The struggle to add more women to the workforce in certain male-dominated fields has taken on new vigor as a recovering economy demands more skilled workers.
A half dozen women recently sat around a table at a Detroit studio, leaning in as instructor Ralph Taylor taught them how to weld.
“It’s all right if you try and mess up. Everyone messes up,” Taylor told his students, trying to put them at ease and push them to take risks at the same time. “You don’t have to become a welder when you finish this program. It might be a springboard to something else.”
The women in the 12-day welding class — many of them single mothers and living in temporary shelters — are working with a new nonprofit group, Women Who Weld, to teach welding skills, with the intent of increasing the number of women in a trade in which more than 95 percent of the workers are men, according to the U.S. labor department.
Taylor said women who weld deserve the same respect — and pay — as men in the trade.
The struggle to add more women to the workforce in certain male-dominated fields has taken on new vigor as a recovering economy demands more skilled workers, and as more women fill top executive positions in business and government.
“It is not an easy trade, but it’s not impossible,” said Samantha Farr, who founded Women Who Weld while attending the University of Michigan. “In the end, my goal is not just to teach women to weld, but find them jobs that are welding related.”
Women have been fighting to enter all sorts of jobs for decades and, along the way, battling sexism and inequality.
Millions of women took jobs in American factories during World War II while men were on the front lines, giving rise to the term and image of Rosie the Riveter.
Rosie — which, in a promotional film was played by a Rose Monroe, a real-life riveter in the Detroit area — became a cultural icon, a symbol of the benefits and potential of American women entering the workforce, helping pave the way for future generations.
“There’s a new mind-set in women in that they don’t have to stick with traditional roles,” said Jane Owen, a certified executive coach and president of executive group Vistage Michigan. Only about 5 percent of the group’s membership is women. “As women ascend, there is potential to bring other women with them. They pull other women up.”
“You talk about women welders — that’s an area that, obviously, many women aren’t in,” said Tanya Allen, the president of the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, a nonprofit group with about 5,000 members nationally.
Allen, who heads an organization dedicated to helping women in business as well as a company that sells feminine hygiene products, said that even the ranks of businesses like hers — that market and sell products specifically for women — men dominate the leadership ranks.
“There’s more awareness now,” she said of gender inequality. “But we still aren’t anywhere near where we should be.”
Farr, a 29-year-old urban planner, said she became a welder in graduate school. Her great grandfather was a welder. She said she was drawn to welding when she watched male University of Michigan students work on projects in the fabrication lab.
She thought she might benefit from learning the skill, so she took a class.
“It loved it,” she said. “It felt natural, relaxing.”
She took an independent study to learn more, and then, she decided to teach other women how to weld. She created a nonprofit group and applied for grants to pay instructors and purchase equipment. Farr said she hopes to offer more welding workshops for women.
Welding jobs, she said, are in demand.
Welding has long been considered a dirty job, with smoke-filled air and sparks flying, which may be one reason why it has been seen as a man’s job, said Cindy Weihl, a senior manager of public relations at the American Welding Society.
But Weihl said there are many types of welding jobs — and some are quite different from the stereotypical image. The trade group is working to change the perception that it’s a man’s job — and recruit women.
“Women,” Weihl said, “tend to be better welders. They tend to pay more attention to detail and are patient.”
Taylor, who has been welding for more than 30 years and is a former Detroit Public Schools instructor, said he believes that if there are going to be more women in the industry, the attitudes of women — and men — must change.
More women, he said, need the confidence to do the job; and more men need to accept women in the industry.
Taylor’s students said they are eager to take on the challenge of welding.
“When you think welding, you think it’s a man’s job,” said Brittany Shepherd, 26. “You don’t think about women doing it.”
The Detroiter said she’s held several different jobs since earning her high school equivalency diploma: lifeguard, factory worker, home health care. Her dream, she added, would be to be an underwater archaeologist, but having a job as an underwater welder would be the next best thing.
And Daniela Hagen, who also is taking the class, said she wants to try to make to make a career of welding.
“Now, anybody can do anything,” Hagen, 23, said. “Any girl can do construction. Any girl can do plumbing. And any girl can do welding. It’s not just for men. Women can do exactly what men can do. We just need to not be scared to try.”