The Other Gender Gap: Women in Technology, Skilled Trades

By Mar 20, 2014
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In the recent film “She++: The Documentary,” produced by a division of Stanford University’s computer science d​epartment, women cite the need to attract and educate the next generation of female engineers, or “femgineers,” to invigorate a field that’s rapidly running out of skilled workers.

By 2020 U.S. businesses will need to hire 1.4 million computer scientists, the film explains, and, at today’s graduation rates, only 30 percent of those jobs will be filled by Americans. What’s more, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Foundation, although there was a 4.3 percent increase in manufacturing jobs from 2010 to 2013, analysts say overall growth in manufacturing is being held back by a lingering skills gap.

According to experts, this gap could easily be filled by encouraging more women to enter the fields of technology and the skilled trades.

“I think this is actually a Rosie the Riveter moment—and that is that women are the real untapped bench,” said Jocelyn Goldfein, director of engineering at Facebook, during the film.

The “real” Rosie the Riveter was modeled after women like Elinor Otto, who celebrated her 93rd birthday last year with a wave of press heralding her continued work at a California Boeing factory. Otto and other Rosies hit the factory floor during World War II to fill positions vacated by men serving in the military—blue-collar jobs that paid well and didn’t require a college degree.

That type of work is still available, but as more skilled-trades workers near retirement, it’s apparent that another male-dominated field needs women to stay afloat. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers predicts that the shortage of skilled factory positions could soar to 3 million by 2015 as aging factory workers retire.

Why then, when the push to drive women into tech jobs is widely covered in the press, is little attention paid to recruiting women to join the trades?

One explanation? Out of sight, out of mind.

When Roberta Hunte first joined Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. as a career counselor, she “didn’t think about women doing that work. No one in my family did it.”

Oregon Tradeswomen introduces young girls to blue-collar jobs early on by having them build structures like sheds during its annual Building Girls Summer Camp.

“If girls were given more of those opportunities where a hammer is put in their hand and they’re taught how to build, and that no one is doing it for them—or for us—it opens up a whole other world,” Hunte said.

Building Girls embraces a philosophy similar to that of Girls Who Code (GWC), which aims to inspire, educate and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st-century careers. GWC launched in 2012 in New York City and in one year expanded its summer immersion program to eight programs in five cities nationwide.

Oregon Tradeswomen Executive Director Connie Ashbrook concedes it will take a lot of systemic change before Building Girls enjoys similar growth and impact. “The answer is to attract girls to career and technical classes within the schools so they can learn about the trades when it’s embedded in their daily lives,” she said. But with electives disappearing from secondary education, shop class is rarely available to any student, regardless of gender.

Until more resources are available, Ashbrook is focusing on strengthening the popular Women in Trades Career Fair, an annual three-day event in which 600 Oregon middle-school and 600 high school girls take 35 workshops led by tradeswomen and role models. “It’s really a very immersive experience,” she said. But the bulk of Oregon Tradeswomen’s efforts are still focused on helping adult women prepare for and enter blue-collar professions.

Now the challenge is to reshape perceptions of what it means to work.

“Our society privileges professional [white-collar] work over work that’s done with the body,” Hunte observed. “We talk about the Lean In movement, but that’s really a white middle-class and upper-middle-class message of, ‘Yes, things are tough, but just lean in and you’ll become the CEO.’ For most working-class women, there’s not an opting in or opting out. It’s, ‘I have to do this.’ But that’s not what we’re talking about in a lot of our feminist popular discourse. This isn’t the glamorous conversation.”

Jamie Gadette is a freelance writer and lead content strategist at JobDash.com.

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