Hard hats, awe, and thick skin: What it’s like to be a woman in the electrical trade
Women make up just around nine percent of the workers in the skilled trades, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So, if you’re a woman just getting started, it can feel like you’re the odd one out on the construction site.
For our Work in Progress series, we brought together two women in the field — one just starting out, one 25 years in — to talk about why they decided to pursue careers as electricians, and what it takes to thrive as a woman in the skilled trades.
Grace Trudell is a business representative with the IBEW Local 58 in Detroit, where she chairs the women’s committee. Samantha Forsyth recently graduated from the Women in Skilled Trades (WIST) pre-apprenticeship program, and plans to become an apprentice in the electrical field.
Neither Trudell nor Forsyth started their work in the skilled trades right out of high school.
“I never really thought it was even an option,” Forsyth said.
"This is definitely one of those careers that there’s going to be some negativity around you just because you’re a woman."
In high school, she was told that college was the only way to get anywhere, so Forsyth enrolled part-time after graduating. But she stopped attending when maintaining a full-time job and going to school became too much. Forsyth says she was always a hands-on kind of person, and when her aunt sent her information about WIST, it seemed like a good fit.
Trudell started her apprenticeship in 1999. She was working with kids at the time, when her then brother-in-law handed her a pamphlet with a list of all the skilled trades.
“I was looking at what careers paid the most, first of all, and which ones I qualified for. And that was either a plumber or an electrician. And the more I thought about it, I was like, you know what, I don’t really want to be dealing with toilets that much, so I decided, I’m going to give the electrical field a try,” recalled Trudell.
Her first time on a job, Trudell says she was in awe, a feeling that she’d have over and over again as she worked in auto plants, steel mills, hospitals, and more.
Being an electrician is a demanding job, both mentally and physically. When Forsyth asked Trudell what
"I want it to be not abnormal to see a woman in a hard hat."
kind of person is successful in the skilled trades, Trudell told her someone with a strong will and thick skin.
“This is definitely one of those careers that there’s going to be some negativity around you just because you’re a woman. That can be hard sometimes.”
For Forsyth, pursuing a career as an electrician means finally having steady pay and regular hours. That’s a welcome change from her previous job as a bartender and server. And it means she'll get to spend more time with her son. Both Trudell and Forsyth say that they would like to see more women in the trade.
“We went through statistics, it was only like nine percent of the construction trade is women. What I want to see is just more inclusion on the job site, you know. I want it to be not abnormal to see a woman in a hard hat,” Forsyth said.
And the skilled trades would be better off with more women, Trudell said, because they bring important strengths to the job. She says without competitive machismo, women are often more aware of safety issues. And as moms, Trudell told Forsyth, they’ve honed the ability to tune things out and focus in the middle of a chaotic situation—a particularly useful skill when you are on a work site with heavy equipment, saws buzzing, people yelling, and sparks flying.