Fighting for Women's Equality

Tradeswomen Tuesday: Robin Sullivan, Boilermaker Local 242, Spokane

October 13, 2015 | by

My name is Robin Sullivan, but everyone at work calls me Mouse. I am a Journeyman Boilermaker, and no I did not make a mistake by saying Journeyman. Blood, sweat, and I must admit, some tears went into earning that title.

Robin Sullivan
What kind of work do you do?

I do many different things at work. I weld, run a JLG lift, use a torch, do layout, read prints. I also do heavy rigging and work in nuclear power plants. We are required to be able to do a lot of different tasks in this trade.

What attracted you to the trade?

I joined the trade when I was 36, and it’s hard for me to believe sometimes but I am 44 now! You are never too old to follow your dreams. I wanted to earn good money so I could stand on my own two feet and support my children. I wanted to teach my son who was 18 at the time and my daughter who was 16, that women can earn a fair wage and support a family. I also wanted to travel. For years, I worked a regular job (9 to 5) and felt cooped up. I also wanted a job that I could always be learning something new.

What was it like when you first started?

My first job, I was sent out on a 7 day a week, 12 hours a day, for 7 weeks. It was an eye opener especially to the physical and mental strain of this craft. I wish I would have known a few things, like the importance of good boots and monkey butt powder. Mind you, I am 5ft 1 and 105 lbs. I was clearly not in as good a shape or as strong as I thought. I found out real quick the term “mechanical advantage”! I became a pro at chain falls and rigging. The men do have an advantage when it comes to heavy lifting, but thanks to the mechanical advantage, I will not have a bad back or shoulders as many of them do.

What do you enjoy most about your trade? 

I love the fact you get to meet new people, and if you do not see eye to eye with some that’s ok because you don’t have to work with them for long. Being a Boilermaker gives me a feeling of pride. Our hall local 242 has only 2 female helpers and 2 Journeyman. I do not get the chance to work with other female boilermakers very often. When I work a nuclear plant I see other women, but outside of that it is rare.

What are the challenges you have faced?

Challenges make us stronger and teach us important lessons. I have had to learn to be patient when confronted with men who have had bad experiences working with women. I know this is a pressure lots of us feel. You feel like you have to overcompensate, be faster, smarter, more efficient, always smile than everyone else on the site. I make it a project of mine on every job to watch and see who is not thrilled I am there, and then I bust my butt to prove not only myself but to show him women are assets. Then maybe the next woman he works with will have a fair shake.

What advice do you have for other women who want to do this work?

This is not an easy craft for women. I have found that the northern states tend to be less accepting of women other than as laborers. I often get mistaken as a laborer just because I am a woman. I was told early on to “check your feelings and your gender at the gate when you come to work.” I pass that along to others. You need thick skin, a good sense of humor and a positive attitude to make it. Never let them see you cry, or break in anyway, it’s like blood in a tank full of sharks out there.

Your only limitations are the ones you place on yourself, so set your goals high. I am a firm believer in TEAM effort. What I mean by that is it takes every craft to build or repair these plants. No craft is more important than another. I make a point to talk to everyone on a job site, and recognize them for their work. I am currently the foreman on a job that has 2 female ironworkers, one female crane operating engineer, and 3 female forklift drivers! This is a first for me. We often have female pipefitters and electricians, but it is more common to see women in those trades around here.

What is your vision for the future for women in the trades?

I want the women just coming in and the ones thinking about this work to know it is not an easy job in any way, but it is so rewarding. Know that you have sisters out there who will have your back, and who are working hard to hopefully make your journey a little less bumpy. I had some amazing journeymen who took the time to teach me. To not judge me on my size or gender, and I will forever be their friends and thankful to them. And you never know what might happen. I had met an amazing man many years ago, but as life goes it just was not the right time. Then many years later, I was at our hall getting a dispatch for work and he walked in. He is also a Boilermaker so it couldn’t be more perfect for us. We have the opportunity to travel and work together. I feel very blessed to have such a full life.

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