Why Are So Few Women In The Trades?


May 9, 2016

Old habits die hard!

The knee-jerk answer some people might give to that question is because the skilled trades are not very welcoming to women. That may have been true in the past but for the most part not anymore. Social attitudes have evolved over the years and even where they haven’t, equal opportunity and affirmative action mandates have compelled many employers to actively recruit female apprentices and trade workers.

Alas, their efforts haven’t made a lot of difference. A rule dating back to the 1970s requires 6.9% of work hours to be set aside for women on image of female electriciancontractors’ federal or federally assisted job sites. That 6.9% average remains the current goal, although records show it has never been met nationally. Most estimates peg females as only about 2% to 2.5% of all skilled trade workers. That’s probably doubled since the feminist awakening that started in the 1960s, but progress has been at a snail’s pace. It would be ridiculous to argue that the skilled trades are not male dominated.

But let’s distinguish between that status quo and opportunity. The main obstacle women face if they want to pursue a trade career isn’t so much resistance from entrenched males as it is headwinds from our society’s culture.

I had a conversation not long ago with a 30-something young lady, a family friend, who had gotten laid off from a job she didn’t much like anyway. She talked about going back to school to get a different college degree than the one she had already earned. This woman had a reputation as someone good at installing and fixing things around the house. So I asked if she had ever considered learning a trade like plumbing or carpentry or something else that involved working with her hands.

She looked at me as if I were an alien that just stepped out of a spaceship.

“No, I’m serious!” I persisted. I told her she could earn good money – certainly more than she had been making in her old humdrum job. More than she would likely make after spending years and a lot of money she did not have earning a new college degree with no guarantee she’d get a job more rewarding than her last one. I told her of service technicians that wear clean white uniforms on the job. I told her of the huge demand for capable trade workers and that many plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors would love to put her through a training program that could have her earning top dollar within a year or two. I gave her the name of a couple of local plumbing companies whose owners I knew would welcome women applicants and invited her to call them, using me as a reference.

She told me she would look into it. But I knew she wouldn’t. Her tone and body language told me she wasn’t the slightest bit interested in a trade career even though she had what it takes to succeed in one. My suggestion to her came across like someone suggesting to me that I should become a cosmetologist or a nurse. Even though there are some males in those fields, they are a small minority and few young males aspire to such careers. The same kind of social and cultural traditions discourage women from working in the trades.

Actually, when you get right down to it, women’s attitudes toward the trades aren’t much different than that of most young men nowadays. Trade employers also have difficulty attracting talented young men to the field. Men and women alike fall victim to parental and peer pressure to go to college and tend to view trade work as dirty, dangerous and lacking in prestige. It’s just that women have the added backdrop of historical discrimination to turn them off.

We cannot turn back the clock and change history. But I’m saying to any young women with a mechanical aptitude who is reading this that if you choose to ignore tradition and the negative stereotypes associated with the trades, you will find incredible opportunities available to you. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog.