Meghan Karnes

[A TED Talk-style speech, adapted for The Amsterdam]


Women in the Trades

April 2023

“What the hell happened? Why are you traipsing all over my wood floors with wet paint on your shoes? You’ve ruined my floors” was my reaction to the strangers working in the house when I returned from work one day in 2014, shortly after a 7,000-pound tree had fallen on my home in Indianapolis. This house was the one thing I won in my divorce. I managed to secure three roommates to afford to keep it, and suddenly our home was nearly destroyed. 

This incident brought over a year of contractors coming in and out of the house to make repairs. Dismissing my concerns, the managing contractor responded, “Calm down. You’re overreacting.” Being treated this way in my own home, as though my opinion was irrelevant made me wish I had someone more familiar with whom to speak—someone inclined to approach the situation with more care and understanding. I wanted them to see that my safe space—the place where I was free to be myself and escape the monotony of life, work, and adult realities—had been damaged and interrupted. Instead, I felt unsafe because I had men I did not know in this space. Instead of coming home to safety, I was confronted and expected to conform to my socialized gender as a woman. “Calm down,” I heard as ‘you’re a woman, you have to control your emotions in front of me, you need to listen to me, the male contractor.’ “You’re overreacting,” communicated ‘you’re a woman, you’re being ridiculous, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Feeling so protective of what I had left of my home, their presence and assertions felt invasive. The crew did not clean up after themselves, leaving trash, paint drippings, footprints, and dirt behind for me to clean up. Perhaps cleaning is seen as a women’s responsibility, so they felt they could leave their mess for me to clean up. 

As a single woman responsible for managing the house for my three roommates, was I supposed to trust this man and hand over the keys so he and his team could make repairs as they saw fit? I cannot tell you how often I had to call my father to come over and represent me in conversations, repeating requests I had made for the contractor to consider my thought-out requests to repair the house to its original state. I am confident that I am not the only person with a story like this, and I imagine the women reading this have dozens. It is common for women to be disrespected and demoralized by those we interact with during plumbing, automotive repair, and other trades-related tasks. Lived experience in the trades field shows women similarly experience disrespect and demoralization when carrying out these exact trades tasks. While women in the trades are often isolated and harassed, women receiving trades services from men can be taken advantage of financially or insulted in their intelligence. 


After several uncomfortable affronts, I attempted to seek women in construction, automotive repair, locksmithing, or any other trade. In my search, I found that women are virtually nonexistent in the trades—especially in Indiana. I started questioning my upbringing, education, and the societal expectations pushed on me and my female peers throughout childhood. Growing up, no one asked if I considered going into construction, plumbing, or electricity. I think about this often now. What if I had been in the trades? If I experience these moments as an able-bodied white woman, I cannot imagine what women with intersecting marginalized identities have to navigate in this realm. These interactions could and must be so much more violent. If I wanted to hire women contractors, construction workers, plumbers, and trades workers, I had to imagine other women out there were hoping for the same. I fantasized: having women in the trades would have to increase women clients’ feelings of comfort and safety when seeking maintenance assistance, right?!

Let’s look at the legislative landscape that brings us to these moments. Both in 2014 and now in 2023, I, and women in general, cannot easily find or hire tradeswomen in the United States, let alone an entire construction crew. 

The Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor (or the DOL) reports that women make up 47% of the workforce, yet women make up the smallest percentage of the trades industry, at just 3.9% (NTTI, 2022). While women generally already make up a small percentage of the industry, there is also a lack of inclusivity in the statistics for trans and queer women in the trades. According to Mentzer (2021), the founder of Reckoning Trade Project, an organization supporting queer trade workers, “there is a lack of available employment statistics that center transgender and other queer folks,” with 46% of LGBTQIA+ tradespeople feeling unsafe to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identities in the workplace. 

(Glynn & D. Boesch, 2022)

Only 3.3% of the construction labor force are women (Women’s Bureau, 2019). Several important labor issues need to be addressed for women with intersecting identities today—and if you ask me, this is one of the most crucial. How are women in the U.S. supposed to find living wage jobs not limited by completing diplomas or degrees? How are women hoping to work in trades expected to reckon with these statistics? Though women make up almost half of U.S. human capital, only 27% of working women have high-paying jobs—65% of which are white (Martinez & Christnacht, 2021; Okrent & Burke, 2021). The other 73% of employed women work in undervalued and, therefore, underpaid occupations earning less than $20 an hour (Beck et al., 2019). The U.S. 2022 living wage was calculated to be $25.02 per hour (Glasmeier, 2023). Seventy-three percent of working women! That’s not all. Forty percent of all working women and 60% of working women of color earn less than $15 per hour (Henderson, 2022). These staggering inequalities impact women with intersecting marginalized identities and experiences (across spectrums of ability, class, race, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, religiosity, and sexual orientation) all the more.

(NWLC, 2022)

 Because our society undervalues women, we do not value what women do and therefore perpetuate the underestimation of what women are capable of. 

 The most major current legislation supporting women securing long-term high-wage employment opportunities are two laws passed between 1991-1992. As part of the 1991 Nontraditional Employment for Women Act, the federal government is supposed to provide better high-wage occupational opportunities for women by incentivizing employers to open up historically male-dominated fields by providing mentorship and leadership development to women employees. The 1992 Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupation Act (WANTO) outlines that businesses have to identify and remove barriers for women entering nontraditional work—“jobs in which women make up 25% or less of the total number of workers in that occupation”—and support them in securing apprenticeship occupations (H.R.3475 - Women, 1992)

Why is it essential that women gain greater access to trades positions? The U.S. federal government has spent 30 years working to get women into male-dominated careers. These efforts have been largely successful, as the percentage of women in STEM fields rose from 8% in 1970 to 27% in 2019 (Martinez & Christnacht, 2021). The original push strived to bring women into science, technology, engineering, and math through the educational program “Girls in STEM” (González-Pérez et al., 2020). However, getting women into male-dominated careers requires a sustained and intentional process, which has become even more challenging in the last 20 years (Bailey & DiPrete, 2016). Although it is increasingly common to assume little girls believe they can grow up to pursue any career, this demographic is realistically offered a limited pool of role models (Merritt, S. K. et al., 2021). At the initiation of the WANTO policy, the government allotted the DOL $1 million a year to promote women in “nontraditional work”—work in which women make up ≤25% of an occupational field (H.R.3475 - Women, 1992). This financial allocation has increased to about $4 million a year, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars, depending on the administration (DOLWB, 2022). So, essentially the U.S. invests a whopping 2¢ per woman toward increasing access to these opportunities. 

What prevents 73% of women from exploring higher-wage occupations, such as those within the trades? Representation plays a prominent role. The widely known “Rosie the Riveter” is hugely credited for increasing women workers during WWII (Zula, 2014). However, socially constructed gender roles and stereotypes traditionally assigned to women continually hinder their ability to thrive in construction fields (Norberg & Johansson, 2020). Research also shows that women hesitate to enter construction positions because of the uncertain path and growth for women within the industry (Perry-Sizemore & MacLaughlin, 2021). Discrimination and harassment, childcare necessities, body-exclusive equipment and safety gear, and subjugation within worksites continue to decrease the representation of women in construction (Zula, 2014). 

What does this mean for us, and how should we move forward? Despite these impediments, women are slowly entering trades apprenticeships, as their participation increased from 9% in 2014 to 14% in 2022. This rise is due to efforts from the Women’s Bureau, community organizations, and trade schools to create safe, women-only educational programs (Daniel, 2022). Since 1992, the DOL has allocated $33 million towards increasing the representation of women in nontraditional work—an attempt to close the gender pay gap by addressing gender disparities in lucrative, living-wage occupations (Daniel, 2022). If the rise of women in the trades is steadily increasing with little to no advertisement, imagine what we could do with a mass educational and social media advertisement campaign. 

Just as Rosie the Riveter campaigned 20 million women into the workforce in the 1940s, Peggy the Plumber (1.4% of women are plumbers), Candice the Carpenter (1.9% of women are carpenters), and Ebonie the Electrician (1.8% of women are electricians) 

could be the representation women need to see to pursue construction trades in the 21st century. President Biden has implemented a massive infrastructure bill that will create over 700,000 jobs offering a living wage, benefits, and retirement savings in construction, manufacturing, and transportation (President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, 2021). Now is the time for the trades industry to recognize what women can and will bring to the field and enact systemic change that shares a piece of the pie reserved almost solely for men.

What are the next steps? Primarily, the DOL must partner with community organizations and trade unions to initiate an inclusive nationwide tradeswoman advertisement campaign. Subsequently, educational systems must increase efforts to promote trade work to all genders, targeting those socialized as girls and young women. Finally, with the support of DOL funding, public local and state trade schools must provide safe, equitable courses intentionally designed to include girls and women in construction fields. If a 1940s poster campaign spanning four years can yield a 57% increase of women in the workforce, imagine what inclusive representational imagery can do in the digital age. Committing to these recommendations will decrease the wage gap for women (particularly lower-income women and women of color), provide high-wage and long-term employment opportunities, and increase stability for single-women family households (Zhavoronkova & Khattar, 2022). Let’s fight for a future when a single woman encountering a construction disaster can call her local woman-owned, woman-run, woman-employed contractor for help. Who knows, maybe a future app could connect women clients to women plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and more. 


I appreciate this time to strategize with you and 

I am excited to see a more inclusive future in the trades. 

Thank you.


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