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The Only Girl Here: Women and the Trades

January 21, 2010

Despite the fact that construction and the trades offer high-paying, skilled work, few women pursue it as a profession. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Labor report, women make up only 2.5% of the construction workforce. In economic terms, there is a strong argument for encouraging women to enter the trades. Compared to female dominated professions such as child care, construction workers earn over twice as much on a weekly wage basis. Since a large number of single-parent households rely on a woman’s income, it makes sense for those women to consider higher-paying options.

In an attempt to make sense of the masculine-oriented culture of technical disciplines, I recently read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. He is a motorcycle mechanic and philosopher who argues that people have lost sight of the value of working with their hands. He bemoans the loss of shop class as a mechanism to introduce people to fixing and creating physical objects. He describes his unhappiness working at a think-tank with his PhD in political philosophy before he quit and the satisfaction he found in opening an independent motorcycle repair shop. He depicts a timeless story of finding his life’s passion and taking risks to get there.

Crawford’s main premise is that “work is meaningful because it is genuinely useful” (p6). He describes the feeling of accomplishment after solving a particularly tricky diagnosis on an engine, the sense of pride when the engine sputters to life for the first time, and building relationships with customers that are built on common interests that extend beyond professional life. Rather than developing vague notions of self-esteem from peer interactions, physical labor provides a strong sense of accomplishment due to the focus on developing a physical object. Crawford elaborates, when doing physical labor “one feels like a man, not a cog in a machine” (p53) as a result of seeing the impact of one’s personal work. As indicated by his language, Crawford’s book is very male-oriented and appeals to a macho sense of masculinity and autonomy.  In a moment of political correctness, he writes off this perspective as mere happenstance, “it so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the appeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful” (p5). While women can certainly appreciate his message, this does not change the profoundly gendered nature of his story.

Before I got to engineering school, I had never used a power tool, let alone built anything. No one encouraged me to try. When I finally got to college, I took the initiative to learn how to weld for a student project designing and building recumbent bicycles for a speed competition. I took a machine shop class and learned precision machining techniques to build a Tesla turbine. I learned to build and debug circuits to construct robotic mechanisms. Now, a senior in college, I work in the machine shop and I’m the only girl there. Clearly, I had the desire to learn how to use my hands, but I was never presented with the opportunity until I arrived at college. I feel a strong affinity toward machining because there is a sense of perfection that is always out of reach but never quite feels impossible. I have felt the same sense of accomplishment that Crawford describes after laying down a particularly good weld bead, after double-checking my work and realizing that I machined it perfectly within the tolerances. I strongly agree with Crawford that there is a specific sense of fulfillment associated with completing a mechanical task.

So, in an attempt to understand the female-side of Crawford’s descriptions of working in the trades, I interviewed two very different women – a bicycle welder named Stef and an electrician named Liz. Stef learned to weld in art school and decided to go into industry rather than become a professional artist. Liz majored in electrical in vocational school and now works in residential lighting.

Both Liz and Stef felt that they belonged with their work.  Stef described enjoying the physical, rhythmic nature of welding, “Being out in production, there’s more freedom of movement and at the end of the day you’re like ‘here’s what I did’ and you can quantify it and you can see it. It’s a physical thing… Some people express that welding was too repetitive but I have the kind of personality that it really suits the way I like to work.” On the other hand, Liz emphasized the appeal of always working on new projects and continuing to learn throughout her career, “I’m always doing something new and different which I think is great for my personality. It keeps your mind going and you’re constantly learning something new. I’ve never felt bored. Every job is different.” Considering the wide contrast between Stef and Liz, it seems the trades have something to offer everyone. Yet according to the Department of Labor, only 4.7% of welders and 1% of electricians are women. Therefore, it seems that societal forces are at play which actively discourage women from entering and remaining in the trades at the same rate as men.

According to Crawford, shop class originated to socialize students destined for blue-collar jobs and provide enrichment for those destined for white-collar ones. In the 1990s, schools began shutting down shop classes and selling machines to pay for computers. Today, young people are expected to go to college and get a desk job rather than consider going to vocational school and learning a manual skill.  Yet skilled manual labor provides stable, fulfilling work. Mechanics cannot do their job over the Internet – they need to be physically engaged with the community within which they operate. This is not to overemphasize the physical nature of the job. Further, there are important problem-solving skills that can only be learned through physical practice. In fact, Crawford emphasizes the “cognitive richness of manual work.”

Similarly, Liz emphasized the importance of changing stereotypes about vocational school as a place for “dumber kids”. There is clearly value in learning practical, mechanical skills and yet society casts those professions as a lower class. Manual work requires just as much creativity and cleverness as high-paying corporate strategy positions. In manual work, you can’t simply follow directions – there are always added complications and unexpected turn of events. Not all solutions are created equal – some are easier to implement, cheaper, faster, and you have to apply your experience and knowledge to figure out which to implement.

For acquiring skills, Liz and Stef emphasized the importance of having female role models while Crawford focused on the socialization aspect of the apprentice/master system in framing expectations on the job. As Stef explained, she had learned to weld in a female-dominated environment and accepted that as natural, “I guess I was kind of naïve and I didn’t really think about it at all. Since I had been in a bunch of accepting [environments]– there were a lot of women in the welding area – the two instructors in museum school that I took classes with were women. A lot of my fellow students in the welding area were women. I don’t think I really thought twice about it.” For her, gender was a non-issue in learning how to weld. This gave her confidence and the opportunity to become comfortable in the discipline before moving into male-dominated industry.

Coming from a radically different background, Liz did not have any female role models growing up. In fact, she was the first female student to graduate in electrical from her vocational school. As a result, she feels an obligation to clear the path for women following in her footsteps. Many women have felt this same need for role models. As a result, there are a growing number of organizations, such as Oregon Tradeswomen, Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and National Institute for Women in the Trades, Technology, and Science (IWITTS), focused on increasing women’s access to high-paying jobs in the trades.

However, there is still an underlying assumption in the trades that women are less qualified than their male counterparts. Both Liz and Stef had stories of gender-based harassment. Liz ended up switching to residential work from commercial construction because of the negative experiences she had working in high school. “I was the only girl there, which was really not a fun experience. […]  It was very intimidating for a 16 year old to be out there because there were people that would come up to you straight to your face and say ‘why are you here? I don’t understand why you’re even [here]’ like really blunt, like mean. Especially more of the older men but it’s just shocking. You’d be sitting there trying to work. For me, my only defense mechanism was to dress completely non-conspicuous – blend right in, jeans, work boots, big jacket so no one would recognize you. But people would find out there was a girl on the job and every tradesman would pass by me during the day at least once.” For Liz, feeling like she was constantly being judged made the atmosphere too intimidating for her to thrive. When changing her style of dress to fit in had no impact, she made the conscious decision to find a more comfortable workplace. Rather than leave electrical, she carved a space for herself in the residential sector where the work is more personalized and she can work one-on-one with clients.

While Stef did not have such a dramatically negative experience, she did experience the negative attitudes of some of her coworkers. She tells a story of one of her male co-workers being angry for being laid off instead of her, “there was a set of lay-offs […] and one of the guys that got fired was like ‘you’re going to keep the girl and you’re going to fire me, this is ridiculous’ and they were like ‘well actually she’s been repairing all your stuff.’ But I didn’t feel like ‘I’m the only girl here’, it was more like ‘hey, I’m the only girl here, this is kind of cool.’” For Stef, this event was an empowering experience rather than invalidating. Unlike Liz, Stef was no longer in the formative years of her education as a welder. She was confident in her abilities and the physical nature of her work made it impossible for her employer to deny that. Yet, as is clear from her co-worker’s comments, there was still an expectation that she should not be as skilled as her male counterparts despite all evidence to the contrary. This assumption is one of the primary blocks to women entering the trades. Women in the trades have to be incredibly talented to succeed in an environment where they are automatically assumed to be under-qualified.

In his book, Crawford describes the benefit of having a concrete job at the center of a workplace. As he explains, it provides the foundation for working relationships that can be based on actual ability rather than office politics. However, as indicated by Stef’s story, this is not always the case. In addition, as a woman in a non-traditional field, reading his descriptions of the culture associated with gaining admittance to these types of workplaces is troubling. In one instance, he describes the importance of providing witty comebacks to sexual insults as a way to gain trust from one’s co-workers:

“[A male apprentice] will get some light supervision that is likely to be disguised as a stream of sexual insults, delivered from ten feet away by someone he cannot see (only his shoes) as he lies under his car. Such insults are another index of trust. […] If the young man shows promise, that is, if he is judged to have some potential to plumb new depths of moral turpitude, he may get hired: here is someone around whom everyone can relax” (p183).

Apparently, participating in trading dirty jokes that are likely demeaning to women is an important consideration for hiring. This is disturbing to read as a woman in engineering – I certainly would not feel comfortable crossing this threshold to get a job. These sorts of behaviors and standards create difficult environments for women by designating them as heterosexual male spaces. To constantly be the butt of the joke, to be surrounded by images of pornography (that are often proudly displayed in these sorts of male spaces), it can be exhausting to prove your abilities time and time again. This culture is unrealistic for supporting gender integration.

Yet Crawford attempts to claim that the trades are superior exactly because of the lack of “speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation” that help keep women from being excluded elsewhere. Ignoring the importance of these practices for creating safe, comfortable working atmospheres for minorities and women, Crawford claims that these all contribute to a preoccupation with appearances, “either you can bend conduit or you can’t, and this is plain. So there is less reason to manage appearances. There is a realm of freedom of speech on a job site, which reverberates outward and sustains a wider liberality. You can tell dirty jokes. Where there is real work being done, the order of things isn’t quite so fragile. Not surprisingly, it is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office, but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job – an autonomous good that is visible to all – then there is no secure basis for social relations” (p157). Despite having a concrete task to act as an impartial arbitrator of skill, women have to perform above expectations to receive the same respect that a man would be given in the same position. The “order of things” is still fragile and women are automatically placed at the bottom. Artificial constructs such as speech codes are necessary to construct atmospheres that are conducive to the work of both men and women and need to take precedence over the kind of “freedom” that Crawford values.

Crawford’s book describes a world that women have to fight to enter – a world where there are fulfilling, high paying, skilled jobs. While he makes strong arguments that there are personalities which are well-suited to the trades and that it is important to change the status of the trades in society, he falls short in describing the experience of women in the trades. As a woman about to enter the professional world of engineering, I am keenly interested in transforming male-dominated spaces to be welcoming to women. But the first step is for technical disciplines to recognize that there is a problem. At present, it seems that they are too distracted by all of the dirty jokes.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2010 20:31

    This is a great essay! Keep ’em coming.

    I’ve seen a lot of women in the skilled trades open up their own firms. This gives two advantages. The first is it avoids the issues with harassment you mentioned, but also because women customers are more comfortable with them than with male-owned firms. I’ve seen this the most in auto shops, where many women are afraid of being cheated or ill-treated by the typical shop owner. But I’ve also seen it in home repair firms.

  2. January 25, 2010 17:17

    It’s great to see more and more women getting into traditionally male oriented trades. I’m really surprised at the Dept. of Labor’s stats; only 1% of electricians are female? Wow. I want to read Crawford’ book, very interesting. Best of luck to you in your senior year and beyond!

  3. Sarah permalink
    February 2, 2010 15:24

    Love this, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. I love what I’m currently doing (building boats), but it’s time to start thinking about what I’ll be doing come June. I definitely want to continue with trade-type work, and there seems to be a ton of it in Maine, but all–ALL of the amazing carpenters that we’ve met on field trips have been men. Wonderful, friendly, skilled men, but I’m not sure I want to be a trailblazer right now. I like working and living with and learning from women, or at very least, with men who are used to working with women. I’m embarrassed that I’m reluctant to dive into this work environment. It really makes me grateful for women who go ahead and do it.

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