Portland State University Assistant professor Roberta Hunte’s dissertation is the basis for My Walk Has Never Been Average, a play that reveals the stories of black women in construction. Hunte’s unique research includes the profiles of 15 black, female construction workers. One of them is Donna Hammonds, who shared her challenges working in the male-dominated field:
“She recounts one incident where she believed she was welding at 20 amps, but someone snuck around and amped her tool up to 150. ‘Sparks were flying. Fire everywhere. I thought my hair was on fire,’ says Hammond, who also recalls an electrician who avoided the appearance of working with her by making her “walk 10, maybe five paces behind him.” Men were not the only one who felt uncomfortable – even threatened – by her presence in the field. ‘It was taboo. When I got into the trades, my mom was embarrassed that I was going to be a construction worker,’ Hammond says.”
Culturally, construction work has been gendered masculine. Unlike fields like entrepreneurship, the sciences, and corporate leadership, construction has not been one of the spaces that we’ve pushed women to enter. However, stories like Donna’s illustrate that sexism is not just a problem faced by women in business skirts. Women in blue-collar work are navigating hostile, male-dominated workplaces to feed their families and define themselves as well.
The lack of nuanced discussions of the experiences of actual working-class women is not lost on Hunte.
‘“We rarely talk about working class women and work. Pundits talk about work in the media, but rarely do we hear grassroots folks talking about what it means to have a job, to find meaning in work, and what is required of some of us to walk our path.’ Hunte observes. ‘Sixty percent of black families are female headed. Women in our families are the breadwinners. Our breadwinners need to have good waged jobs,’ she continues.”
The play, adapted for the stage by Bonnie Ratner, sold out in 48 hours. For those of you in Portland, there will be a second performance of My Walk Has Never Been Average on June 7th!
Sesali is a writer who thinks black women should be valued at home, at work, and everywhere else.