Upon reading the second part of Senior Editor Kelly Faloon's superb Recruiting For The Trades Series (“Women In Plumbing Revisited,” Page 58), I thought of all the conversations I've had with contractors about this topic over the years. The industry began addressing the subject in a serious way around the time PM got started in 1984, and I wrote some articles about it that long ago. Female plumbers were very much a novelty back then. As Kelly's article points out, they still are.
However, you hear different takes on the issue now compared with back then. Two decades ago, discrimination was a major stumbling block to women in the trades. Our society at-large was culturally conditioned to define certain occupations as either women's or men's work, and the pipe trades were among the most definitively male oriented. The female pioneers who did manage to land construction jobs had to put up with a lot of cold shoulders at best, verbal abuse and sexual harassment at worst.
I don't think that's the case any more, at least not systematically. Our society has taken giant leaps toward gender neutrality in employment over the last few decades. Nowadays, a woman in a hardhat raises no more eyebrows than a female captaining a commercial jet or wearing a police uniform. Construction industry Neanderthals have largely given way to a more enlightened generation of trade workers who are used to seeing women in formerly male occupations. The sexists who are still around mostly have learned to keep their mouths shut and paws to themselves upon threat of job loss and lawsuits. This is not to say boorish behavior never occurs, but as stated, it's not systematic.
Besides, Kelly's latest article contains the interesting revelation of an upward trend in female ownership of construction firms, now 23.9 percent. This no doubt bespeaks the large number of jointly-owned “mom-and-pop” shops in the industry - along with Minority Business Enterprise incentives to make Mom an official shareholder. The vast majority of those female construction company owners never worked in the trades, yet it's hard to think of them discriminating against those that do.
Most of today's contractors, men or women, would love to recruit female plumbers, fitters and service technicians. That's because they are desperate for skilled craft workers of any gender or heritage. Also, it would win them brownie points with the EEOC. Residential service contractors are particularly enamored of female techs. Every one that I've ever spoken with who has hired a female service technician has been pleased with her performance. A feminine touch is an asset when dealing with cranky homeowners, and women feel more comfortable opening their doors to strangers of the same gender.
Over the years PM has reported on numerous pipe trades recruitment drives targeting women and minorities. However, these programs have met with minimal success in the case of women. As Kelly points out in her article, women still comprise less than 1 percent of the pipe trades and only 1.4 percent of HVACR mechanics and installers, despite energetic efforts to attract them. Why is this?
Ours To Reason WhySome may disagree with my contention that discrimination is no longer much of a factor. In that case, let's just agree to disagree. I think there are more significant reasons why women shy away from the trades.
One of those reasons can be viewed as chickens coming home to roost. The trades historically have been reinforced by family tradition and blue collar neighborhood networks. Persons excluded from these circles in the past don't have the same warm and fuzzy feelings about construction craft work.
Another reason is that the trades used to draw from a large pool of talented youngsters who never went to college in an era when less than one out of four high school graduates did so. Skilled craft workers ranked near the top of the economic ladder among that demographic.
Nowadays, more than 60 percent of high school graduates feel compelled to go to college, including many who have little interest in or aptitude for further academic studies. Many of today's plumbers and pipefitters even discourage their kids from following in their footsteps. They take pride in seeing their hard labor paying for college educations they couldn't afford for themselves. Women go to college at an even higher rate than males, further diminishing the opportunity to recruit them into the trades.
None of these explanations really gets to the crux of the matter, however. This is going to get me in trouble with some readers, but I contend the main reason women are so disinclined toward trade work is because they are, well, women.
The UnwillingWe can carry the concept of gender neutrality only so far before we start bumping against the most stubborn facts of life. Women don't join the trades in significant numbers not because of unfair barriers, and not because they are necessarily less capable of performing the jobs. It's because the vast majority simply don't want to.
I recall a moment in the life of my eldest daughter, now a schoolteacher, who as a kid showed a great deal of mechanical aptitude. She delighted in assembling her own toys, and in high school voluntarily took an automotive mechanics class as an elective. Around that time I asked her in altogether casual conversation whether she ever considered a skilled trade career. Her response was a blend of disgust and laughter, and that was the closest I've ever come to being involuntarily committed to a mental asylum.
One anecdote doesn't make a trend, but I'm sure my daughter's attitude is shared by an overwhelming majority of young females. Asking them to consider a trade career is, like, so-o-o dorky. I refuse to venture into the PC minefield speculating about how much that attitude may be shaped by biology vs. psychology vs. cultural conditioning. Suffice to say, profound differences exist between males and females in all of these areas. It is a sad commentary on the deterioration of intellectual discourse in our society that, years ago, the last sentence could be said to belabor the obvious. Now, it probably strikes many readers as controversial.
A comparable situation exists in another profession traditionally dominated by one gender. Like the pipe trades, the nursing field faces a severe shortage of skilled labor, and great effort has been made to fill the gap by recruiting more males into the profession. Yet, males are said to comprise only 5.7 percent of nurses, and little progress has been made in increasing their numbers. The job pays well, and there doesn't appear to be any systematic discrimination against male nurses. Nonetheless, despite special inducements, men simply aren't drawn to nursing in appreciable numbers. Simply because they are men.
Please don't misunderstand. Women should be welcomed into apprenticeship programs, and encouraged to pursue trade careers when they are inclined to do so. It's just that the statistics and all other available evidence - along with large doses of common sense - suggest that programs aimed at significantly increasing the percentage of women in the trades are doomed to fall short of their goals.