I was never intimidated by boys. I have five brothers, and, as I was growing up, most of the kids in the neighborhood were boys. So I was actually more comfortable in a setting surrounded by boys. I spent a fair amount of time “tinkering” as a kid and was always intrigued by creating things with my hands. In high school, I decided to take a shop class, but was really disappointed to learn that shop was only for boys. What was this “only for boys” BS? I could throw a football as far as the rest of them, even better than some. And I know I was faster than most.
Needless to say I was not very excited about taking the sewing class that was “highly recommended.” I was told that knowing how to sew would come in really handy some day.
I’m still waiting for that day.
Still, I made the best of it and decided to “build” a pair of plaid pants. True to the building bug that was inside of me, I was obsessed with aligning each line in the pattern.
Fast-forward through high school and a couple of years in college. The urge to learn how to build had not subsided. I decided to take a woodworking class at the local technical college. I loved every minute of it and the instructor paid me no special attention because I was the only girl in the class – and the youngest student by far. I thought it quite interesting whenever I approached the massive table saw in the shop. You could almost see the tension rise as all the other students would rush to offer me advice on how to use it. They were also extremely quick to share “horror” stories of accidents that had happened while using a table saw.
Fast-forward many more years and I am sitting with a group of large men in a weeklong Blacksmithing course. Most of these men were welding instructors at universities. As they all introduced themselves, and their impressive backgrounds in metalsmithing and blacksmithing, the instructor turned to me and asked “Are you sure you are in the right class?” I smiled, and responded “I am.” He had the same puzzled look as everyone else in the room when he asked why I had taken the workshop. I responded, “I built a barn out of timbers from a barn that was taken down and I’d like to learn how to build hinges for the doors I built.” Needless to say, I spent a week with some pretty wonderfully talented blacksmiths who welcomed me with many questions about my barn.
I find it so strange that on so many levels, women are seen as not capable. I called in to a talk show on NPR one afternoon to defend the fact that women and men should make the same money on a construction site. One of the callers argued that there was not one woman who could possibly lift two bundles of shingles onto a roof (they weigh 80 pounds each). I called in to ask why anyone would lift that much weight and destroy their knees and back. I usually choose to have the shingles delivered to the roof with equipment that was designed to do just that, the heavy lifting. So YES, women deserve the same pay on construction sites because it is not about working harder, it is about working SMARTER.
I share all of this because almost 15 years ago I started Girls at Work, Inc. and the mission was to empower girls at risk through building. However, I have had so many requests to offer classes for women that it became evident it was worth considering. Unlike the young girls we build with who arrive with a tinge of fear and a great deal of excitement and curiosity, women enter the shop filled with fear. It’s amazing to see what happens when you have had a lifetime of believing you are not capable of using power tools.
Our girls enter the shop area and are excited to try their hand at every tool that is before them while the women in our workshops rate how much they can get hurt with each power tool. However, we use a very gentle approach, acknowledging the fear – and it seems to work very well. We have even had women walk away in tears after using a compound mitre saw for the very first time because they are so overwhelmed at what they are capable of.
Although our overall goal is to provide a powerful experience to young girls who feel defined by their failures, it’s pretty rewarding to know that women overcome many of the same issues in our classes. Women add another level of excitement to our workshops as every now and then there is one who suggests that beer and cigars would add to the experience!
Regardless of the age, building is a powerful experience for girls and women and the most amazing byproduct of the experience is what you learn about yourself in the process. So if you feel that you are not a builder’ and could never learn to use power tools, sign up! We’ll be happy to convince you otherwise.
Are you a woman who is interested in learning how to build things and to use power tools? Learn more about our Workshops for Women!