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On Being the Odd Gender Out at Work

Carpentry and teaching are two of the most gendered professions. We talked to a man and a woman who defy expectations

In a world — or maybe economic reality — where men are becoming nurses and women truck drivers, the idea of gender determining a career path seems as antiquated as female baton twirlers. And yet, per a recent study released by Flowing Data, there are at least two professions that are still heavily segregated by gender: kindergarten teaching and carpentry. In fact, according to the Department of Labor Statistics just 1.7 percent of employed carpenters are women, while only 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers are men.

To see what it’s like to be a man among a sea of women in the classroom and a woman among a sea of men at the job site — as well as what stereotypes male kindergarten teachers and female carpenters fight on a daily (hourly?) basis — we tracked down two such unicorns: Maria Klemperer Johnson, the founder of Hammerstone Carpentry for Women in Ithaca, New York; and Chad Boender, the Michigan educator behind the website Male Kindergarten Teacher.

Maria Klemperer Johnson

I didn’t realize the gender disparity in carpentry was as bad as it was until I got into the industry. It didn’t stop me, though, because I wanted to prove people wrong. Plus, I always liked building things.

I studied computer science in college, which felt like a way of building things, too. But when I moved to Seattle for a programming job, I was quickly fed up with having to spend the entirety of my day looking at a computer screen. So I quit and went to Cornell for grad school in geology. My thinking was it would give me an opportunity to use my hands, but that didn’t last either.

My boyfriend at the time was a carpenter, and I went to work with him for a couple of weeks. But in the end, I didn’t want to work alongside him. I didn’t want to set up that power dynamic — where he was the expert and I’d have to learn from him. So I cold-called a bunch of cabinet shops and went on a few interviews.

I ended up getting a job at this local cabinet shop. Before the owner hired me, though, he said, “I’ve had women work with me in the past, but I need to ask my wife.” I’ve heard from a lot of other women that this sort of thing happens often. Like my economic freedom is dependent on my potential employer’s ability to restrain himself — or rather, his wife’s perception of whether he can restrain himself and maintain a professional relationship with someone of the opposite gender. I actually worked for him for two years and still maintain a relationship with him. Interestingly, he’s no longer with his wife.

What I find most challenging — and something I often address in the female carpentry classes I teach — is that you feel a lot of pressure not to screw up, especially in a job that requires a lot of physicality. It’s as though your entire gender’s reputation rests on your shoulders every time you try something new. For instance, when you’re a woman, everyone assumes you can’t wield a hammer so you think everyone is looking at you and judging you at all times. As women, we’ve internalized that notion of feeling critiqued — whether it’s real or not — from our general culture.

Not to mention, the contracting crews I used to work on were all men. There was only one stretch of six months during my 10 years working for other people that I worked alongside another woman. All the truck drivers, subcontractors, designers and architects were men, too. Luckily, where I work—Ithaca, New York—is a progressive college town, so I’ve never experienced any harassment. Most of the men I’ve worked alongside have been educated and respectful.

Now that I own my own business, my own personal job sites aren’t as male-dominated. I currently employ two full-time employees — one of whom is a woman. I will, however, still get comments from delivery drivers like, “I see this is a construction company. You must work in the office.” I’m usually so flabbergasted I don’t have anything witty to say except, “No, I own the company.”

Some women aren’t much better. I was on a job once and a woman who was really happy with the job we’d completed still asked us how we were capable of handling this type of work. In that way, even the compliments can be tough to discern: You wonder if you’re being recognized for your carpentry work, or if you’re being recognized for being a woman doing carpentry work.

When I started teaching carpentry courses geared toward women, I had this vision of increasing the number of women in the trade. But most of our students aren’t looking for a career in carpentry; they’re hobbyists who want to tackle projects on their own. They’ve never used a circular saw or a tape measure — so it’s my job to teach them. For them and everyone else, it’s easy to romanticize this type of work. It’s not physical in a way that most people couldn’t do it, but it is heavy and difficult.

But I love my job. I’m physically and intellectually stimulated every day. I get to be outside, I get to use my body and my mind. There’s so much problem solving. I encounter something I’ve never before encountered every single day. And most of all, I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do — build things.

Chad Boender

I became aware of the gender discrepancy in teaching as soon as I enrolled in my first education course at Western Michigan University. Walking into a classroom full of students who were predominantly female was eye-opening. From then on, it was rare to have another male student in any of my college classes. However, it never deterred me from pursuing a career in education. I knew that I was meant to teach from a young age; from playing “teacher” with my twin sister to growing up in a family of educators, one might say I was bound to be a teacher.

Like I always say, “It’s not a job if you love what you do.”

And so, I don’t teach for the money. I teach to instill a passion for learning.

That said, during my first year of teaching kindergarten, many of the kids’ parents were worried when they found out their child had a male kindergarten teacher. I felt like I needed to prove myself and show the parents that I was just as capable of teaching kindergarten as a woman. Luckily, I was able to do so. Later in the year, in fact, I had a parent come up to me and say, “You know Mr. Boender, I was worried when I found out that my daughter had you as a teacher, but I must say that we’re so happy that she is in your class.”

I think one of the big doubts is that men aren’t capable of exhibiting the same level of compassion or nurturing as women, but I don’t agree. For example: The other day, a child came inside from recess with a cut. It might be expected for a man to say something like, “You’ll be okay. Just go outside and play.” But I could tell that the child was upset and hurt. I washed the wound, put a Band-Aid on it and let the child know that they would be okay.

That’s probably why I hear another common refrain once people get over the fact that I’m a man who teaches kindergarten: “Wow, that’s great! Kids need a positive male role model in their lives.”