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Helping Cariocas Crack the Concrete Ceiling

By Amy Kirschenbaum


When, back in 2007, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced a cornerstone initiative of his economic policy, Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC), or Program for Accelerated Growth, Deise Gravina paid attention.

The PAC called for the Brazilian government, state-owned companies and the private sector to coordinate their investment in construction, sanitation, energy, transportation and logistics. Gravina, a retired civil engineer, heads Federação de Instituições Beneficentes (FIB), an umbrella organization founded in 1957 that today manages several community development initiatives in Rio de Janeiro. Realizing that these infrastructure projects would fuel a demand for a skilled workforce—as would preparations, on an unprecedented scale, for Rio to host World Cup matches in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016—Gravina came up with the idea for FIB’s Projeto "Mão na Massa," colloquially, "getting our hands dirty."

Through Projeto Mão na Massa, FIB prepares cariocas, or women from Rio, for the lucrative, and traditionally male-dominated, construction trades. In just three years, FIB trained more than 300 women as construction workers, and its placement rate has attracted attention. More than 60 percent of the women trained found jobs immediately following graduation, nearly doubling their personal income. Others have started small businesses offering construction and renovation services. Nearly half of the participants in Projeto Mão na Massa are from the notorious Complexo de Alemão, a favela that had been ruled by drug traffickers and other gangs until the recent government crackdown in December 2010. The women’s motive for going into construction is understandable: the industry generates some 9 percent of Brazil’s jobs. (The upcoming renovation of Rio’s iconic iconic Estádio do Maracanã alone is expected to employ some 3,000 workers.) "I always wanted to work the way a man does," said graduate Andreia Sulmira Ribeiro Alves, who had spent 15 years cleaning other people’s houses. "I feel that I now have rights," she added, referring to the benefits employees in the formal sector receive under Brazilian law.

Gravina considers herself as much a social engineer as a civil engineer. A lifelong volunteer in service to the community, she has actively contributed to forums and discussion groups on the rights of the most vulnerable Brazilians. She attributes her commitment to the influence of her mother, a retired schoolteacher who ran an agency that helped the poor find housing. In the late 1980s, when Gravina was involved in the renovation of the Abrigo Maria Imaculada nursery, the institution’s director died suddenly. With no one willing to replace her, given the nursery’s financial straits, Gravina and her mother stepped in. Within a few years, they had returned the nursery to solvency, with more children than ever in its care. Gravina’s interest in Brazil’s youngest citizens doesn’t stop there. She currently serves on the municipal and state councils responsible for monitoring policy affecting the rights of children and adolescents and social services for them.

It was Gravina’s experience in the nursery that made her want to do something for the children’s mothers as well. "Women are the real heads of the great majority of families in Brazil today," she explained. "To address enormous deficiencies in access to health care, education and housing, the government has launched programs, such as Bolsa Familia that values the role of these women heads-of-household and entrusts them with channeling the benefits to the family. Public housing programs give the title and the key to the property to the mother. But we cannot forget that we are a country that for centuries elevated the man in the family or in the professional world. I believe that only massive investment in education will change this reality."

A lifetime in the business convinced Gravina that construction offered opportunities for women from Rio’s favelas and a path out of poverty. She knew that they were already helping their husbands and fathers build and upgrade homes—and that they needed to overcome inhibitions and the stereotypes that she had never harbored. "Gender played no role in my decision as to which career to pursue," she said. "My interest was construction. Obviously, I realized I had chosen a field dominated by men, but I knew that knowledge, dedication and competency opened doors." A nativecarioca born into the middle class, Gravina joined the workforce at age 17, after a technical course and an internship. Her engineering degree qualified her to work on major public works, such as the Tucurí Hydroelectric Dam in Northern Brazil; Rio’s subway system; the tower of Shopping Rio Sul, the tallest structure in the city at the time; and Rio Centro, one of the city’s largest exhibition spaces.

Over the years, Gravina has seen technology advance and equipment replace brute force in construction, shattering the myth that this work is "too heavy" for women. FIB attracts women to its course via posters strategically placed in their neighborhoods and advertisements in popular media. Its training, Gravina said, begins by addressing any prejudices and stereotypes. "By the time the trainees get to the practical phase of the course," she said, "the difference is not related to gender but to the realization that they can do the work." And if remnants of machismo remain on the job site, that is a challenge that Brazilian women appear willing to take on. According to government reports, their employment in construction has steadily increased over the last decade. From 2008 to 2009, it grew 3 percent, thanks not only to the PAC, which Lula’s successor, President Dilma Rousseff, intends to continue, but also to a building boom driven by the increase in personal income and in the availability of housing loans.

The presence of women in construction has taken hold in Canoas in the South and Fortaleza in the Northeast, which have programs similar to Projeto Mão na Massa. As demonstrated in other formerly male-dominated sectors where women are now ensconced, such as the armed services and civil aviation, the trend is not likely to reverse. On the job, noted the representative of a company that hires FIB graduates, women tend to be less wasteful with materials, which holds down costs, and more attentive to detail, which helps in specialized areas such as workplace safety. One supervisor reported an improvement in decorum where women are on the site. "Male workers become a lot more polite and careful," he said. "The guys show up wearing cologne and they swear less," another reported.

The women whom FIB trains to become professional masons, carpenters, electricians and plumbers also receive instruction in Portuguese, math, reading floor plans, civic participation, cooperative organizations, nutrition, environmental responsibility, occupational health and safety, and business management. They specialize by opting to attend another 120 hours of instruction in a single trade. In addition to skills, the women graduate with a sense of confidence. Claudia Luzia Dionisio da Silva, 36 and mother of five, speaks with palpable pride of becoming the first female stonemason in her community. Rosangela Rocha came to the course from her father’s electrical business, where she used to help out. "I’m going to steal clients from my dad!" said the trainee electrician, adding that technology has changed since her father originally learned his trade and, as a result, she finds herself teaching him.

The last phase of FIB’s course is a hands-on practicum that provides invaluable experience and lets the trainees give back to the community by renovating or adding to a structure belonging to one of the institutions in the FIB network, such as the Santa Cruz de Copacabana nursery and Projeto Brincando e Estudando and Praça do Rocha, which offer after-school programs. Projeto Mão na Massa has already forged significant partnerships outside this civil-society network: Petrobras and Eletrobras, respectively the state-owned petroleum and power companies, both provide counterpart resources to make the project possible. The National Service for Industrial Education (SENAI), the Organization of Cooperatives of the State of Rio de Janeiro (OCB-SESCOOP) and the Brazilian Ministry of Justice provide instruction related to specific elements of the curriculum. The Social Service for Construction Companies (SECONCI) advises graduates during their search for jobs and maintains a database in partnership with the project to facilitate the hiring process. Abrigo María Imaculada, a natural ally, offers space at reasonable rent and provides child care.

National Geographic plans to feature FIB in an upcoming issue focused on women in development; Projeto Mão na Massa recently participated in the 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal, where its representatives shared experiences with an international audience. Meanwhile Gravina forges ahead. "I want to expand the methodology to other regions of Brazil and share our experience with other developing countries, so that we shift the gender paradigm in civil engineering," she said. Norma Sá, project coordinator for Projeto Mão na Massa, is working for passage of a bill by the state legislature of Rio de Janeiro to guarantee that women fill a specified number of the jobs in any government-funded construction project. And both Gravina and Sá want construction companies and unions to contribute toward funding Projeto Mão na Massa training programs. The struggle for equal pay and opportunity for advancement also looms. Brazilian government statistics indicate that women construction workers in entry level positions earn 80 percent of the amount paid to men starting out. "Few companies are willing to hire women, but the ones that do demand more of us," commented Norma Sá. Nonetheless the women trained by FIB can take pride in cracking the concrete ceiling and finding a niche they could not have filled just a few years ago.

Amy Kirschenbaum is IAF representative for Brazil.

Project Mão na Massa Women in the Civil Construction

Groundbreaking Methodology 


Project Mão na Massa Women in the Civil Construction Groundbreaking Methodology The Project Mão na Massa uses the force of Civil Construction to transform the lives of women in situations of economic and social vulnerability.

Engineered for women 18 to 45, with schooling equal or more than the 5th year of Middle School, the project adopts a policy of affirmative action aimed equal opportunities and women's emancipation.

The Project Mão na Massa - Women in Civil Construction guarantees social and professional qualification for youth and adult impoverished from the Metropolitan Region of Rio de Janeiro. The activities are offered free of charge and Beyond classes and the technical certificate that has national recognition (or FAETEC SENAI), they will receive for their transportation (tickets worth transport), Uniforms, support cost (stock relief), all protective equipment individual and a tool kit to start services and generate income after qualifying.

The proposal is a pioneer in Brazil, was born from the dream of Civil Engineer Deise Gravina, who with the experience of working in construction sites, thought that the inclusion of woman workers was a matter of time and just needed to give the female audience the opportunity to learn professional skills.

Created in 2007 from a survey of 216 female residents, the vast majority of the Community Dois de Maio, integrating the Jacarezinho´s favela located in the suburbs of Rio Janeiro.

A survey was taken For the development of the project and for the initial diagnosis, it revealed that among women who participated in the survey, over 50% had interest in qualifying for the civil construction sector and accumulated experience of assisting in the reform and home construction.

The Project Mão na Massa solidifies knowledge and prepares the participants to meet the demands of the sector.

The qualification has 460 hours of scheduled classes and training in knowledge and ownership of the intellectual, technical, cultural and civic life.

Is performed in two stages, a Social Rating and a Professional Qualification and part of the learning program is dedicated to the practice where. After five editions of the project, more than 400 women completed the qualification and about 60% are generating rent from the execution of services in the Construction Industry or services to others.

As workers, carpenters shapes, painters, electricians, plumbers / fire trucks, through the "Job Bank", created and monitored by the project team, are inserted into construction sites of large companies. Contact us: [email protected]