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The Struggle of Female Carpenters

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The systematic sexism inherent in most American work is particularly strong in the building trades, where sexism, work tradition, and popular perception all combine to make women a rare sight to see. Such is the case with being a carpenter:

Ask why so few carpenters are women and the answer is almost always the same: There aren’t enough resources to let women know they can be carpenters, let alone to help them stay in the industry.

“The industry doesn’t market these opportunities to women. Women don’t know anything about them,” Vellinga says. “They don’t know what these jobs entail. They don’t know how much they pay. They don’t know why they should be interested in these jobs. So most apprenticeship programs get very small numbers of female candidates.”

Chicago Women in Trades runs technical opportunities programs to help women understand basic construction skills, such as how to recognize tools and read blueprints, which they can use to secure apprenticeships in trades of their choosing. Run by unions, apprenticeships are the cornerstone of careers in the trades. During that time, apprentices earn a fraction of the salary they’ll receive once they are certified as journeymen. In return, apprentices are recognized as union members, take classes at the union school and receive on-the-job training through working with contractors at construction sites.

At least, that’s what happens in theory. While interest among women in high-paying trades jobs is on the rise—Vellinga reports that her organization’s program orientations sometimes draw over 150 women—few would-be female carpenters actually make it through their apprenticeships to become journeymen, in part because they face harassment and poor treatment.

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studies, 41 percent of women construction workers endure gender harassment. Ten percent have had their work vandalized, and another 10 percent have faced physical threats. They rarely report this abuse to their supervisors.

“There is that culture of, ‘This is where tough people come to work. And women shouldn’t be here, but since you are, you gotta be tough too,’” explains Lorien Barlow, a New York City-based filmmaker who’s spent the past two years working on a documentary about tradeswomen across the country. “If you do complain, you’ll be seen as the whiner, or the hysterical woman or the one who’s just looking to sue someone for money.”

Just one of many examples of continued sexism in the work force, which does is not an important enough issue in political discourse.

It’s also worth noting that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters has done a decent job in recent years of promoting women in the workforce. Whether that’s really accepted by the rank and file member may be another story.

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