Fifteen years ago, Vanessa Carman helped her brother change out a broken furnace in her uncle’s house in Maltby, Washington.
Despite coming from a family of tradesmen, she hadn’t done much more with tools than hang a picture. But after wrestling with the broken furnace and lending a hand with some duct work, she decided on a new career.
Now Carman is a proud journeyman sheet metal worker (though she hesitates and initially says “journeyperson”) who earns as much as $100,000 a year. And with hundreds of women pushing the boundaries of gender stereotypes in the Seattle metropolitan area, she’s not alone.
We wanted to find the cities where women, like Carman, are smashing the glass — or, concrete, steel or aluminum — ceiling with higher numbers in the trades.
Although the ratio of women in these industries is just above 3% across the U.S., in cities like Seattle, Detroit and Baltimore the number is double or even triple that, according to analysis of the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
“If you look at the demographics and look at where our workforce is going, women are a very coveted group,” says Rita Brown, who is president and CEO of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based construction modeling firm B C C + and incoming regional director of the North American Women in Construction (NAWIC) North Central Region.
Women are so sought after because the barriers to entry are now lower for women with the introduction of robotics into the trades and because of the looming shortfall of construction workers, says Washington Women in Trades project manager Cindy Payne.
“I think we’re losing the base of our tradespeople and there isn’t going to be anyone out there climbing poles,” Payne says.
And for some women, it can offer a second act following a disappointing career.
“When I was working in accounting I felt so trapped,” Carman says. “I would look outside the window and wish that I could be doing something else.”
The ability to work with her hands in constantly changing physical environments has made the job rewarding. Now she’s had a hand in huge projects, including the transit tunnel connected to Husky Stadium.
“It’s kind of an art,” she says. “When you’re hanging all your duct work up and you look up and see your work, it’s rewarding.”
So which cities have the best record pushing women like Carman and Brown into the trades?
Here Are 8 Cities Where You’ll See More Women in Construction
Right now, women make up a little more than 3% of workers in construction. We dug into the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau to highlight cities with higher ratios to find the towns where you’re more likely to see women in this industry.
Here are the eight cities with the highest concentration of women in construction:
- Seattle, Washington
- Detroit, Michigan
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Wichita, Kansas
Women in Construction Still Face Major Hurdles
To be sure, women in the construction industry still face plenty of challenges.
Though Brown says that anecdotally, she’s noticed a smaller wage gap between men and women in the trades, the data tell a different tale.
Female sheet metal workers, for example, make roughly $9,800 less per year than their male counterparts — even when age and education are factored in, according to a Penny Hoarder analysis of Census Bureau microdata, courtesy of the University of Minnesota.
Still, experience in an industry isn’t among that data, so the gap could conceivably close as more women enter the trades and gain that experience.
But it’s not just about the money.
Carman recalls being groped, and fearing that bringing up the harassment would label her a trouble maker and leave her a target for other workers.
“I would like to say it’s perfect out there, but it’s not,” she says.
But all of the women interviewed for this story downplayed that aspect of the job.
“The thing is, if you look around, there’s bullies everywhere,” explains Rebecca Baker, a former tour manager for a northwestern-based outlaw country band who now works on crews that help prepare land for development projects. “Sometimes it’s the girl they pick on, sometimes it’s the old man, and sometimes it’s the short, scrawny guy.”
Women in Construction Have Many Routes Into the Industry
Don’t worry if you don’t live in one of those cities, you still have plenty of opportunities to jump into a new career in construction. Heck, your town might make next year’s list.
First, check to see if NAWIC has a chapter near you. That is a solid first step toward a career in this industry.
You can also check with your local union to see if they have an apprenticeship program. Brown recommends asking for a program that involves experience in every aspect of construction.
“You’ve got to know what you don’t know,” she says.
Then, find yourself a mentor. It can feel lonely in the male-dominated trades, Carman says, but finding an experienced woman to guide you can make a huge difference.
Other programs also aim to bring women into the trades, such as Apprenticeship & Non-Traditional Employment for Women (ANEW). And workforce program Skillpoint Alliance launched the Hard Hatted Women Initiative earlier this month.
However you plan to hone your skills for the construction trades, there will likely be tons of openings when you’re ready to launch your new career.
“There’s a feeding frenzy for women right now,” Brown says. “If you’re a woman interested in this industry and just spend a little time shoring up and securing your background, the opportunities are endless — so go for it and dream big.”
Methodology: We began the analysis with data from the U.S. Census Bureau on sex by occupation and wages for more than 29,000 cities and towns in the country. Then we narrowed that list down to only the 200 cities with the largest workforces.
We then used a statistical method to weight the ratio of women employed in the construction, extraction, installation, maintenance and repair occupations to rank those cities for the final list.
Note: The Census Bureau uses sampling to determine these numbers, so they may not reflect the exact ratio of women in these jobs or the precise wage gap.
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. He really, really hopes none of this came off as mansplaining.
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