The newly published children’s book, Girls Who Build, by Marisa L. Richards, explores the world of construction, inspired by real women in the sector.
The book aims to challenge gender norms, champion diversity and change cultures, with a message to empower girls to build careers in what they love, whatever this may be.
Marisa tells us more about her background in the sector, her inspiration for the book, and the importance of starting conversations early.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your role as a Program Manager and how long you’ve been in the construction sector?
My name is Marisa Richards, I’m 35 years old, and I currently live in Sugar Grove, Illinois, with my husband Jake and our two young daughters. I was born and raised in a small town called Hinckley, Illinois, and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 2010.
For the last 12 years, I have served as Outreach & Engagement Program Manager for Painters District Council No. 30 (PDC 30), a union labor organisation in Aurora, Illinois. I also serve as Director of our local labor-management fund. Our organisation represents finishing trades workers; we advocate on their behalf to increase work opportunities, provide state-of-the-art safety and skills training, and secure better wages, benefits, and working conditions. In my role, I oversee our community outreach and membership engagement efforts, as well as efforts to advance our industry and increase our organisational development. This includes managing the coordination of all organisation-related events, leading efforts to identify community partnerships and volunteer service opportunities, assisting in the development of all communication strategies and marketing materials, and facilitating our local women’s committee.
Our organisation works to recruit and train the next generation of trades workers, and we are continually identifying ways to diversify our membership. Over the last few years specifically, I’ve worked with many teams to develop and deploy innovative strategies that aim to encourage more women to join the trades. Recruitment and retention efforts are key in this strategy, but our team also seeks to improve the work environment so that women feel safe and supported once they embark on a career in construction. Joining forces with various union leaders and employer partners, we’ve updated sexual harassment policies, developed a unique sexual harassment course for construction workers, and created an initiative that urged our members to become allies and advocates for safer, more supportive working environments.
Could you tell us more about your journey as a children’s book author, and where you found inspiration?
15 years ago, I received my degree in creative writing, rhetoric, and gender and women’s studies. It was during my college years that I first set my sights on writing a book and, because of my focus on gender, I knew I’d feature a strong female lead. Upon graduating, I began my career working for PDC 30, where I was fortunate enough to continue these conversations about gender and diversity. We are very focused on bringing more women into the trades and educating all students about these career opportunities, and I’ve been honored to be a part of this work – on both the local and national levels.
When I became a mom in 2017, my passion for gender equity really came full circle. Today, I’m the mother of two young girls, Adeline and Lucy. My husband and I are raising them to be well-rounded, confident women. We wanted to introduce them to books about construction but when I began my search, I couldn’t find anything that included girls. It’s then that I realised there was a need for female representation in the children’s career book market, especially regarding construction. Because of my background in the industry and my education in writing, it was then that I decided to write the story myself.
I began the writing process in 2021 and two years later, Girls Who Build was published. This entire journey has been so surreal. The concept was simple: introduce young readers to construction jobs while showing girls doing the work. But this story is really a culmination of the three driving forces in my life – my family, my career, and my education. It might not be the novel I first envisioned back in 2009, but I find it to be very fitting that my journey as an author is now beginning in children’s fiction, just like the children’s books I read to my daughters each night. The fact that the story focuses on gender equity and female empowerment is just icing on the cake.
Could you tell us more about the story you’ve created?
Girls Who Build is a children’s book for young readers, ages 3 to 5. Each page features a specific construction job and a brief rhyming description of the work involved in that trade. Each job is performed by a strong, young girl who embraces the challenge of a hard day’s work. The story is inspired by the real women I’ve met, the inspiring women who perform this work on construction jobsites every day. It aims to help young girls not only see themselves within the construction industry, but also to trust their love of this type of work and believe in their ability to do it.
It’s important to me, however, that this book is shared with all children, not just girls. This story teaches boys that girls belong in these careers too, and experiencing that message at an earlier age can help them grow more comfortable with the idea as they grow into adulthood. We can’t change the culture of the construction industry until men become more accepting of women on these jobsites. Girls Who Build starts that conversation even earlier, when children are most accepting of difference and change.
Your book Girls Who Build introduces young readers to the world of construction, what’s the key message you wanted to celebrate in this children’s book?
Now more than ever, it’s important that we don’t define our children based on their gender. Careers are not gender specific. We should teach girls that they, too, are allowed to get dirty, to work with their hands, and to be part of the construction industry. Women can do these jobs, and girls need to learn that at an earlier age, before social norms and education systems teach them otherwise.
I’ve always been a firm believer that conversations about representation and diversity need to start much earlier, when girls are learning about their place in society. I believe girls can do anything, and this book helps prove that. My hope is to inspire the next generation of young girls, so they not only begin to learn about construction jobs at a younger age, but they also begin to believe that there is a place for them within the industry.
I was lucky enough to be inspired by many strong female characters throughout my childhood, as well as the real-life female heroes who blazed the trail for women like me. It would be an honor of a lifetime to similarly inspire just one young girl through the pages of my story.
Only 15% of the UK’s construction workforce is female, according to the office for National Statistics. Women are undoubtedly within the minority within the construction sector workforce, why do you think this is?
I think women are the minority within construction because they have been left out of the narrative for far too long. Advertising and marketing predominately features men, and most leadership positions within the industry have been held by men. When the trades are promoted to children in school career fairs, they have historically been presented as an opportunity for boys only. It’s imperative that we begin marketing this industry as a viable option to young girls, too. And it’s equally important for leadership roles to be held by women throughout the industry.
But the needle is moving. The concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion is gaining speed in the construction industry – with big strides taking place on local and national levels. Nationally, the trades are working together to market more specifically to women, so they see the construction industry as a welcoming place and a viable career option. On the local level, we are working to better align with high schools, so they include trades work among the list of post-secondary education options, and with middle schools, to ensure that females are also invited to participate in conversations about construction apprenticeships.
How does the American landscape compare in terms of diversity in construction?
On average, only 6% of the construction workforce in the United States is female, so we have a long way to go to meet the UK’s statistics – and even further to go to level the playing field. But while the gender disparity is visible across the industry segment, the construction industry is heavily focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion right now. Many organsations have launched women’s committees, racial minority committees, LGBT+ committees, and other exciting initiatives aimed at diversifying the trades. Groups are coming together to share best practices, to change the misconception around what it looks like to be a construction worker. Many trades are also launching industry-leading maternity leave benefits and childcare programs, so that females are able to have a career in construction and a family, simultaneously.
For me personally, I’m still sometimes the only female in the room, but not as often as I was when I started my career. More women are stepping into roles of leadership, and we are working together to make sure that women are a visible entity within this trade.
Who’s your construction hero?
It would be difficult to list just one hero. There are so many female leaders in the industry who have blazed the trail for women like me, so many mentors who have recognised my strengths and encouraged me to take the lead, and so many members of my own extended family who made a life for their families through careers in construction.
Because of the nature of my story, my construction heroes are all of the female construction workers I have met throughout my career. The ones who perform this work, day in and day out. The ones who are defying their gender stereotype and showing the world that women are capable of anything. They are fighting the good fight, and I’m a better leader and a stronger woman for knowing them.
Where can we purchase the book?
Girls Who Build can be purchased on Book Baby and Amazon for $22, plus shipping. Both links are below. More information can be found on my website, https://mrichards.squarespace.com/.
24 January 2024
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