Only Tell Positive Stories

—by Susan Eisenberg
Positive stories are great –– they convey a goal, inspire, give us something to cheer! They don’t require the teller to remember difficult experiences or make listeners uncomfortable. And they’re often rewarded by those in power — or at least don’t bring reprisals. I get it. But I find the pressure on tradeswomen to LIMIT themselves to telling stories of success, counterproductive (and depressing). Five reasons why STAYING PURELY POSITIVE can be harmful:

1. First, it’s just NOT TRUE. Not because the stories are false, but because so much is omitted. Like a heavily redacted document, it signals what people with power want known. And so, silences complaints and lowers credibility.

2. LOSES an important OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH. Fatal accidents are talked about on construction sites not because they happen all the time, but because they PROVIDE WARNING that might prepare a person to react appropriately in unexpected moments of danger. Or see patterns, see where things are heading and change course or bail before it’s too late (like change to a contractor or local where they’ll get trained or stay employed). Researching We Remember, about tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related, I found that being unable to imagine that someone responsible for your safety might want to cause you serious harm could be fatal.

3. MISLEADS and SHAMES. Women considering these careers  deserve an accurate picture of what they’re entering, including how likely it is they’ll receive that good pension. And tradeswomen who did things right but were failed by the system –– those hard-working apprentices who worked to become capable mechanics but found themselves unemployed at journeylevel — DESERVE NOT TO BE BLAMED. Unless discrimination is talked about frankly, the implication is that women who left didn’t measure up.

4. UNDERCUTS OUR OWN GOALS of reaching a critical mass. If tradeswomen only have positive stories, what explains our tiny numbers (2.5% of the workforce)? Lack of interest in these occupations? Simply poor marketing?

5. UNDERESTIMATES ALLIES in and outside the labor movement. Tradeswomen need people who can take the time to understand their situations and stand with and for them. If we can’t believe the labor movement is capable of growth –– not just numerically, but emotionally –– or capable of acknowledging mistreatment and making needed corrections, we’re in trouble. If we’re not able to say what’s been wrong and still wrong, how would anyone know how to help?

Finding the right balance of upbeat and harsh (and boring day-to-day) is challenging. And different for everyone. And changes for the same person at different times. That accuracy is what to aim for.

The stories that draw me most are the saves: bad situations that were rescued, discrimination that was acknowledged and corrected.



  1. Positive Stories, Really? And where are those Allies, actually? Is what we promoted once still ‘all that’ to set a goal for?

    I read last month about rising numbers of women in the trades here in NYC and the Kudo’s for those reported to be responsible for that achievement. Yet, the women I meet say they are alone on the job and the men are still shocked to meet one. Hmmm, says I. One woman of this, one woman of that and Good Goddess! there are three of those! Hurray!

    Let us be cautious once again, for, the 1% of 30 years ago raved at the 3% rise of 20 years ago and women still fell out the back as the parade cheered forward. One month a year, a handful of women are made note of when the other 11 months still show pay inequality stats and high unemployment for the other women 3 decades later.

    Those of us who made it through to retirement, discovered that retirees get very little money (especially women, who stand to accrue the lowest work hour credits), retirees pay for insurance now, have no eyeglass care or dental care. Hmmm says I, do I still want to encourage this for other women?

    I joined a union for a decent pension….. fair work ethics…. good benefits for when I was old, and the fun I’d have building large objects.
    I did have the fun part.

    And this coming from a relative success story.

    xxx Carpenter from the Dark Side on a Spring day


  2. The situation is very similar here in Canada though our numbers are closer to 3% – 3% after 40 years of concentrated effort! In the ’70s and ’80s I spent 15 years as a construction carpenter and thought certainly if we just explained to people what was going on – and gave a little legal nudge to the less willing employers and co-workers – that all would soon change. Not!

    Now when I talk to young women in trades, I’m almost brought to tears by their determined optimism. I recognize the love of the trade that drives them. And I try to be honest. I tell young women, “This won’t be easy.” Then I tell them to form a group, talk to other tradeswomen, as Susan did and as I did. I wouldn’t have made it without that sister support. In writing my memoir (Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World) I didn’t spare the truth, and many women have written to thank me. By telling the truth, we give each other courage.

    In the meantime, I’ve switched my angle. I used to say we need to train the women. Now I say, We’ve trained women up the yin-yang and still nothing’s changed. It’s time to train the men. T
    his is a management problem.


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