It isn’t rational
how much I love this job
building the big things.
Little reasons that may mean nothing
to you, like being out in the weather
until weather becomes
a character in my life
having its rough days
and its great ones, like the rest of us.
Simple things like feeling my body strong
and graceful doing the things
other carpenters do, performing
the magic of hammer and nail,
building something, together,
that will last for the rest
of our lives.
It isn’t rational
how much I hate this job,
the terrible loneliness, sobs
stuck in my throat, the men
who watch my every move
as if to catch me
imperfect. They punish me daily.
How I hate those times of hiding
I’m a woman, the times a thought
uncensored, when I’m tired
or feeling good, an unmanly thought,
like the time I suggested potluck
for lunch. That time they liked it.
Other times they hate me
for reminding them of difference.
Those times I am wax melting
in the heat of their hatred.
Some gentle man once told me
every hand has two sides.
I show only one.
from Turning Left to the Ladies
(Kingsville, Ontario: Palimpsest Press, 2009)
A LITERARY REVIEW OF KATE BRAID’S
JOURNEYWOMAN: SWINGING A HAMMER IN A MAN’S WORLD
When you search “Women in Trades Canada,” the first web pages Google retrieves are devoted to programs and websites that support women considering, entering, or already working in the trades. Quickly, however, the search results begin to turn up stories of women being traded (Aboriginal women who have been trafficked as a part of the sex trade between Canada and the States), as well as strange typos (articles that ought to be talking about “attracting” women to the trades are instead headlining “Attractive Women into Skilled Trades Jobs!”). This isn’t particularly surprising. We know what place women frequently occupy on the Internet—try searching “Girls” on YouTube when looking for the TV show—and we know that these virtual results reflect the material world back to us.
As I began to research women working in carpentry and the construction trades, I became familiar with the phrase “non-traditional work,” which signifies any occupational grouping in which women have “traditionally” made up a small percentage of the workforce. Using this definition, and going back far enough—though not very far!—almost every form of paid work is non-traditional to women. This is, of course, the central question of GUTS’s current issue: what exactly is “women’s work,” when we have had major successes in gaining entry to so many arenas of paid work, and when most of us, in this country at least, no longer have to contend with the possibility that anyone would consider our biology a hindrance to the work we want to do?
Of course that “most of us” is bounded by my economic, social, and racial position: most of my peers are entering artistic or cultural positions, fields whose lower and middle levels are well-populated by young white women and have been for years. For Kate Braid, author of Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World (Caitlin Press, 2012), every step of her career as a construction carpenter was questioned, pushed back upon, and challenged by her colleagues and supervisors, nearly all of whom believed that carpentry was not “women’s work.” This recently published memoir is deeply personal and honest, and Braid shares the ambivalence that is her constant companion as a woman working in a “non-traditional field.”
Braid grew up in Montreal in the 1950s with an alcoholic and domineering father. Out of high school, she moved to Sackville, New Brunswick, to complete her undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University. She was in her early twenties when the effects of the ’60s revolution pushed her to explore non-traditional opportunities. Instead of working as a secretary, she took a train trip across the country, settling in Vancouver where she lived in communal houses while pursuing her Master’s degree. Braid was high on LSD when she had her first revelation about building. Looking around a cabin she was staying in, she saw that
a man built this house… a man built the road to this cottage. A man drove the grader. Men mined the gravel and processed the tar and built the machines that built the road. It went on and on in a demented version of the House That Jack Built, only this was the entire world – all built, all run by men. No women.
This understanding was part of a larger feminist awakening for Braid. Though she was involved with many political action groups, she found within them that “it was mainly the men who talked… [I]f one of us finally got brave enough to demand a response, the men reassured us by saying the Woman Question would be dealt with after the revolution.” These encounters, as well as a number of romantic and sexual relationships with men who refused to extend her the same independence they demanded for themselves, led Braid to rent a small A-frame cabin in the woods, to live in alone and contemplate her path forward.
It was in this cabin, on Pender Island, one of BC’s Gulf Islands, that Braid first found work as a carpenter. Living alone in this small community, she was encouraged by friends to apply for a job building the new school on the island, and was hired on as a labourer. From the first day of work, she faced challenges from her coworkers and supervisors. On this initial job, opposition came mainly in the form of sexist comments (“Don’t work so hard. If you work too hard, you’ll get muscles. Nobody likes a girl with muscles”), which persisted as she continued to work on different job sites. Nevertheless, Braid enrolled in a construction carpentry apprenticeship while completing her graduate research on women working in non-traditional fields.
After interviewing many women working in the trades for her thesis, Braid became frustrated with the contradictions that would continually crop up in women’s discussion of their work:
The problem, I figured out, is that men and women on the job are caught in double binds. A double bind says that no matter what you do, you lose. When the first woman comes on the job, she works particularly hard to prove women can do it; and the men resent her for showing them up. If she doesn’t work particularly hard, it proves women can’t do this… the old rules don’t fit, the double binds prove it.
This double bind recurs throughout the memoir, and Braid makes clear that it affected the men she worked with as much as the few women in the field. She shares many stories of male coworkers, at first kind and “gentlemanly,” who became intolerant and cruel when she refused to be treated as a “lady” rather than a fully participating crew member. In recounting these experiences, Braid treats her coworkers with understanding and sympathy, even though they treated her badly and made her work more challenging. Her compassionate voice makes Journeywoman particularly compelling.
Another pleasure of the book comes from the description of physical work, and the challenges and joys that come with it. In the beginning, Braid experienced her body as a hindrance, an imperfect tool. She was told, as we women are all told, repeatedly, that biology is at work here. Women’s bodies simply aren’t equipped to do this work, they aren’t strong enough, they aren’t capable. As an apprentice, Braid had moments of believing what she was told, and on challenging days she doubted her strength and ability. But, like any student of carpentry, what she learned through practice was physical skill: the balance and stability that became second nature as she grew comfortable with her tools and the work site. She also came to see that there are huge physical variations among the men, and that everyone does the work according to their own physique and ability:
The First Aid guy has asthma, so they never ask him to climb scaffolds, and the rigger—the guy who directs the crane and ties and unties loads—is a pipsqueak who can’t be half as strong as I am but whose small size and agility are perfect for rigging. For years, we women have been told we’re not strong enough for jobs like this, and now I discover that a good foreman allows for physical differences.
Eventually, the pleasure that she comes to take in working well—using her body well—is sensual, almost erotic. Coming home after a successful day as a forewoman on a job staffed mostly by women, Braid writes that she “feel[s] splendidly androgynous … ferocious lion, sweetest lamb and sensuous snake—as I choose. I feel 100% alive.” This physical experience is crucial to me when thinking about women working in the trades: not simply that women can do the jobs men can, but that they love it, and love the strength and power that accompanies physical work.
When Braid attended a national Women in Trades conference, she came alive to the ways in which sexism had imprinted itself on her body, as well as on her mind and her choices. It was the first time she had been part of a large group of queer women, and socializing among them gave her a perspective she didn’t realize she was missing—the possibility of being “shameless” about one’s femaleness. She met women at the conference and at subsequent local meetings who “d[idn’t] curve inward as if protecting their merely female heart, female breasts. Their shoulders are back.” Not only that, but in their conversations, “the lesbians tease and appreciate each other … as if there were no shame in being female… I see in the gap how much I’ve given my full attention to men, how I’ve lived for their opinions even if it’s been in opposing them.” The shift that Braid experienced was profound and wide-ranging. It instilled in her the confidence to continue in her work at a time when she was being challenged from many sides, and it transformed her self-understanding. Spending time with these unapologetic women allowed her to become more politically active within her community.
Similarly, Braid’s perception of her body noticeably shifts after her encounter with this feminist community of trade workers:
I’ve always felt good in my private woman’s body when I was in bed, having sex. And over the past few years I’ve realized my body can feel good doing physical labour, building. Now I know it’s okay to feel good in my public woman’s body, too. Does this seem like a small thing? To me, it feels revolutionary.
This revolution is a necessarily personal one, and I can see in myself, and in so many other women around me, that it has yet to occur, that it is desperately needed. Third-wave feminism has done a decent job of reclaiming our bodies as sexual and procreative objects, though the agency we’ve gained in these areas is under constant dispute. But why do we continue to accept this valuation of women’s bodies as sexual objects as the primary one? Why aren’t we valuing the body of the female worker, the body at work and useful, as an inherently feminine one? Female bodies are engaged in so many different kinds of work every day. Imagine what would be possible if we valued the strength and power of women’s bodies, without narrowing these aspects of physicality to categories of beauty or sexuality.
Braid’s memoir details her years of work in construction, which took place between 1976 and 1991. Since Braid’s exit from construction work, not much has changed for women in trades. Courageous, strong women continue to do work they are told is not for them, but they remain disproportionally few and far between. According to a Status of Women memo, “in 2012, women represented only 4% of those working in construction trades, and 20% of those working in primary industries such as forestry, mining, oil and gas.” Considering how central these industries are to the country (whether we like it or not), women’s under-representation in these fields is a political, social, and economic issue, and it’s one that is rarely discussed in feminist media.
Discouragingly, the number of women working in the trades is not only incredibly low—it’s also been decreasing. The statistics change depending on what types of qualifications and educational programs are counted in the study, but according to one report, “the number of women receiving trade qualifications in Canada has been dropping steadily, from 17% in 1992 to 5% in 2007.” Of course, class and economic indicators factor strongly in this shift away from opportunities in the trades. There has been an overall decline in the number of young people entering the skilled trades in the past ten years, which correlates to an increasing proportion of students choosing to attend university. Women’s attendance at universities has grown steadily in the past fifty years, and as this Statistics Canada report shows, “successive cohorts of women are choosing university over college and college over having just high school as their highest level of education.” This successful expansion of university education is a laudable one. But it has also come at a time of economic change: the value of a university degree has dropped while its price continues to rise, and unemployment among university graduates is at one of its highest peaks in years. At the same time, a “skills gap” has been predicted for the coming decade in the skilled trades as “fewer young people aged 25 to 34 [have] a trades certificate or college diploma in ‘mechanic and repair technologies/ technicians,’ ‘precision production’ and ‘construction trades’ compared with older adults aged 55 to 64.” This means a growing number of older workers will be retiring from positions in the coming years without workers set to replace them.
To supplement the impending labour gap, the Harper government has stated that it plans to increase the number of young women entering the skilled trades, though what this means in real terms remains to be seen. Particularly in this economic climate, the gendered dimension of the labour market contributes to the wage gap between men and women. Crucially, as union strongholds, construction and trades jobs tend to pay much better and offer stronger job security than industries in which women are traditionally employed—service industry positions and care work. Although the need for traditional “women’s work” is rising—particularly in healthcare jobs such as nursing and home health care—this work is very often underpaid, undervalued, and less secure. Work in the trades, on the other hand, can be lucrative, secure, and remains in high demand.
Some of the anecdotes Braid tells from her Women in Trades meetings ring particularly true today. One story, from “a single mother on welfare, sick of being poor,” is particularly relevant in the age of “Do what you love”: when she heard about how much tradespeople earned, the woman went to the Manpower office and asked to be trained in whatever trade paid most. The career counsellor immediately shut her down:
‘You can’t pick a trade like that!’ he told her. ‘You have to have a feeling for it.’ So she went home, did her homework and came back, making sure to get a different counsellor. ‘I told him that my father was an electrician, my brother was an electrician, and I’d always dreamed of being an electrician. I practically said God told me to be an electrician!’ She is now an electrician.
Of course, this woman’s practical and economically driven approach is not the case for everyone—Braid and many of her fellow Women in Trades members genuinely love their work, pursuing it because it is fulfilling and joyful. As we all know, there are many reasons people choose the work they do. One approach to economic equality between men and women ought to be equal opportunity to well-paying jobs, which requires encouragement and a shift in attitudes. Rather than arguing that poor women need to get married in order to rise out of poverty and support their families, why not support programs for women to pursue careers in well-paying, skilled-trades work?
There are some programs offered at Canadian colleges specifically geared towards women that not only teach trade-specific skills, but train women to deal with the sexism they are bound to encounter when they enter the workforce. While these courses are invaluable, they are far and few between, and unfortunately do not provide all of the necessary training. Tina Kelly, academic chair of Trades and Technology at Nova Scotia Community College, says that although these programs are helping more women to access training in the trades, the challenge remains in helping them transition to the workforce. “Although [women] are usually in the top 10 per cent of their class, they are still the last to be hired.”
Journeywoman exemplifies this unfair statistic: after excelling in her apprenticeship program, Braid had trouble getting hired when starting out; foremen would simply hang up on her or ignore her when she inquired about jobs. Once she was a certified construction carpenter, looking for workers to hire for her own jobs, she found that there were few men willing to work for a woman. Braid explicitly asked one of these men if being a woman was why no one wanted to work for her.
‘Maybe it would help if you wore a badge that says “I’m not really a woman…” You sounded unconfident, and I was afraid you’d want long emotional discussions instead of just getting on with it. If you weren’t confident, a man would have to bail you out, which is okay in some ways,’ he admits, ‘because he’d get the perk of being competent. What would be worse is if you were competent, because then a man would feel incompetent or worse—equal.’
This sentiment is echoed elsewhere—the feeling of fear coming from the men Braid works with. If women can do this work and maintain their other roles (as lovers and mothers and nurturers) then what are men’s roles worth? It is to Braid’s and the book’s credit that she takes this question seriously and engages with the anxiety that other tradesmen feel in her presence. Working in a non-traditional field also challenged Braid’s own gender expectations: she grapples with the question of how to remain “feminine” while defying gendered expectations at work (after asking this question at an Andrea Dworkin lecture, a fellow female carpenter teases her, saying, “I knew that was you asking—you’re such a femme!”). These questions and anxieties are precisely what make this a feminist issue: we need to find ways to reevaluate the worth of our bodies and reimagine the limitations ascribed to our gender. By establishing a link between our work as women and our work as workers, we might find ways to labour as ourselves, with integrity, rather than let the social expectations attendant on both groups hinder us before we even begin.
Supporting gender equality in the skilled trades is challenging at every turn. The difficulties lie not simply in attracting women to the trades and effectively training them, but also getting them hired on enough projects to help them stay afloat in the field. Braid herself moved on from carpentry after fifteen years to pursue writing. Overall, the low retention rates for women working in the trades is cause for concern, particularly in a unionized environment where seniority counts for so much. More women in a workplace make it easier for new female hires to find their place, and women in positions of authority can help an entire workplace reconceptualize its ideas about gender. But if the members of each new generation of women entering the trades find themselves without mentors and allies, the same battles will continue to be fought over and over on an individual level.
Working in the trades is not for everyone. But it needs to be an option for everyone, presented as one choice among many for young women and men who are choosing a career path to pursue, and for those in the second, third, or fourth phase of their careers, who are looking to refocus or change directions. Physical work is not alien to women—we have been doing it for thousands of years. Perhaps it’s just time to get paid for it. This, too, is women’s work. ♦
“Laying the Foundation” is from our spring 2014 issue, Women’s Work