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SUPPORTING WOMEN IN SKILLED TRADES

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. There used to be fewer women in skilled trades, and Stafford doesn’t have any skilled trade professionals in her family, so there’s very little hand-down knowledge between women of different generations about women’s construction work clothing. When Stafford’s company asked her to bring her communication and people skills from the office to the job site, the question of 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. After all, women in skilled trades have a lot to prove. It can be a daunting environment for women to break into, and worrying about “what to wear” often doesn’t strike tradeswomen as a good place to start—even though it really, really is…just like for the guys.

“I was hyper-focused on what I was doing,” Stafford 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.

This is a common problem for women in skilled trades. 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 couldn’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,” Stafford told us. “I want to look like I belong. I want to be practical, comfortable and professional. I just feel like an outlier.”

However, being different can also be an empowering thing, and for the ever-growing numbers of women in skilled trades there are many opportunities to take more control over their destiny on the jobsite through the use of high-performance, professional workwear. 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.

Women in skilled trades are as different from one another as the guys are. And so you can begin to see why women’s construction work clothing matters not just in terms of physical performance, but in terms of fitting in too.

THE TRADE INDUSTRY IS NO LONGER A MAN’S WORLD

A construction woman works on a wall.

Women in skilled trades are more numerous than you might think. 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. But that nine percent, that three percent…that still adds up to about one million women in the United States alone. (And yet the market for women’s construction work clothing is still horribly underserved…more on that later.) And the percentages of women in skilled trades keep growing too. Yet, it’s still small—and this becomes a self-reinforcing division.

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, and the trades in particular have lagged behind other industries in encouraging more women to join the community. The skilled trades are still highly stigmatized among young adults, and the exposure most young people do 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 their family is devoid of trade professionals. One of the biggest barriers to getting even more women in skilled trades, therefore, is the lack of public awareness that women can do these jobs just fine.

“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, and only from there beginning her career in work-at-height.

“It’s hard to get your foot in the door for anyone,” shared Goodman, who agrees that women in skilled trades are underrepresented: 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 minds 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. This is a common problem that women in skilled trades face, and while some of it needs to be changed through the behavior of the men, there’s also a lot of work that women’s construction work clothing itself can do to be as professional, effective, comfortable, and safe as men’s workwear.

“It's very uncomfortable, so if I can try to take the attention away from that, I will,” she told us. Just like in the military, professional women’s construction work clothing can help women in skilled trades fit in and avoid unwanted attention. “Looking the part” goes a long way! Goodman agrees, saying “plenty of inappropriate and ridiculous things have been said to me,” but she also thinks that “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 in skilled trades 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. In short: Do more to let women know this career exists, and do more to get them interested in the work and set them up for success. This is a great recipe for getting more women in skilled trades, and, to be blunt, given the shortage of skilled trade workers we could stand to do the same thing with more men too.

Men and women have differences, yes: But these differences — when combined — can be a powerful force that leads to stronger team dynamics and better work. And women’s construction work clothing can be a part of that fusion of male and female talent working together in the trades.

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, yes, but these differences are benefits. Two types of minds existing on a job site are simply better than one. Getting more women in skilled trades strengthens the entire skilled trades sector.

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 just a normal part of getting the job done, the same job they’re doing too, they “get over it.” And women’s construction work clothing helps speed that process of acclimatization and acceptance of women in skilled trades along.

The same basic idea 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 of 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 from mine.” She said this gives her a dynamic way of handling things — she can be tough, yet sensitive.

When the surprise of her gender 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. This helps make the case that women in skilled trades have more to offer than just their physical labor.

“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 in skilled trades 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 is a really important concept for designing better women’s construction work clothing, which we’ll talk about shortly.)

This introduces a different dynamic to Goodman’s work 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. This is another way that getting more women in skilled trades bolsters the whole operation.

Having women on the job site isn’t just good for women, it’s good for anyone who 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. And, while workwear alone isn’t the sole answer to making this a reality, the fact is that women’s construction work clothing has an important role to play in getting more women in skilled trades.

TOOLS AND WORKWEAR SUPPORTING GENDER DIVERSITY

A-tradeswoman-in-a-metal-shop

To all the current or prospective women in skilled trades 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 know there isn’t enough women’s construction work clothing yet. 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.

Set foot in any hardware or supply store and the issue is obvious: There are shelves and shelves of products made with only men in mind, and very little women’s construction work clothing and tools. Or worse, the workwear and tools aren’t properly made for women, or are even condescending — like small pink utility tools that don’t function like they should. In the midst of a skilled labor shortage, women represent a huge untapped opportunity of sorely needed workers, but, without the right resources to support women in skilled trades, we subtly reinforce that this isn’t a space for them.

“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 hands. 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 in skilled trades 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. These are all barriers to female entry into the trades that women’s construction work clothing / trade workwear can successfully tackle.

“I take a home from the drywall to finish,” echoes Stafford. “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.”

The gear for women in skilled trades 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 about our new women’s construction work clothing products — 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 we manufacture 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 those folks busy!

Why did we make a women’s fit to begin with? Because women in skilled trades are industrial athletes too. Many brands portray women as the DIY / hobbyist — working in a garden or doing interior design. Do women do this more casual work too? Of course, but they’re also carpenters, arborists, construction managers, plumbers, HVAC, etc. Real professionals that is. The people who’ll save your foundation, fix your wiring to keep your home safe, pump your septic tank. Truewerk believes that women in skilled trades should have the workwear that best fits their body — because that’s a huge part of success in this line of work. Can we fit every single body type? Not yet, but our current expansion of our women’s construction work clothing offerings 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? Well: 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 showcase the women in skilled trades out there working in crews right now to get the job done. And we make some damn good women’s construction work clothing.

During World War II women filled the wartime need to keep the workforce running, before being heartlessly fired at war’s end and sent back home. Now, in the 21st century, women in skilled trades will be a critical part of closing the skills gap today too. Women were always capable of doing this kind of work. Society has just been slow to let it happen. It may be a small thing, but the appearance of more women’s construction work clothing and trade workwear on the scene is a very positive indicator that we’re moving in the right direction.

“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,” says 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. And that’s true for women in skilled trades just as much. 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 women in skilled trades: Share this blog, follow us on instagram @Truewerk, tell the women you work with that we’re here to listen and improve our women’s construction work clothing fit and design over time. Tell us what you want to see! Not just what products, colors and sizes you want (though keep doing that too), but how we can best support and celebrate all of you. Tell us how our workwear company can make your career prospects in the skilled trades brighter and more welcoming. Email us anytime at proservice@truewerk.com to tell us what you think. 

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