Excited and a little bit nervous, Katie Stafford arrived on her first job site as an Assistant Construction Manager in a polo, white skinny jeans and her signature silver hoop earrings. Thinking the light denim would keep her cool in the swampy Virginia summer, Stafford realized that she had made a mistake. After moving more than five miles and climbing around fifteen flights of stairs, her jeans had become increasingly uncomfortable and frankly, see-through.
Stafford didn’t grow up on job sites. She doesn’t have any skilled trade professionals in her family, so when her company asked her to bring her communication and people skills from the office to the job site - what she was going to wear during her first day in the field was the farthest thing from her mind. Her goal was to look professional and represent her company the best she could, while learning the ins and outs of the job.
“I was hyper-focused on what I was doing,” she said, so at the end of the day when her work partner told her that she couldn’t wear her jeans because they were a distraction for the men, it was a reminder that she was the only woman on site.
The feedback wasn’t that she might be more comfortable in a different work pant or that she would sweat less and stay better hydrated in the heat with a more breathable fabric. It was that the guys can’t meet her same level of focus and pay attention to what they were doing.
This is just a bit of what skilled tradeswomen have to think about on a daily basis. “You’re either overly sexualized or hyper masculine in what’s available. I want to look like I belong. I want to be practical, comfortable and professional. I just feel like an outlier,” Stafford told us.
However, being different can also be an empowering thing... Stafford mentioned that many men are impressed to see someone that doesn’t fit the mold of a typical construction manager. She said there’s a belief on job sites that you must be a super macho chick to be there. Yet, she continues showing up every day wearing her favorite hoop earrings with a smile on her face, proving that you don’t need to completely blend in or be a certain “type” of woman to be successful on the job site.
THE TRADE INDUSTRY IS NO LONGER A MAN’S WORLD
There’s a misconception that the skilled trades are “manly” careers. Given that women make up about nine percent of the construction workforce and only three percent of the building trades, it’s no surprise that men are statistically and culturally viewed as the default. While society’s view of what women can achieve professionally has greatly expanded over the last fifty years, the gender gap still exists in many careers. In short, the trades have lagged behind other industries in encouraging more women to join the community.
While the skilled trades are still highly stigmatized among young adults, the exposure most young people have is often limited to only seeing men in these careers. Whether from a job done at their house growing up or through representation in the media (though, even that is getting harder to see); women often lack these opportunities to see what’s possible – especially if your family is devoid of trade professionals.
“My parents can’t even assemble IKEA furniture,” said Molly Goodman, a carpenter turned rope access technician who works commercial construction, “I started building scenery for our theater productions in high school.” She then followed the “traditional” path through a college architecture degree, followed by the realization that she wasn’t made for life behind a computer.
Her transition to the trades started with a lot of leg work. Finding a master carpenter to shadow, building her network to find more jobs and eventually combining her love of rock climbing with her love for the trades beginning her career in work-at-height.
“It’s hard to get your foot in the door for anyone,” shared Goodman, but as a woman on the job site “it’s like one to ten or one to forty [women to men ratio] or I’m the only woman. I feel like I constantly have to prove myself and excel. I can’t just do an average job.”
Stafford also feels this pressure, “You don’t want to be a delicate flower that people might assume you are, because you’re a woman. There are never women on the jobsite. [Guys] couldn’t wrap their mind around the fact that I wasn’t someone's sister or wife. They automatically thought I had to be related to someone to be there.”
Being the only woman on the job has led to some interesting conversations. Stafford recalled a time when she didn’t wear an extra layer over her bra (like a bralette or compressing tank) and her coworkers turned her - assets - into a topic of conversation.
“It's very uncomfortable, so if I can try to take the attention away from that, I do,” she told us. Goodman agrees, “plenty of inappropriate and ridiculous things have been said to me” but she also thought “people expect that I am constantly being harassed, but I’m really not. I like my job and I like my coworkers.”
So what should you take away from this? There’s been so much talk about diversity in the workplace that the word itself has lost some of its power.
Diversity isn’t a numbers game. The goal is not to ensure there is an exact fifty-fifty split of men and women on the job site, simply for the sake of statistics. The goal is to ensure that women are included in the conversation and to encourage anyone with the aptitude and desire for skilled trade work – regardless of gender – to join a new generation of modern skilled trade professionals.
Men and women have differences, and these differences - when combined - can be a powerful force that leads to stronger team dynamics and better work.
TWO SKILLED WORKERS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Diverse viewpoints drive success. You’ve heard it before because it’s a truth rooted in science. There are biological differences in the way men and women operate. These differences are benefits. Two types of minds existing on a job site is simply better than one.
When Goodman works with men that have never worked with a woman before, surprise tends to be the reaction. The first time they witness her do something hard or scary, she says they can’t help but comment to express how shocked and impressed they are by her. Once they realize that how she does things is a normal part of getting the job done, the job they’re doing too, they “get over it”.
The same is true for Stafford. People are shocked to hear she’s not only responding to the demands of being an assistant construction manager, but of a mom too. “The societal expectations on men and women in the family are often different in the trades. The men make good money, their wives are at home with the kids, but that reality is different than mine.” She said this gives her a dynamic way of handling things -- she can be tough, yet sensitive.
When the surprise wears off, these qualities -- Stafford finding unique ways to get the job done and Goodman tapping into her experiences as a mother at times -- contribute to their overall work environments accomplishing more.
“There are a lot of construction managers that can build a home but don’t know how to talk to people,” describes Stafford. “I’m able to pick up on someone’s body language. I know where the conversation is going to go before it happens. My level of detail is different. I observe differently than my male counterpart, seeing things he might never see. Our brains just process things differently.”
Men and women working together strengthens the team. It involves new ways of approaching things, problem solving and adds a layer of vulnerability that ultimately results in a job well done.
“I have to be smarter because I’m not as strong. I can’t just brute force a problem, so I have to make jigs or figure out a workflow that works well when I’m smaller,” says Goodman.
This introduces a different dynamic to Goodman’s crews. She finds that when she focuses on getting work done faster through collaboration, the guys tend to incorporate those behaviors too. “They’re more willing to do stuff the smarter, easier way when they’re not trying to out-man each other and that’s helpful,” she explains.
Having women on the job site isn’t just good for women, it’s good for anyone that wants results.
One of the biggest challenges we face in achieving these results is changing our culture to one that elevates the image of skilled trade professionals in people’s minds, movies and even members of their own family. Anyone with the aptitude for this work should feel empowered to step up into the skilled trades, work with their hands and leverage their intelligence and creativity into a rewarding career.
TOOLS AND WORKWEAR SUPPORTING GENDER DIVERSITY
To all the women out there reading this, now we’re talking directly to you. We know you’re often lacking the gear you need to get the job done. We can uplift the skilled trades and encourage more women to join the community, but unless we start closing the gap in reliable gear and tools for all genders, women entering the skilled trades will continue to face unnecessary obstacles and feel like they don’t belong.
Molly found this to be one of the most frustrating parts of being a woman in the trades that affects her daily. “The thing getting to me most of the time that is a constant reminder [of being a woman] is the fact that literally none of the gear or tools are sized to me. Just finding gear that fits me is a constant battle that none of my male coworkers even realize is a thing and that is honestly the hardest part,” said Goodman.
Step foot in any hardware or supply store and the issue is obvious. Shelves and shelves of products made with only men in mind, or worse - small pink tools that don’t function like they should. In the midst of a skilled labor shortage, women represent a huge untapped opportunity, but without the right resources, we subtly reinforce that this isn’t a space for women.
“It’s all just little stuff that throws me off. It’s every single piece of gear that I touch and use and am required to use. Tools are too big for my hand. Tools are less ergonomic. My body feels it when I’m using a tool that is way too big for my hands every day,” continued Goodman.
In addition to simply wanting to feel seen by the industry, properly fitting gear for women is also about safety. Daily work environments in the skilled trades demand protection from the elements. Ill-fitting clothing can snag, it can reduce your ability to see what your hands or feet are doing and not having the same features as men takes you out of the flow when you have to go searching for something that easily fits in the pockets of a men’s fit pant.
“I take a home from the drywall to finish. You park your car and you walk. I find myself carrying all this stuff. I have nowhere to put my pens while the guys have utility pants on with more storage. It makes me so mad because I feel like I’m losing some of the things I need to be able to get a house finished,” echoed Stafford
Women’s gear isn’t going to catch up to the breadth of men’s overnight, but we have to start somewhere.
This month Truewerk moved our Women’s Fit into a wider release adding new styles and sizes. During our first testing run we collected a lot of feedback - positive and negative. Some thought the waist was too high, others that the waist was just right. You told us the inseam is too long or that the inseams aren’t long enough. You asked why don’t we make more sizes and why don't we make more colors.
It might seem difficult to deal with conflicting feedback - but really we love to hear it, so please don’t stop. Right now, every women’s fit product contains a form enabling you to let us know what sizes and colors you would like to see, and we can take that information to Truewerk’s product and operations groups. Let’s keep them busy!
Why did we make a women’s fit to begin with? Because women are industrial athletes too. Many brands portray women as the DIY/hobbyist - working in a garden or doing interior design. Do women do this work? Of course, but they’re also carpenters, arborists, construction managers, plumbers, HVAC etc. Truewerk believes that you should have the workwear that best fits your body. Can we fit every single body type? Not yet, but this is only the beginning.
THE FUTURE OF WOMEN’S CAREERS IN THE TRADES
What about tomorrow? How do we make sure women are included in the conversation about what’s possible in the skilled trades? We foster exposure that currently doesn’t exist, sharing stories to build a community with an open-mind that wants to see women succeed. We show the women out there working in crews to get the job done.
During World War II women filled the wartime need to keep the workforce running, and they’ll be a critical part of closing the skills gap today.
“It’s empowering to be paving the way for other women to be in this position. This country is going in a new direction right now. It’s cool to be a part of that even in this small way within construction,” said Stafford.
Stafford encourages women to not be afraid of joining her in paving the way because they’re going to find their people and advocates that will help make the job even more rewarding. She sets an example by reaching out to other women in the industry to let them know she’s there for them.
Together, let’s rid society of the stigma around not just women in the skilled trades, but being in the trades overall.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the trades are for stupid people,” said Goodman of both men and women, however, “the trades are really interesting work and incredibly intelligent capable people are in them.”
Say it again for the people in the back! A life in the skilled trades is a step up, not a backup plan. This idea is at the core of what Truewerk believes. What we do is make the highest performing workwear available, but what we believe is that a life in the skilled trades is f*cking awesome.
If you want to help us change how society thinks about the trades: share this blog, follow us on instagram @Truewerk, tell the women you work with that we’re here to listen and improve our fit over time and tell us what you want to see. Not just what products, colors and sizes you want (we do love that), but how we can best support and celebrate all of you. Email us anytime at email@example.com to tell us what you think.