What I Learned About The Gender Gap As a Woman Working in Manual Labor

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What I Learned About The Gender Gap As a Woman Working in Manual Labor

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And what it's really like when you're one of the only women in your workplace

When I was a kid, my Grandpa taught me to paint, do carpentry, caulk, lay tile – things most children aren’t taught, especially girls. I remember a conversation with Grandpa when I was maybe four. Working on a lawnmower, he said to me, “It’s important you learn these things. If you know how to do them, you’ll always be able to find work.”

“But I’m a girl…” I said.

“When you’re grown-up, girls will be doing this work all the time.”

He was kind of right, you do occasionally see women in these roles, but even today, the old-school misogynistic sorts are still in charge the vast majority of the time.

96.4% of foremen are men, mostly middle-aged white men. And the 3.6% of foremen that are female are paid less, on average, than their male equals.

More broadly, women employed in majority-male workplaces report experiencing gender discrimination at significantly higher rates. They are less likely to feel treated fairly in personnel matters and find it harder to advance in male-dominated environments.

Through my own experience I’ve found that it’s not that there wouldn’t be such a big gender gap if more women worked in manual labor. It’s that more women would work in manual labor if there weren’t such glaring gender gaps in the field.

I got my first manual labor job at 25, working on the horse farm where I went to summer camp as a kid. By the time I was 28, I was working at an organic farm, growing 186 tomato plants in one of my greenhouses, and hundreds of basil, sage, oregano, and parsley in the other. I started them from seed in the spring and grew them all the way up through the fall – pruning, watering, and harvesting each day.

When COVID hit a few years later, I was laid off from the farm, but quickly found a job as a residential painter. The work was high-pressure. All of our clients were millionaires, leaving little room for error. Everything had to look perfect under a 600-lumen light. Having painted, stained, and varnished at other jobs, I had more experience than most of the guys, but was honestly excited about the challenge.

I started off working in the paint shop where we prepped materials destined for the construction site. My boss there was a woman we’ll call Holly. She had exceptional skills, was a good trainer, and was very hands-on. The other boss, in charge of job sites, I’d only met in passing. But it was clear early on that leadership, to him, didn’t entail working side-by-side like it did for Holly. He was the sit-and-watch kind, who spoke down to everyone, but especially Holly and me. And while I had a great reputation among my coworkers, when the company underwent a reorganization, he started hovering over my work all the time.

He’d give me misleading instructions, and then, at the last minute, correct me, wasting weeks of labor and incalculable expense to the company and clients. Once, after spending weeks perfecting a room, I turned around to find him leaning against the recently painted doorway.

“Dude, that’s not totally dry yet,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said with a grimace, still leaning. “Well, this is all the wrong color. It’s supposed to be white dove, not dove wing.”

White dove is a lighter shade of cream than dove wing, which means it’s hard to paint over without it showing through. The cabinetry would have to be repainted with several coats to correct the color. As he was looking around, shining a flashlight on the cabinetry, I could tell he was up to something.

“These brush strokes are supposed to be up-and-down, not side-to-side,” he said.

I was enraged. We’d had a whole conversation confirming the plans before I’d started. The work I’d done matched the plans he’d printed out and taped to the window. But when I pointed to it, he just chuckled.

“Guess you’ll have to fix it. The power sander is by the staging. Do you know how to use one?”

He knew I did. He was taunting me – as usual.

As much as he talked down to everyone, subtle sexism was particularly entertaining to him, making a job I loved almost insufferable.

A few months later, I was painting a stairway when he came up yet again in muddy boots, despite the socks-only policy. “No boots,” I reminded. But he kept trudging up, kicking mud onto wet paint, then proceeded to pat the top of my head like I was a dog.

It was my breaking point. I called out his blatant disrespect, the ramifications his actions had on the company, and pointed out that, in the end, it was all just self-sabotage because it made him look like an incompetent supervisor. The plumbers and electricians meeting in the apartment stopped talking. Their heads turned, mouths ajar. He quietly took off his boots and never came up in them again.

Eventually, he was relocated. At that point, one of my coworkers encouraged me to ask for more, since my work was no longer being undermined and sabotaged. So I did. The GM agreed, but as I walked away, I heard him sigh, “Ugh, shit” under his breath. I laughed to myself. It never ends.

Physical labor is rewarding and I enjoy the work. To me, there is nothing more personally satisfying than seeing my finished product. Grandpa would have been proud. Especially when I stood by my work and defended myself. That said, I shouldn’t have had to.

In my experience, there’s a misconception that women can’t do the same quality work men can do, physically or otherwise, and therefore should be paid less. And it’s this pervasive misogyny that keeps more women from pursuing or remaining in these industries, not a lack of interest or ability.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to working on job sites or farms like I used to, but I do miss it. And it saddens me that I felt pushed out because of inequity, not just my own evolving interests.

I still dream of restoring antique furniture, and my new house has the perfect space for it. Plus there’s no misogynistic boss in my own basement.

For more like this, check out:

3 Subtle Ways Women Are Undermined At Work – And How To Handle Them

6 Ways Your Next Salary Negotiation Can Backfire – And What To Do Next

How Your Coworker’s Bad Behavior Can Hurt Your Career

What to Say When You Hear “Women Just Choose Lower Paying Jobs”

And if you know someone who can relate, please share.

Image: Westend61/Westend61 via GettyImages

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