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The Barriers to Women in Trade Industries

The last time I wrote about this topic was in 2021. We were still in the heat of Covid and the economic outlook was dim. The sad reality is that with the tough economic and political climate on a regional, national, and global scale, many industries are struggling. Manufacturing is no exception. The ongoing labor shortage in skilled trade jobs, like manufacturing and construction, has left many wondering how these industries will stay afloat. At least part of the answer may lie with the gender labor gap in trade industries. Historically, women have been significantly underrepresented in the skilled trades. But statistics show that when there are higher rates of women in the trades, the economy does better.

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Trade jobs were one of the only industries to experience steady growth during the pandemic, presumably because those services were still essential. But the trades workforce—decreasing largely because of retiring Baby Boomers—couldn’t keep up with growing demand. Today, that gap only grows wider.

Women make up over half of the workforce in trades like medical, culinary, and cosmetology, but for skilled trades as a whole–which includes jobs like plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and even paralegals–women make up only 4% of the total workforce.

In around 45% of American homes, women are either the primary breadwinners or are equal contributors with their spouses to the household’s income. Pew Research Center found that this number has nearly tripled over the last 50 years.  And while the average female aged 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree makes just over $56,000 per year, women experienced in a trade can make upward of six figures annually.

Women Help the Economy

But women aren’t just an untapped labor market. They often hugely benefit 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 hugely 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.

So what’s holding women back?

Barriers to Trade Entry for Women

There’s no doubt that there is a demand for skilled trade workers and thus room for women in trade industries. And even though all the signs point to the benefits of integrating more women into this workforce, there are still many barriers to entry.

The Western Resources Center for Women in Apprenticeship outlined several entry barriers for women in the trade industries. We’re going to cover a few highly relevant ones.

  1. Women are generally perceived as less competitive applicants for trade jobs because they have less relevant previous experience.
  2. There are stereotypes in society that trade work requires extreme physical strength and that it is low-quality, low-paying work. These prevailing ideas often prevent women from seeking careers in trade industries.
  3. Career and school guidance counselors and family members don’t tell women about trade career potential. These industries don’t gear their marketing women, as advertisements typically feature men.
  4. Females applying to trade jobs and apprenticeships tend to downplay their accomplishments and past work experiences compared to male applicants. This can inadvertently give interviewers the impression that the female applicants are less qualified.

On top of all that, women in almost any industry, not just the trades, must perform exceptional work to “prove themselves.” An issue of Gender and Society stated that “a lot of experimental research has shown that people rate the same performance as better when told it was done by a man.” It can be daunting for women trying to enter a skilled trade because they must perform extremely well for others to perceive them as comparable to male workers.

This all paints a dim picture for women looking to enter trade jobs. But the future may be looking up.

The Future of Women in Trade Industries

To evaluate the future, it’s often helpful to first look at the history of women in trade industries. Women cemented their place in the U.S.’s skilled labor force during WWI when their work was desperately needed in factories to sustain the war effort. Women helped design, test, and distribute 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.

Our society as a whole needs to accomplish 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. 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.
  • 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/schools as equally viable options to college programs.
  • 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. 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.
  • Adopt family-focused employment policies. Some trade associations are implementing policies like extended pre-delivery maternity leave for expectant mothers to protect them from physically demanding work environments. Women are more likely to pursue jobs in the trades when their families are supported by their unions and employers. Additionally, paternity leave further supports families and makes trade jobs more attractive to women.

Women interested in trade careers can take online assessments to help determine if trade work is right for them. Many trade businesses offer a multitude of apprenticeships and assistant positions in trade careers to help women get started.

At the bare minimum, women can help fill the labor gap, but they also have the potential to provide valuable insights into creating more sustainable, caring workplaces. So the more we support women breaking into trade careers the more we all benefit.

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