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.”
Desiree Wilson talks construction
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.