It used to be so rare for women to be plumbers that the only place you’d find those two words together was in a joke. Here’s one, courtesy of Reddit:
Q: Why do women make such great plumbers?
A: They like bringing up shit from the past.
Yuk yuk. But in another, fresher corner of Reddit stands a more accurate depiction of where women and plumbing actually intersect:
That’s from the subreddit Blue Collar Women, where tradeswomen who work as plumbers, cops, electricians, welders, construction workers and mechanics gather to talk shop.
If your best visual for imagining female welders or line women is some kind of real-life Rosie the Riveter flexing her biceps to make munitions in the factory until the boys come home from the war, it’s finally time to update that shorthand. It’s more like the inverse of male forklift drivers putting on the pink collar by becoming nurses — now former realtors are putting on the blue collar of welding.
Even though the first female master plumber got her license in 1951 — Lillian Baumbach, who also became a pinup and pen pal to more than 200 GIs — women have only recently gained greater entry into the field, currently making up about 2.5 percent of all plumbers, steamfitters and pipefitters. They’re also around 9 percent of truck drivers nowadays, and while their overall numbers are still low in construction and policing and security, they’ve swelled by 23 and 40 percent respectively.
In other words, it’s a whole new kind of work for women, and Blue Collar Women reflects that. Like this woman, who after leaving the military at 22, only knew she wanted to work with her hands (even if she had very little experience doing so). She discovered that hotel maintenance workers can learn a lot on the job, and that because of high turnover, are looking for anyone hard-working and punctual. She took the job, and ultimately learned enough that she transitioned in becoming an electrician (a much higher paying trade than hotel maintenance).
And while there are the injury war stories that know no gender, they also share very female-specific problems — a la how to deal with chafing from your sports bra when you work in a lead contamination facility or how workwear pants are still a problem, because they aren’t long enough, and are mostly made for men’s bodies.
And, of course, they help other women on the job:
But a large part of the conversation often revolves around being intimidated to enter male-dominated fields. Like this woman who wanted to go into carpentry but lacked the confidence:
They do welcome male members. In one instance, a guy joined the forum (the mods just don’t tolerate sexism, racism or transphobia, and instruct men/people “don’t show up just to argue”) because he felt a certain kind of kinship for being ostracized and messed with at his own blue-collar jobs by other men. At 5-foot-3, he’d already been “ridiculed off job sites by peers asserting he was too small to be of use.”
It’s both unfortunate and entirely predictable. The biggest headache for women, minorities and even smaller guys in trades isn’t aching bones or preserving a manicure while still welding (hey, it’s a valid problem), it’s harassment, which ranges from low-key irritating to outrageous violations of personhood.
Incidents collected by the New York Times in 2017 found examples of women being stranded on top of wind turbines; given nicknames because men flock around them (“Bird Seed”); having power lines turned on while working on them; equipment messed with so they couldn’t hear instructions or be communicated with; and outright penis-pressed-up-against-them-when-no-one-is-looking shit.
That makes its way to Blue Collar Women, too, where members talk about being groped and harassed, and then harassed more for complaining:
It’s the prevailing reason why experts believe that more women don’t enter the trades, which is a significant issue because a big part of the appeal for them is the money. That is, a woman can make $8 more an hour as a starting welder than she would serving coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. Moreover, compared to typical female-led jobs for non-college degree holders, like nursing assistant or hairdresser — skilled labor jobs pay much higher salaries (closer to $90,000 for some plumbers, and $100,000 for heavy equipment technicians).
It’s why many blue-collar women have taken it upon themselves to start up recruiting efforts aimed at other women. For instance, Susan Blaser, Missouri’s first female journeyman line worker who took the job climbing poles and fixing electrical lines in 1992 after years of meter reading, now recruits women to the field as an instructor at a local community college with 40 students a semester (including her own daughter). Her graduates make about $45 an hour and around $100,000 a year (with overtime, etc.).
“Susan wasn’t easy, and I had to earn her respect,” one such student, Jodie Reinhart, told Inside Higher Ed. “She told me, ‘If you want to do this, you have to be tough,’ and I understand why she was tough on me now.”
Such toughness is necessary for joining any male-dominated field, the prevailing wisdom goes. Women need to adapt to the culture rather than attempt to change it. Along those lines, tradeswomen in droves told the Times that the balance for women in blue-collar jobs is to “demonstrate they can withstand a sometimes crude and rowdy environment but also draw the line at abuse.” Still, they’re changing the culture anyway — e.g., female ironworkers recently won paid maternity leave.
And so, maybe we need to adjust that old joke about female plumbers:
Q: Why do women make such great plumbers?
A: They’re really good at dealing with men’s shit.