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Hundreds of women in the construction industry gather for conference

Emcees Desalia Gomes, left, and Nancy Luc cheer for Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh during the Women Build Boston conference at Encore Boston Harbor on Saturday.
Emcees Desalia Gomes, left, and Nancy Luc cheer for Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh during the Women Build Boston conference at Encore Boston Harbor on Saturday.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF


EVERETT — Darlene Lambos, one of the region’s most powerful labor leaders, stood before a ballroom Saturday morning and invited people in the crowd to rise if they’ve ever been the “only woman at your jobsite.”

Some women stayed in their seats, and that was a milestone.

“What you see in this room is what you’re starting to see on jobsites in Boston. Some women don’t get to stand up and say they’re the only female on a job ever, which is fabulous,” said Kerry Carbone, 52, a union plumber from Salem.

She was among hundreds of women who assembled Saturday at Encore Boston Harbor for a daylong conference for women who belong to various unions and are employed in the construction industry. The inaugural event, called Women Build Boston, was organized by the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions and attracted about 700 participants.

US Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh and state Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic nominee in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, were among the speakers who addressed the gathering. A video of remarks recorded in advance by US Representative Ayanna Pressley was also broadcast.

Walsh, a former Boston mayor and labor leader for construction workers, said the conference was historic.

In Massachusetts, women comprise 10 percent of building trade apprentices, which is triple the national average, according to the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues.

The conference site was also a nod to the growing number of women in the local construction industry. Nearly 500 women helped to build the $1.6 billion casino, the largest number of women to participate in a construction project in US history, organizers said.

Walsh said belonging to a trade union offers women stable jobs with salaries for a middle-class lifestyle.

“A lot of these women now are journeywomen, meaning they’re getting full benefits and full wages,” he said in an interview. “It’s really amazing to see.”

Despite the progress, women still face challenges in the construction field, which has long been dominated by men. Sexism and access to child care were among the concerns cited by women at the conference.

Carbone said on a job site you can be told you that “don’t need work boots. You need an apron and a cookie sheet.”

Other times, the sexism is more subtle, she said.

“That’s what it is like often to be the only female on a job, to be considered less capable, less intelligent, a little unseen,” Carbone said.

Jessecya Harper, an office manager at Building Pathways, said women in the building trades need child care during nontraditional work hours. Building Pathways is a nonprofit organization in Boston that prepares women, people of color, and urban youth for careers in the building trades.

“A lot of women start work at 6 a.m., sometimes 5 a.m., and they need that outlet to be able to drop their children off in a safe environment,” she said.

Desalia Gomes, an event emcee and member of the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 4, said conference organizers want women to consider the building trades as a viable career.

“This is a space that’s been created and is inviting for you to come so you can make sure you’re part of the union and making these wages and making sure that you have a career that’s long lasting, but also fulfilling,” she said.

Prior to joining the elevators union, Gomes said she worked as a teacher, but struggled to support herself financially.

In 2019, she said she completed the Building Pathways program, and then joined her union last year.

“It changed my life,” she said.

Suzy Depina-Correia, 27, of Dorchester, is a second-year apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103.

She said she trained to become an electrician after working as a counselor at the Perkins School for the Blind. The higher wages she earns as a union electrician has made it easier for her to support herself and her mother, who has a disability, Depina-Correia said.

“I can finally afford a good place for my mom and I,” said Depina-Correia, who became emotional while talking about her work.

Qiana Johnson, 40, of Dorchester, said she joined the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 4, in 2007.

Women bring compassion and care to jobsites, she said.

“This is overwhelming, honestly, just to see all these women here,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know there were all these women in the trades.”