There is a saying: "If you can't see it, you can't be it." It's hard to believe that while we have celebrated female pioneers in so many other fields--women who broke through glass ceilings and advanced into business, politics, art, and science--we almost never acknowledge women who broke the mold in industrial blue-collar jobs. Here's a startling fact: the most common occupation for women today is the same as it was fifty years ago: secretary. Defying the odds of a desk job and preferring to pick up their power tools instead, women in trades are daring the rest of us to confront stereotypes that continue to limit true occupational freedom for women.

Those of us already in the trades see ourselves as a wedge in the door; we’ve got to hold the door open so that more women can come in behind us. I do hope more women get into ironwork. It’s so beautiful up there early in the morning when the sun comes up. The air is nice and clean and you never feel boxed in.
— Fran Kraus, Ironworker (from the book "Hard-Hatted Women: Life on the Job")

But where is the opportunity in construction work? Far too many have asked this question. Most people don't realize that "construction" is a broad industry comprised of more than a dozen distinct skilled trades. Far too few realize that the unionized blue-collar workers constructing office buildings--ironworkers, carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers, painters, etc.--are often earning more than the white-collar workers who will occupy those offices. The opportunities for women especially become even more apparent when we look at the jobs women are most likely to have. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly income of union construction workers ($670) substantially exceeds sixteen out of the twenty most common occupations for women. Those four leading occupations for women that pay more—nurses, teachers, accountants, and office managers—require higher education. All the others pay less. For example, the median weekly income for receptionists is $529 (93% women), teaching assistants earn $485 (92% women), childcare workers earn $398 (95% women) and housekeepers earn $276 (89% women).

But economic advantages aside, tradeswomen just love the challenge and satisfaction of building things. They love working with tools and materials, they love working outside, and they love pointing to a skyscraper or a bridge and being able to say, "I built that." And yes, they love their paycheck. To anyone wondering why women would choose to do this work, a tradeswoman might say, "For the same reason men do." But still, a career in the trades is something that girls and young women are never led to consider. Because if you can't see it, you can't be it. And a hard hatted woman is hard to see.

Invisible No More

Even today, the most common cultural reference point we have for women doing skilled industrial labor is Rosie the Riveter, a 85 year-old icon. It speaks to the glaring scarcity of contemporary images of women in such jobs.

Even today, the most common cultural reference point we have for women doing skilled industrial labor is Rosie the Riveter, a 85 year-old icon. It speaks to the glaring scarcity of contemporary images of women in such jobs.

 “Tradeswoman” is an unknown word to most people that usually requires some definition—which then evokes a nearly unanimous response: “Oh, you mean like Rosie the Riveter!” The fact that Rosie, a 85-year old icon, is still the most common cultural reference point we collectively hold for a woman doing skilled mechanical labor, speaks to a glaring scarcity of contemporary images and an incomplete historical narrative. “Not like Rosie,” one might reply, “but like the thousands of women who are doing this work today.”  Though modern tradeswomen are still trailblazing in their own right, they are rarely acknowledged for doing so.

In our contemporary cultural landscape, the hard-hatted woman is all but invisible—except when we occasionally pass her as the flagger on a road crew and we might look twice and wonder, “What’s her story?” Tradeswomen are not much more visible even to each other. A majority of them have frequently known what it's like to be the only woman on the job. Fans and followers of this film sometimes write to say how important it feels to see other women like them. One welder from Pennsylvania wrote: “When there are not many women in a trade it can get lonely sometimes, but hearing about your film makes me think, I'm not just one of a few in my position, I'm one of many. Just got to look deeper to find the ones like me.”

Hard Hatted Woman is a celebration of these women. It acknowledges their struggle and honors their strength and endurance. It is a way of saying "I see you," and just like Rosie the Riveter, perhaps their image will inspire a new generation of women to break the mold.


Understanding the Struggle

It’s like I’m an affront to their masculinity. If I can lift the same pipe they can lift, or I can bend the same pipe they can bend, or if I can do a better job than they can—it’s really a challenge to them. The men have this saying, ‘If it were easy, a woman could do it.’ Well, now women are in there doing it, and the guys don’t like it one bit.
— Evan Ruderman, Electrician (from the book "Live Wire")

On the Historical Background page you can read about how the story began for tradeswomen and how their historical struggle is continuing to this day. While anecdotally it might seem that conditions have improved for women on the job since that first generation of tradeswomen broke ground in the 70's, and while as a culture we have certainly progressed in our attitudes towards women in the workplace, very serious problems persist in this industry. 1992, Chicago Women in Trades compiled a survey of tradeswomen in their report "Breaking New Ground: Worksite 2000" and found that:


88% of female workers had been exposed to pornographic images on the job
83% received unwelcome sexual remarks
80% were on jobs with no toilets or dirty toilets
60% were given the heaviest or dirtiest assignments
57% had been sexually touched or asked for sex
54% felt they had been denied proper training
44% experienced unfair layoff practices
38% were not hired because they were female

In 2000, in a report to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Health and Safety of Women in Construction (HASWIC) Workgroup reported that a staggering 88% of female construction workers had experienced sexual harassment, and a second survey reported that 41% women felt they had received unequal and unfair treatment (being given the heaviest, dirtiest, or most unskilled job assignments) because they were female.

Clearly we haven't come nearly far enough. Tradeswomen are an underrepresented minority that continue to face discrimination based on gender, yet somehow the issue continues to escape examination by a broad public audience. Notably, in 2003, five U.S. Senators (Hillary Clinton, Susan Collins, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, and Ted Kennedy) drafted a resolution "Honoring Tradeswomen" that stated the alarming statistics and recommended that "more attention should be paid" to barriers facing women entering the skilled trades. The resolution was not enacted.

The Time is Now

Women in trades have waited long enough. They have been fighting for equality for decades, but the needle has barely tipped towards progress. Tradeswomen advocates have been working for decades to identify problems and their potential solutions, and on the Resources page you can read more from their collective efforts. The mission of Hard Hatted Woman is to amplify those efforts and raise critical public consciousness about the obstacles tradeswomen face--both the personal and political barriers that are impeding their access to high-wage careers in construction. In doing so, Hard Hatted Woman will also contribute to a broader cultural conversation about gender, labor, and the movement for women's true occupational freedom.