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Community and Q&A

Why are there so few women builders in America?

Anders Lewendal | Posted in General Questions on

I wonder why we do not have a much higher percentage of women home builders in our country. I do not lift anything heavier than my phone. I ask women often who is more intuitive, better at design, more trustworthy, more creative, better at budgets. Is it men or women? Building healthy, affordable and safe homes is an honorable and satisfying profession. Maybe we can make a difference by getting more women into the business.

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    You mean... not counting 40,000 years of patriarchy, decades of overt discrimination in the unions and hiring practices, decades of newspaper ads that divided jobs into "Men" and "Women" sections, and widespread examples of bizarre sexual harassment on job sites? You mean -- you are puzzled and you're looking for an explanation?

    Why are men so clueless?

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    And Anders: if you don't lift anything heavier than a phone -- and, needless to say, plenty of women could lift you over their head (phone and all) with one hand -- what does that make you? Do you consider yourself a builder?

  3. Nick Welch | | #3

    This very same question is often entertained by those in my profession, software engineering. I think there is a huge cultural/historical component, as Martin outlined. That takes a long time to change. There may also be some innate biological tendencies that attract the genders to different work. It's hard to know that without stripping away the cultural baggage, which is impossible. It's also angrily contested by some people, especially those who are outliers and frustrated about being pigeonholed based on their gender. It's very difficult to postulate on this subject without relying on some broad generalizations, and broad generalizations quickly piss people off, so it''s hard to have a productive discussion.

    In summary, yes, it does seem out of whack that certain industries are so dominated by one gender. Why? And what can we do about it? Your guess is as good as mine...

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    When a society has a huge power imbalance between two groups, it behooves the dominant group to look in the mirror.

  5. Anders Lewendal | | #5

    Martin: You are, or course, right. However, I am not talking about why my mother or grandmother did not become a builder. I now know several successful women builders and promote the idea when I teach Junior Achievement in schools and at my Home Builders Association. Another post recently made a case that women make the majority of decisions regarding purchasing including homes. Who are women more comfortable with building their homes and giving them the best value? I think there is a future for more women in our industry.

    Martin: For much of my 26 year career as a journeyman carpenter and then general contractor, I have humped endless stacks of lumber and poured my share of concrete, and pounded nails on too many scorching roofs. I am quite sure I have earned my current job as general only. In fact, I think I offer my clients a better value when I am paying attention to the entire job rather than the task at hand. I do respect every builder who has put their time in the field. Old guys can build too, we just hire young studs to do the heavy lifting.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    As long as we can agree that gender imbalances in the workplace stem from our patriarchal history -- in other words, it's fundamentally a male problem -- we can begin, perhaps, to see our way forward.

    In all of my years as a builder, I was always one of the workers who unloaded the truck and carried the materials up the ladder, so I never had the experience of calling myself a builder while "never lifting anything heavier than a phone."

    The female builder I know best, Polly Jerome, certainly never entered the profession with the idea that she would confine herself to phone dialing, and of course she has always worn a tool belt and carried materials with the best of them. Assuming that women builders will be able to "never lift anything heaver than a phone" -- or will want to -- is (it seems to me) a form of condescension.

  7. Anders Lewendal | | #7

    Why are you knocking general contractors? Most of us have put in our dues doing the heavy lifting and now have bad backs and carpal tunnel syndrome. Using our brains instead of our bodies should not disqualify a man or women from being a builder. Are you suggesting that only those who pour foundations, pull romex, glue PVC and also trim can be a real builder? That is condescending.

    Instead of complaining, let's find ways to encourage women to join us as builders. Nail pounders and generals alike.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Fair enough. I didn't mean to disparage your years of physical labor. But I'm still mystified as to why you thought it was important to bring up the fact, in your discussion of women in construction, that you "do not lift anything heavier than your phone."

  9. Anders Lewendal | | #9

    Just a metaphor my friend. I still pick up a 5 pound maul when I stake out each home, I still sweep floors when I am inspecting homes. Generals spend a lot of time talking on the phone scheduling and delegating. My wife hates it when I come home and continue delegating.

    Despite our past behavior, I do think women are an asset to our industry. Let's find a way to encourage them. They may be better at educating our communities about energy efficiency too.

  10. Lucy Foxworth | | #10

    I wish I was a builder.

    Years ago in my early teens, I decided to go into the medical profession - eventually ending up as a pediatric ER doc.

    Anyway, I still get this comment almost every time I walk into a room "I have to get off the phone now. The nurse came in." But, once I explain that I am the doc, they are just happy the doc - female or not - came in the room. They no longer care whether they get a male or female physician. I think male docs have an edge in being perceived as more authoritative ("We must do this test, blah, blah.") and may be respected a little better by people from highly male-dominated cultures like the middle east. But overall, I do not see evidence that my patients would prefer a male physician.

    But in terms of female builders, it'd probably be more like female orthopedic docs. They are often perceived as being too weak to really do the job. (Please note: I am not saying this is true or that I believe it to be true, just that this is a fairly common opinion.)

    My interest in building started with a generalized concern about our environment, then progressed to making my own home more energy efficient, then to building an energy efficient home for my brother. And I love it. This is so much fun. I love the challenge of putting the pieces together and maintaining the focus on energy efficiency. When I go to work and the staff asks me about the goop plastered to my arms, I tell them I have been air sealing the thermal envelope. They are baffled as to what that is and amazed that I would actually do work on the home when I've hired carpenters to build the house.

    I really don't know how to get young women interested in the building trades, but I am so glad that I've had an opportunity to get my hands dirty and at least participate in the process. It is very satisfying and as I said, FUN.

  11. Dan Kolbert | | #11

    I don't know how to get young anybody interested in the trades.

  12. Lucy Foxworth | | #12

    That really is another very good question. Maybe the tiny house building movement?

  13. Anders Lewendal | | #13

    You are right. The question really is: why can't we attract young builders or carpenters? Either men or women. High school kids rank carpentry at the bottom next to garbage collector when surveyed. I would not trade my job for any other that I can think of. Unfortunately, a large percentage of seasoned builders are retiring, including me. Fortunately, my son is taking my place. It is a rewarding and honorable profession. How do we convince youth today to join us? If we want energy efficient homes, we need to attract a new generation of educated builders. Maybe a good project for GBA.

  14. John Semmelhack | | #14

    Good examples and role models's one - I had the opportunity again this week at the Passive House conference to talk with Natalie Leonard, a builder AND engineer in Nova Scotia. Natalie gave the intro. presentation during the always popular "Builder's Hootenanny" track.

    btw...I'm typing this while my 6-year old daughter looks over my shoulder. She also happened to be curious earlier in the day why all of the presidents of our country have been boys.

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