This article is part of our Women and Leadership special section, which focuses on approaches taken by women, minorities or other disadvantaged groups challenging traditional ways of thinking.
Growing up in Meridian, Miss., Tonya Hicks adored working on cars and rebuilding motors with her Uncle Melvin, an industrial mechanic.
“I learned all about my tools from ratchets to socket wrenches by handing them to him, and sometimes sliding under the cars to have a look,” she said. “Even as a 5-year-old, the back of my sundress would have oil stains and under my nails would be black — which didn’t go over well with Mama.”
Her mother’s displeasure was just the first of a string of obstacles in the route Ms. Hicks followed to becoming an electrician and running a growing business. Discrimination, sexual harassment and that she is a woman of color were all hurdles as she made her way into the male-dominated industry. In the United States, 2.4 percent of electricians are women, and 9.5 percent of electrical contracting businesses are owned by women.
Ms. Hicks, now 47, faced career pushback before entering the skilled-trades arena. Her math acumen earned her a scholarship to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she was a math major with a minor in computer science. “I wanted to be a mathematician working on coding and computer software for the Defense Department,” she said.
But during her sophomore year, her professional path hit a roadblock.
“One of my instructors told me that those kinds of jobs were not readily available for a black woman,” Ms. Hicks said. “All of my dreams just came down. He said the best thing I could do is focus on becoming a teacher. I thought, ‘That is just not me.’”
Her fortune changed during her summer break, when she landed work as a laborer at a paper mill. “It was exciting,” she said. “I saw how the industrial electricians were using math all the time.”
She forfeited her scholarship and did not return to college in the fall. “My family thought I was a complete failure and letting everyone down,” she said.
Her challenges continued. When Ms. Hicks applied for the apprenticeship program at her hometown electrical union, she found herself being interviewed by five white men.
“They told me, ‘You know three white women tried before you and failed,’” she recalled. “‘Don’t you think it’s going to be hard you being a black female?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’”
She was right. Ms. Hicks was the first woman to complete the five-year program becoming the first female journeyman electrician in Local 917 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) and among the first few African-American women in Mississippi to do so. (Only 6.8 percent of electricians are black or African-American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Ms. Hicks was tenacious. She traveled long distances to find work at car plants and steel mills and in the construction of airports from Mississippi to Michigan. She did not blink at being on the job 12 hours a day, seven days a week as she learned her trade.
The workplace could be frustrating. “There were many times when I would show up at a job and no man talked to me, or acknowledged my presence,” she said. “Many times, the foremen on the jobs didn’t know what to do with me because I was the only woman. They would send me to the material trailer to clean it up, instead of working a job on the floor. That’s how I learned about the construction business and how to estimate. I would read everything I found there.”
When a co-worker urged her to start her own business, she never looked back.
“I had worked for nine different employers that year and was ready to take control of my career,” she said.
So in 2000, Ms. Hicks started Power Solutions, an electrical contracting firm based in Atlanta that focused on commercial and industrial buildings and now specializes in renewable energy and smart-city technology. She was 28. “I bought a computer and had my business cards made with clip art of a woman electrician with a lightning bolt,” Ms. Hicks said. “That’s me.”
To fund her start-up, she tapped into roughly $10,000 of personal savings. And she began networking with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and women’s business groups. “These women helped me,” she said. “That was a culture shock. People accepted me.”
The business will start operations in Singapore and the Netherlands this year.
But she is not done. Ms. Hicks is assembling the next group of women to work in skilled-trade industries. With support of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a city-funded incubator for women-owned businesses in Atlanta, her latest venture is a career development agency and training center to help women get jobs in male-dominated industries. It will start this summer in Atlanta, with plans for nine more centers to open in cities across the country, including Detroit and Englewood, Calif.
“I am tired of being the only, the first,” she said. “I’m working to try to change that. I look at construction as the last frontier for women. I don’t think it’s any better than when I started. It takes a long time to change culture. And it’s not where it needs to be for women to feel there is a real opportunity.”
Apprenticeships like the one Ms. Hicks held provide on-the-job training and are vital to the success of women in the skilled-trade sector. In 2017, however, only 7.3 percent of those completing registered apprenticeships were women.
“Growing the number of women in construction or the trades is no small feat,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It takes a tremendous amount of coordination between work-force development programs, labor unions, contractors and the government. These are higher-paying jobs with benefits, and potential for increased earnings over time — all things that are particularly meaningful for working women with families.”
But change has been incremental.
“Although huge strides have been made over the last several decades, there does remain a significant lack of diversity of women and women of color in the skilled trades and construction industry,” said Vicki Anderson, the chief executive of Stevens Engineers and Constructors, based in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
The obstacles that Ms. Hicks encountered more than 20 years ago are still rampant. Sexual harassment is still an issue, according to Carolyn Williams, a retired director of the I.B.E.W. Civic and Community Engagement Department. “The biggest challenge for women entering the field is the sexism,” she said. “You think about that environment it has this macho connotation behind it.”
While the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are not indicative of a huge increase in women’s participation in the skilled trades, there are many groups now offering support, Ms. Williams said, and more tradeswomen are recruiting women and educating their unions on the obstacles and solutions to removing the barriers that women face in the skilled trades.
“Women often get clogged in the pipeline due to the lack of support by male supervisors or co-workers, sexual harassment, or they do not receive the proper training or support to do all aspects of the job,” Ms. Mason said. “These jobs are also less flexible and do not provide support services for child care or take into account women’s disproportionate caretaking responsibilities compared to men. As a result, retention of women in nontraditional jobs and skilled trades can be difficult.”
In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research was recently awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve retention and advancement for women in construction and manufacturing fields.
That mission resonates with Ms. Hicks. While she admittedly has been through some tough years as her business has gained traction, her biggest return has been “empowering women economically,” she said.
“Being a boss is giving other people an opportunity to make money and to help them grow,” she said. “Not until you are building up another person are you a true leader.”