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Trade Secrets Unlocked: The Untapped Potential of Women

Historically underrepresented in the trades industry, now is the time to bring more women into the fold.

Tori Homann, North American Signs

Women, for decades, have been talking about shattering the glass ceiling. Now an author, speaker, and corporate diversity and change consultant, Marilyn Loden coined the term “glass ceiling” in 1978 when presenting on a panel at the Women’s Action Alliance Conference in New York City. Loden used the term to identify the many barriers to advancement facing female managers. We’ve seen everyone from Hillary Clinton to Aretha Franklin to your average working women use the term and hope to break it in their industries.

In many cases, we’ve been successful. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut, engineer and politician, was the first female in space, piloting Vostok 6 in 1963. Oprah Winfrey, author, speaker, television tycoon and host of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” became the first Black female billionaire in 2003. My mother was the first female partner in her law firm’s 100-plus year history, where she is now a managing partner. She remains one of my biggest role models.

And yet, there are still so many glass barriers facing women trying to enter some of our country’s highest paying and most accessible jobs — those in the trades.

The trades were some of the only industries to experience steady growth during the pandemic, presumably because those services were deemed essential. But the trades workforce — declining largely because of retiring Baby Boomers — couldn’t keep up with growing demand. Today, that gap only grows wider. When the pool is seemingly dry, how can these trade industries stay afloat?

The Data

At least part of the answer may lie in rectifying the gender labor gap. Trade industries are historically flush with male workers. A recent study from Zippia reported that 89.4% of tradespeople are male, while only 5.8% are female.

Other than the medical, culinary and cosmetology trades, women make up far less than half of other skilled trade jobs, like plumbers, construction workers, electricians, mechanics or even office jobs, like paralegals.

Such a significant disparity indicates that immersing more women in the skilled trade labor force seems like an obvious solution to the industries’ labor shortage. As Theresa Whitmarsh of the Washington State Investment Board puts it: “If you exclude 50% of the talent pool it’s no wonder you find yourself in a war for talent.”

Women Help the Economy

But women aren’t just an untapped labor market. They often positively impact a business’s performance and the overall economy. Statistics show that when there are higher rates of women in the trades, the economy performs better because women present different ideas, perspectives and approaches than men.

For example, women executives are responsible for integrating sustainability and corporate social responsibility efforts into the collective awareness of the business world. Female leaders are also often strong advocates for mental health awareness in their workplaces. Both of those ideas have proved transformational in how we do business. Integrating more women into trade industries will eventually lead to them taking positions of influence where they can offer diversified ideas and improve the workplace for everyone.

Of additional interest is that in over half of American homes, women are the primary supporters of the household. And while the average female with a bachelor’s degree makes about $40,000 per year, women experienced in a trade can make upward of six figures annually. So what’s holding women back?

Barriers to Trade Entry for Women

It seems that the huge demand for skilled trade workers is the yin to the yang of the untapped labor market of women. And all signs point to the benefits of integrating women into this workforce. But the barriers to entry are numerous:

  1. Women are often unaware of career opportunities in the trades. Career and school guidance counselors and family members rarely inform young female students about trade career opportunities. Nor do these industries gear their marketing toward women, as advertisements typically feature men.

  2. Women are seen as less competitive. Women are generally perceived as less competitive applicants for trade jobs because they often have less relevant previous experience. They usually receive less technical training in school and haven’t worked many previous jobs that involve physical labor.

  3. Misleading physical capability stereotype. There are stereotypes in the trade industries, particularly in construction, that skilled labor requires extreme physical strength, instead of physical fitness, and that it is low-quality, low-paying work.

  4. Women tend to be more modest about previous experience when interviewing. Females applying to trade jobs and apprenticeships tend to downplay their accomplishments and past work experiences when compared to male applicants. This can inadvertently give interviewers the impression that the female applicants are less qualified. This is usually because women are much less likely to self-promote. One survey found that 69% of women would rather understate their accomplishments than promote them, and 83% are simply uncomfortable talking about themselves in public. Not only can this behavior hold women back from succeeding in an interview, it also means they may get passed over for job promotions at work.

All of these barriers often preclude women from even considering the trades as a viable career option.

On top of that, women in almost any industry, not just the trades, must perform exceptionally to “prove themselves.” Sociologists Elizabeth Gorman of the University of Virginia and Julie Kmec of Washington State University said as much in their paper “We (Have to) Try Harder: Gender and Required Work Effort in Britain and the United States,” published in an issue of the journal Gender and Society. The authors write “a lot of experimental research has shown that people rate the same performance as better when told it was done by a man. It follows that women have to do better than a man in order to get the same evaluation. Here we see how this plays out in the effort women must put in at work.”

It can be daunting for women trying to enter a skilled trade because of prevailing stereotypes, lacking interview skills, the perception that they must perform above their male counterparts to receive comparable evaluations and a general lack of awareness to the trade industries.

A Brighter Outlook

Now that I’ve spent two-thirds of this article dragging you through the swamp of a gloomy outlook, it’s time to start looking up and looking out.

To evaluate the future, it’s helpful to first look at the past. Women cemented their place in the U.S.’ skilled labor force during WWI when their work was desperately needed in factories to sustain the war effort. Women were involved in the design, testing and distribution of wartime products. Demand for women in the workforce skyrocketed again during WWII for similar reasons.

Today, there are many benefits to entering trade industries, and these don’t just apply to women:

  • As noted previously, demand for trade workers is very high.

  • The average price tag on a four-year college degree can be upward of $100,000. But a trade school can take less than a year to complete, with an average cost of $35,000.

  • Workers with the right opportunities for advancement could earn upward of six-figure salaries in some trade industries.

  • Trade careers offer great job security. Despite a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the services and products provided by trade industry workers are essential for the continued functioning of a society and economy.

So what can we do to make these careers more attainable for women and thus improve our own businesses? It will a require a shift in our approaches to social awareness, education, hiring and benefits. We can all play a role in accomplishing some specific objectives to open doors for women in trade industries and help solve the labor crisis.

  • Educate men and women equally in interview skills and provide quality interviewing environments. While it’s best if interview applicants are true to themselves in the interview process, encouraging everyone to be confident in their abilities and experiences and project this during an interview will help level the playing field for women. Interviewers can also help create a safe interviewing environment by ensuring that all interviewees have adequate time to speak. Research shows that male interviewers tend to interrupt female applicants more during the interview process (2.1x during a three-minute conversation) versus male applicants (1.8x during a three-minute conversation). Gender communication expert Deborah Tannen would argue this is because men often speak to establish power and status, whereas women typically speak to establish a connection. It then follows that women would be less likely to interrupt another person in an effort to communicate respect and build connection. Neither intent is wrong or bad, but it’s important to understand the reasoning behind the other person’s speech. Interviewers, whether male or female, should make a conscious effort to be aware of their interactions with each job applicant regardless of their gender to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to speak.

  • Encourage school and career counselors to present trade jobs as potential careers to female students. As a part of post-high school preparation, counselors should present trade jobs or schools as equally viable options to traditional college programs. Discussing the range of career options with children before they reach secondary education may also be valuable. If young people are unaware of potential careers there is simply no way they could consider or learn to value them as potential post-high school options.

  • Integrate career mentoring into trade schools and apprenticeships. Helping women specifically thrive in industries where they have lower representation is critical to those industries becoming more diverse and more successful. Mentoring programs would help encourage women in trade work and help them understand that there are women who have gone before them and understand their experiences. There are many free resources online about mentorship — how to do it, the habits of effective mentors, how to structure a mentoring program — the list goes on. Many organizations have already implemented and reaped the benefits from mentoring programs — 71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs and 97% of participants find them valuable. But there is still room for such initiatives to grow. ConnexFM has just launched its own mentoring program that you can be a part of. Efforts like these foster connection across businesses and entire industries.

  • Provide adequate, even abundant, benefits, particularly regarding maternity and paternity leave. It has become a workplace standard for women to receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave for maternity purposes. Men rarely, if ever, receive paternity leave. Without doubt, many businesses in the trades would have to manipulate existing structures, policies and finances to make paid maternity and paternity leave equal. But benefits like this would make trade work more attractive to women and men alike. In fact, several years ago the Iron Workers Union negotiated six months of paid maternity leave for women, to be mostly taken before delivery due to the work hazards jeopardizing pregnancy. Accommodations like this are almost unheard of in the trades, and yet they’re a major step to leveling the playing field in efforts for greater diversity and inclusion.

Women interested in trade careers can take online assessments to help determine if trade work is right for them. There are also a multitude of scholarships, apprenticeships and assistant positions in trade careers to help women get started, as well as trade associations to advocate for women in trade industries.

The more we involve women in these industries to grow to take positions of influence, the more they can advocate for those that come after them. So instead of asking women to continue struggling to break the glass ceiling in their industries, let’s work together to create a steel staircase, where women, men and tradespeople of all backgrounds can climb together to build us all a better future.

Advocate for Women in FM

The ConnexFM Women in Action Committee works tirelessly to create more opportunities for women in FM and to support women already established in the industry. Visit the ConnexFM Committees page to learn more and get involved.

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