-car center at the San Diego airport, a project Wilson bid for but cannot legally discuss, as the airport has not yet publicly released the results.

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Comments

carpentra20 Aug. 10, 2014 @ 10:31 a.m.

Fantasizing about Carpentry is fine and dandy but if its Rough Framing--and it's your livelihood- AND you're female- being skilled and qualified will get you nowhere. It doesn't matter if you look like a babe or if you look like a boy, the fact remains that Framing is the last construction trade where men allow and encourage each other against hiring or even addressing a woman applying for a job. There is no EOE hiring process. No conduct enforcement on the job site. No employer has to read a Managerial handbook on how to treat employees. It is the last and only trade where a Framing contractor can say right to your face in front of an entire job site of people, "What? ...A girl?!?! Tss...Yeah, Right. Get off my job site." Then, with everybody watching he will go run and hide behind his work truck. Wow, All I asked for was a job, one shot. And if by some miracle you do get hired -even for pick-up work, this is still a trade where it is viewed as acceptable for a man to behave in any sexist, harassing, unsafe or discriminating way he wants to and still keep his position at work. GUARANTEED. If you are a hard worker and skilled it IS a threat to somebody's manhood always. They will steal your purse to get u to retrieve it from them after work or wait til the right opportunity and bully you off the jobsite, unplugging your power and having full blown temper tantrums in front of other men who see it as perfectly acceptable to treat "a girl" this way. Or how bout this one... they wont let u work but they'll ask to use all of your tools and compressor because their first choice framer that they hired- doesn't have his own tools. Wow. The real shame is that girls are growing up being completely discouraged from becoming Framers in the construction industry. They aren't even aware its an option. Its not about brawn, its about technique and girls can build. They can walk the plate, pound nails and do physical labor just as efficiently and better than most men out there. Basically the only physical requirement is to NOT be lazy-and if you're built like a barbie doll or built like a boy --the only thing that actually matters is skill. I often hear," I don't want my men to be distracted [by a girl} on the job site." This is a safety issue? Well, nice try but girls are safer by nature. Ask the DMV. And if your men are so easily distracted and have no self control that they cant even function properly, Then THEY are the liability hazard who should NOT be in a dangerous working environment. Don't blame the girl. Its cowardly and unintelligent. 9 out of 10 men cant function just hearing the vibration of a vacuum cleaner. So will you hire a girl now? All I need is one shot, one day! Takes a real man to hire a woman. And a real secure woman upstairs, in a tight yellow skirt--to share her men, I guess.

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