Women in Tool Belts

Tuesday, June 08, 2010 - 10:07 AM

It may not seem like it to a typical office worker, but the American workforce is surprisingly still segregated by gender. Two-thirds of working women are concentrated in only 5 percent of occupational categories, many of which do not pay well. Why don’t more women consider higher paying “masculine” trade work as a career — and what can they do to make that move?

1.       Women are underrepresented in many high-paying fields. Nontraditionally female jobs— those in which women make up less than a quarter of employees, like truck drivers and electricians— pay 20-30 percent more than traditionally female jobs like secretarial and retail work. A typical brickmason, for example, makes about $51,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; that’s over $6,000 more than what the average American makes in a year. But women make up less than one percent of brickmasons overall.

2.        Trade work is a good option for women without a college education. Less than 30 percent of women age 25 and over have graduated from college. For the vast majority that haven’t, vocational work is a path to an income that can be more lucrative and stable than secretarial or retail work.

3.       It can be rough going. Despite the benefits, there’s no denying the fact that it can be hard for women to break into traditionally masculine fields. Just ask the female bridge painters who were discriminated against by the city of New York, according to a recent ruling from a federal judge. The city had NEVER hired a female bridge painter for its 40-person staff.

4.       Support is out there. That said, there are many organizations out there to support women in trades, including Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow, a coalition of organizations for tradeswomen. Their member list is a good starting point to find out if there’s a group in your area that offers guidance and training specifically for women.

5.       Get started. The traditional route is through an apprenticeship in your chosen field. Apprenticeships offer free hands-on experience, and route into a full-time job. (Search for apprenticeships registered with the Department of Labor at http://oa.doleta.gov/bat.cfm.) It can also be helpful to find a mentor in your field: The Washington nonprofit organization, Sisters in the Building Trades, for example, offers a list of local women who have volunteered to serve as mentors. Find them here: http://www.sistersinthebuildingtrades.org.

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