Renee Hough was glad to take a union job at the Clairton Coke Works in the 1990s for the good pay, benefits and pension it provided.

Although the compensation for her job would likely seem attractive to most, it was far more meaningful to Hough, giving her the independence she needed to escape a dangerous situation.     

“When I got hired at U.S. Steel, I was in an abusive marriage, and I had no way out,” Hough said. “I got out because I got a union job with the benefits, and I was able to stand on my own two feet, take my kids and get us out of that relationship.”

Hough told her story at a workforce equity roundtable Friday hosted by U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, at the Steelworkers Building in Downtown aimed at identifying and correcting barriers that prevent women from seeking jobs in the trades and other full-time work. The discussion centered on what government and nonprofit partners can do to ensure that federal investments provided through recently passed legislation can create high quality union jobs for women, especially women of color. 

While Hough’s story is unique to her, she said other women should know that they are capable of getting jobs like hers. Statistically, however, women are much less likely than men to pursue those jobs.   

The number of women who work in trades has dramatically increased in recent years, according to Gayle Goldin, deputy director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. But women still only account for about 14% of apprentices and less than 4% of skilled trades workers. 

When Hough started at the Clairton Coke Works, for example, she was one of only 70 women who worked there, she said. Today, she’s just one of the 18 women out of 1,008 workers at the plant.  

She said that when she recently confronted the plant manager about why the company was not hiring more women, he told her that women were just not applying for positions. He even showed her the job application file that backed his claims, Hough said. 

That simple lack of knowledge of the opportunities that are available appears to be one of the biggest obstacles to women entering the trades, according to several of the panelists.  

Samantha Ervin-Upsher, 24, a first-year carpenter’s apprentice, said schools need to start educating students earlier about various career paths. When she was in school, she said, educators were mainly focused on pushing students to college. 

“In school, it’s just like you have to be a number,” she said, adding that teachers would tell her, “‘Go be that number for our school, make me look good.’ But it’s not what I wanted to do.”

Ervin-Upsher bounced around different schools and programs before finding the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, where she ended up pursuing carpentry.   

A possible solution Ervin-Upsher has identified to help increase the number of women and women of color in the trades is by improving representation. 

As a young Black woman, Ervin-Upsher said she intentionally wears her work uniform home so that her family, friends and neighbors see someone like them who has a construction job. Similarly, she said not long after attending the State of the Union address as the guest of First Lady Jill Biden, representation is important when speaking with students about career paths because it helps children see themselves doing jobs that they may not traditionally seek out.

Another barrier for women joining the workforce is the stigma that they cannot do certain jobs as well as men, especially in the trades. 

That idea, of course, is nonsense.

“I’ve been around all of the different trades for years, and I’ve seen plenty of women who come in, and they crush it,” said Monica Dunn, of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “They come out and do great, and they push through.” 

While women are quite capable of doing these jobs, Dunn said, retention seems to be an issue. She said she has countless examples of women starting an apprenticeship and then leaving after a short time.

Dunn said she did not know all of the reasons behind the retention problems, but certain responsibilities that often fall on women could be at least partially to blame. 

Finding child care and caring for aging family members present a challenge for many women seeking employment.  

Beth Mikus, who works for the U.S. Department of Human Services and serves as the president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Coalition of Labor Union Women, criticized federal poverty guidelines that can prevent working women from obtaining child care.

“What I’ve seen over the number of years that I’ve been with the Department of Human Services is that women obtain good jobs, but because of child care and elder care, what happens is that they end up leaving these jobs, these careers that could be lifelong careers because they lose child care subsidies,” Mikus said. 

“They don’t have the ability to take care of elderly parents because of a numerous amount of issues,” she continued. “It is women who are the ones that take on this burden. It’s not fair.” 

Government and labor officials who participated in the discussion said they would bring the ideas and concerns they heard back with them as they worked on policies to improve the ability for women to enter the workforce. 

Their ability to better those conditions is crucial to the future of the country, Lee said.   

“We know the things that we need to do to make our society stronger, to make our workforce stronger,” she said. “While we’re having the conversation about the power of unions today, we know that women still occupy jobs where there are lower levels of unionization rates. And if our country is going to stand up to its principles, of being equitable, of supporting a representative democracy, then we have to all make sure we’re playing the role of going forth and making unions all over.”

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U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, addresses the participants of a roundtable discussion focused on improving the ability for women to enter the workforce Friday, March 15, 2024, at the Steelworkers Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. (Andrew Goldstein/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at