by Helen Doyle
When I attend the Timber Framers Guild’s New England Regional Meeting in Strafford, Vermont, my favorite thing about it was checking out the attic of the 1799 Strafford Town House and thinking about the longevity of the buildings my company is putting up now. Maybe I should be more careful about assessing each stick’s defects before using it!
It was also fun to share great meals and chat with so many other timber framers, engaging in some friendly trash-talk about each other’s companies and timber framing styles. And yet I was brought to tears by the gathering. There were other women at the event, but as far as I could tell I was the only one who actually works as a timber framer. Of course this was not the first time I have noticed that there is a gender imbalance in the industry, but I was struck by how much worse it is than I had realized.
What is the percentage of women at your company? Back in 2017, my company, TimberHomes Vermont, had twelve builders, and of those, three were women. It shouldn’t be impressive that 25% of the builders at a company are female, but in 2017 it was. Though progress remains slow, it is one of the many reasons that I am proud to work at TimberHomes. It is also something that many of the men at TimberHomes appreciate about the company. Our company has an explicit affirmative action policy to prioritize hiring individuals from any group that is underrepresented in the trades, but this is only one of the reasons for our above-average gender diversity. The individuals in the company are truly committed to Building the Guild: Women in timber framing inclusivity, and the presence of one woman makes other women feel more comfortable seeking employment at the company.
Could it just be that women don’t want to be timber framers? That’s possible, but they’re taking timber framing classes and apprenticing at Yestermorrow and Heartwood (and elsewhere).They just aren’t making it onto the shop floor. Maybe they aren’t applying for the jobs—but why aren’t they applying? I suspect the main reason is that women look around and see that there are hardly any women in the industry, subconsciously assume they don’t belong, and modify their career goals and expectations.
Why does it matter? Affirmative action advocates give a lot of reasons why it is preferable to have a balance of men and women in the workplace. Affirmative action advocates give a lot of reasons why it is preferable to have a balance of men and women in the workplace. More importantly to me, it’s just a shame when anyone is constrained in their choice of careers by their gender (or race, sexuality, etc.).
The gender imbalance certainly hasn’t come about because people in the industry are maliciously excluding women—indeed, most people seem thrilled to welcome female timber framers into the clan. It’s a product of our culture, which makes it tricky to figure out how to rectify it.
Here are a few ideas for how you can help bring more women into timber framing, and into the trades in general.
If you run a company
Keep in mind that women, compared to men, generally haven’t grown up with as many opportunities to get involved in the building trades. If there is a woman who wants to work for you, she probably won’t have as much experience as a man of the same age. Try to put less emphasis on years of experience and more on work ethic and capacity to learn the necessary skills. And don’t worry about physical strength: if you’re doing work that an average woman couldn’t handle physically, you’re well on your way to destroying your back and you should find a better way to do it.
If you work on an all-male crew
Can you imagine having a woman on your crew? Would she feel uncomfortable about some of the ways you interact with each other? Do you have a work culture where people can express their feelings without being judged? What is the dominant form of humor on your crew? I love taking part in insulting banter with my co-workers, but many women aren’t used to that type of humor. And no woman wants to hear demeaning jokes about women while she’s at work. While we’re at it, would a gay man feel welcome on your crew?
If you teach timber framing classes
Make a special effort to reach out to your female students about continuing in the industry, and if you can, give them some ideas about who they might be able to work with. Make a point of recommending good female timber framing students to people who might want to hire them.
If you are giving a presentation
Try to avoid referring to your crew as “my guys” and using “he” as the default pronoun when you’re talking about a hypothetical timber framer. (For example, “When a timber framer is cutting a through mortise he should always….”) It’s a constant subconscious reminder that women aren’t timber framers.
If you have a daughter
Invite her to help you when you are doing a building project. Get her tools for her birthday and involve her in something that allows her to use them. Teach her how to use a screw gun in elementary school, a chop saw in middle school, and a chainsaw in high school. The best possible outcome is that as she gets older it doesn’t even occur to her that she doesn’t belong in the trades.
If you are an aspiring woman timber framer
Go for it!
For all of us
Assumptions about gender are deeply rooted, and being a woman doesn’t mean I don’t harbor sexist stereotypes. For years, when I went to the hardware store I would avoid asking female employees for help because I assumed they wouldn’t be able to give me good advice. Make an effort to be more aware of the assumptions you make about women in the trades, and ask yourself whether your assumptions are valid—they probably aren’t! One thing I love about timber framing is that nearly everyone I meet in the industry is thoughtful, respectful, smart, and welcoming. If any of the building trades is ready to achieve gender balance, it’s this one!