How One Woman is Redefining What it Means to be a Female Engineer and Tradesperson in a Male Dominated Field

I’d like to start by thanking everyone that is interested in learning about my Dress for Success story. Without this organization’s support, I would have fewer tools for educational and professional success. Dress for Success has given me skills I needed to grow into who I am now. I know I’m being invested in tremendously and I am incredibly grateful.

Currently, I’m a second year apprentice union carpenter. In a little over five years, I’ve worked on over 100 homes, a school, and multiple community spaces and corporate offices. I’ve even had a chance to work in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and in rural Wisconsin. My upbringing and grit has helped carve out my strong work ethic and sense of self. As mentioned before, I credit Dress for Success for continuing to help me grow so much more.

I grew up in a loving family back in Marianna, a small, rural town in the panhandle of Florida. My parents are teachers and raised my siblings and I to believe that whatever we set our minds to, we could do. Thankfully, I’ve also experienced a similar love and care from Dress for Success. They’ve offered me amazing support and opportunities like being a gala ambassador. They have also continued to support my belief that it’s worth sticking with something to the end. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know this organization for several years and be nurtured with the resources that they provide for women.

To continue my story, I grew up with a strong sense of independence and have worked many jobs thus far, both domestically and internationally. However, five years ago, I was in-between jobs and wanted to go to grad school. At that time, I had already been in New York for the past seven years and had heard about the AmeriCorps program which is like the Peace Corps. This program engages thousands of Americans in an intensive year of service annually at unique sites including non-profits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the entire USA. They provide opportunities to experience any professional industry because of its diversity, so I applied to over thirty programs. Fortunately, Habitat for Humanity NYC said “yes” to me. Within my first month, I fell in love with construction and carpentry because I was able to use my brain and hone this craft every single day. Between laughing and having fun, I was learning tons and solving real world problems for real families I met along the way. It felt wonderful that I was able to utilize the math and science I grew up loving.  Construction became my passion!

I finished my first year with Habitat for Humanity in 2013 and applied for another term. I was rejected by them. Naturally, I was heartbroken; this was an industry that I not only fell in love with but wanted to pursue long-term. After my rejection, I moved onto the NYC Civic Corps in an administrative role within AmeriCorps. This is when I first got involved with Dress for Success. I had heard about the organization when I originally moved to New York. From doing some personal research, I learned that Dress for Success was a better way to help women by empowering them and offering them tools to succeed.

I participated in my first suiting for my upcoming position working in an office setting. I had lost quite a bit of weight after working for a year with Habitat for Humanity and needed clothes my size. Honestly, I’ve hated shopping for clothes since I was a kid. Finding clothes that fit and actually looked good on me was always a long ordeal. That said, the women at Dress for Success really listened to what I wanted to wear and helped me find some much needed professional attire for the office. It’s important to dress your best, and in my case, it’s also an important strategic step towards becoming a woman in executive leadership within the construction industry.

(Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide, and Amanda Kay Johnson at the Women in Business Making Change Event)

Once I was suited, I was told about their Professional Women’s Group program. Despite challenges I had with the program, I stuck with it, and soon afterwards, I participated in the Financial Education Program which was one of the most helpful decisions for my future.

You see, growing up, I never had strong financial role models in my life.  My parents always struggled with money, and so, I never got a credit card because I always associated it with debt based on their examples. However, I knew that if I was going to buy a home in NYC, I was going to have to establish credit. I just wasn’t informed about certain things. I’ve always believed I was good at managing money, after all, I have lived off of less than a thousand dollars a month for 3 years in a city where it’s practically impossible.

My whole life I’ve been good at budgeting, and with the Financial Education Program that Dress for Success offers, I learned the ins and outs of financial literacy and ensured that I would be on a path to achieve economic stability. I learned about investing, built up an emergency fund, cleaned up mistakes on my credit report, and gained a lot more confidence in personal finance. I even got my first credit card shortly after starting these classes! Later, through the MYFI Program, I was able to create a will, which was especially important to me after recent deaths in my immediate family.

Afterwards, I felt very financially grounded, more independent, and safe. My finances improved, my life improved, my job improved – a lot of it was persevering with hopeful grit and staying diligent. I knew that if I put one foot in front of the other I was going to get where I wanted to go. I’ve always set goals, and now I’m seeing them pay off. Through my apprenticeship, I now have the means to visit my family and even take vacations; financially, life is just a whole lot better.

Outside of Dress for Success, I believe that I must self invest. Currently, I am working towards completing 5,200 hours to finish my union apprenticeship and become a Journeywoman Carpenter with the UBC Local 157 Carpenters Union.  With the financial assistance I received from AXA today, I also plan to finish my master’s degree in Civil Engineering with an emphasis in Construction Management next year. For me, it’s not enough to build a better world as a female carpenter, but I want to also have a solid grasp of the principles behind what I build.

(Faith Frank of AXA, awards Success Ambassadors, Moyna Temple and Amanda Kay Johnson, with “The Pursuit Beyond the Suit” Scholarships.)

Additionally, I want this degree to put myself on the path to leadership roles that are not necessarily going to be given to me – especially as a woman in construction. I have to say “no” to many great things so that I can put in the work needed for my master’s degree. While it’s a struggle to work full-time while pursuing this degree, it’s ultimately an investment in my career and my future.

Becoming a civil engineer makes me a more capable carpenter, provides me with vital knowledge for my job, and advances my career in the world of construction. I eventually want to apply my education to become a C-suite executive of a construction non-profit or within the leadership of my carpenter’s union. I know it will take at least ten years, but I am eager to inspire others by redefining what it means to be both an engineer and a tradesperson as a woman. I take the fight for gender equity very seriously. As one of my goals, I want to inspire young girls to consider a career in the trades because it’s fun, and the benefits both long-term and short-term are out of this world!

Personally, I want to also work towards buying my first home and to be able to provide for my future family. It’s important to me to continue spending time with my the family I have now and to use my gift of leadership to empower others. I want to use my voice to fight for the issues that affect tradeswomen and improve our families.

I was recently asked what I wanted to see in my industry in the future. There’s a thing called 20 by 2020. It’s the goal that by the year 2020, 20 percent of people working in construction will be women. When I was asked, I said I don’t want 20 by 2020. I want 50 by 2020! I want 50 percent of my field to be women. It’s already happening in certain places, but I believe it’s not happening more because people don’t ask or fight for it. That’s the first step. Just ask for it.

(Amanda Kay Johnson tells her story at the Dress for Success Women in Business Making Change event at the Kimpton Hotel Eventi in NYC)

I’m not afraid to speak up, and I’ve spoken up for myself and for other women in the past on the job, and I’ve seen things change. Maybe things wouldn’t have changed if I hadn’t spoken up and if I didn’t have support from leadership, particularly the women in leadership who have been in the unions for decades. There are a number of women ahead of me who have fought for these kinds of opportunities. I’m grateful for that and do not take it lightly. It makes me want more opportunities for women like myself.

Sometimes getting those opportunities means taking what you want! For example, I recently was asked by my boss to move 16,000 pounds of steel by myself. It was only my second day at this job site and if I couldn’t do it I would be fired. Now, moving this much steel isn’t easy – if you shift it wrong, you risk breaking your fingers or even a hand. It was a challenge, but I impressed him when I told him that I had finished the job. I’ve completed many other tasks like that. Aside from safety, my mindset is if I can put my mind (and hands) to it, I can do it. Success to me is being brave enough to go for it even if you fall on your face and then keep going. It means never putting limits on yourself or not trying. Sure, you may fail, but you also may achieve the impossible. I don’t put limits on myself.

Now, more than ever, the world needs women who will step up like me and be powerhouses. We are vital to give hope to the next generation of sons and daughters who need to see their moms and aunts as strong, smart, capable females that they look up to as role models. With this aim in mind, I believe that Dress for Success meets us where we are at in life and helps us to stay on our personal paths of success. Thank you AXA, and thank you Dress for Success!

– Amanda Kay Johnson

 

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