Empowering the women who build nations

At NABTU’s Tradeswomen Build Nations conference, women like me learn how to support each other



(Nov. 3, 2022) — Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the largest gathering of tradeswomen in the world. At this year’s Tradeswomen Build Nations conference, organized by the North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), more than 3,000 women in the building and construction trades gathered in Las Vegas to discuss how to empower each other and address the unique issues they face.

When I first attended this conference a few years ago, I was still in the field as an Iron Worker. It was truly inspiring and empowering to meet so many women in the trades and build that camaraderie. Now I’m in the leadership of my local union, Iron Workers Local 86, and I get to go to the conference early, greet and register the women from our union when they get there, and help them navigate the conference.

So I get to see more women have the same empowering experience that I had. It’s so incredibly fulfilling to watch them and observe how it affects them. They learn about childcare strategies, Lean In Circles and mentorship, legislation and policies that benefit tradeswomen, and much more. And they come out of it excited and fired up about their careers and their unions. Importantly, they also make lifelong friendships with other women in the trades.

Although we’ve made some progress, there are still so few women in the building and construction trades. A lot of times you are the only woman at a job site. So it’s important to meet other women like us so we know we are not alone. Hopefully, some will become leaders at their unions and make a real difference in recruiting and retaining more women and people of color in the trades.

The Tradeswomen Build Nations isn’t just for women. There are a number of men, including many leaders of our unions, who attend to hear firsthand about what women are experiencing on the job.

I was invited to help lead a workshop called “Be That One Guy” about stopping harassment, bullying and intimidation at the job site. We shared real-life scenarios on everything from sexual harassment to bathroom situations to you-name-it. We discussed how it was important to have our Union Brothers step up to be better allies — have bystanders become upstanders — to help resolve these matters and prevent them from happening in the first place.

We were fortunate to have special guest speakers at the conference that included Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the great AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler.

But my personal favorite was our amazing Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who I got to meet in person (see picture). It was the highlight of my weekend. I’ve been a fan of hers since NABTU’s Legislative Conference earlier this year when she called out all the men in the room by saying, “We’re making improvements, but you men can do better!”

Many unions from around Washington state were represented at this year’s conference, including the entire leadership team of the Washington State Building Trades, the UA (Plumbers and Pipefitters), Painters, Laborers, Teamsters, and many others. If your union is in the trades, you should make plans to send members to next year’s Tradeswomen Build Nations, which will be held in Washington, D.C.

The 2022 Tradeswomen Build Nations delegation from Washington state.

It would be great if some of our signatory contractors — who share our goals at recruiting and retaining more women in the trades — would step up and sponsor more women to attend this important event. Paying for registration, travel and lost time would be a great investment and demonstrate their commitment to those shared goals.

For more information about a career in the building and construction trades, visit the Washington State Building Trades’ Construct a Career webpage.


Heather Kurtenbach is a Business Agent/Organizer for Iron Workers Local 86 in Seattle. Check out the inspiring story of how Heather became a 17-year Journey Level Iron Worker and the first female Business Agent at her union. Last year, she had the honor of introducing President Joe Biden at the signing of the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the White House lawn.


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