Homophobia Hinders Women in Building Trades

Women_workers_in_snoods_1942Despite women’s interest in well-paying blue-collar careers, tradeswomen currently comprise less than 2 percent of the workforce in building trades nationwide. Being one of the few high-paying careers for people without a college degree, trade workers also benefit from having unions, yet the barriers to entry for women remain high.

A new study, “Gendered Homophobia and the Contradictions of Workplace Discrimination for Women in the Building Trades,” published in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society, provides insight on the way gender and sexual discrimination dissuade women from joining the blue-collar ranks.

Sociologists Amy Denissen (California State University, Northridge) and Abigail Saguy (University of California, Los Angeles) interviewed 63 women and apprentices in the construction trades, including electricians, surveyors, carpenters and metal workers). The interviewees varied by race, age, years working in the trades and sexual orientation.

Denissen and Saguy explain that when women enter trade work, men often feel threatened. This stems from the building trades being traditionally seen as “men’s work.” The study finds that tradeswomen are sexually objectified and occupationally discriminated against in an attempt to neutralize the threat tradeswomen pose to men’s perceived right of privileged access to these lucrative careers.

While more than half of the women identified as straight, their male colleagues typically perceived them as lesbians and “not real women.” Tradesmen sexualize both straight and lesbian women, delegitimating them in the workplace.

Because tradeswomen challenge stereotypes about femininity, both straight and lesbian tradeswomen are subject to homophobia. However, Denissen notes that lesbian tradeswomen face greater risks in navigating their sexual identity in the workplace.

Lesbian tradeswomen, in addition to facing additional scrutiny as women, must also assess whether to reveal or conceal their sexual identity. Whether tradeswomen are open, closed or selective about their sexual orientation, most are still subjected to hostile advances and face greater pressures when reporting these events.

  • According to the research, women who complain are sometimes labeled as “sexual harassment lady” or “looking for a lawsuit.”
  • One respondent, “fearing for her job … initially refused to report a sexual assault incident but ultimately did so, upon the urging of the superintendent and the coworker who witnessed the assault.” She never saw the assailant again.
  • Hostile working conditions included having electrical wires turned on while tradeswomen were working on them, having tools dropped on them or finding feces in their hard hats.

Lesbian tradeswomen are hesitant to join forces with other tradeswomen, gay or straight, to protect themselves and other tradeswomen from gendered homophobia and discrimination in the workplace. However, the authors note that there are coalition-building activities, such as tradeswomen’s conferences and active online tradeswomen’s groups. More specifically, the authors suggest that encouraging men to join forces with women to work towards improved working conditions may prove most successful in eliminating gender and sexual discrimination in the trades.

Photo of two women workers in 1942 from Wikimedia Commons

Sociologists for Women in Society works to improve women’s lives through advancing and supporting feminist sociological research, activism and scholars. Founded in 1969, SWS is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 1,000 members in the U.S. and overseas. For more information, contact Dr. Joey Sprague, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas and SWS executive officer, at jsprague@ku.edu. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. seattlite says:

    I think this is a bit outdated. As a gay woman on a construction site, i have never really had much of a problem with homophobia. I also think things have taken great leaps and bounds since the late 90’s as far as women being accepted on the job site. Yes you will still find some men not okay with women; but once you prove yourself as willing to do the work and pull your share, they usually get past it. I also believe that women that want to work in the trades have to speak up if they find some behaviour offensive. Guys do on the job what they have always done…. their language isn’t going to change just because a women is there……just like they aren’t going to stop talking about sports, fishing/hunting and cars.

    • That is great to hear! I’m glad you are having a positive work experience on your construction sites. It is very encouraging. I have unfortunately experienced consistent gender discrimination at my fire station. I find the fire departments here in Canada to be extremely homophobic. There are very few women employed and/or interested in joining for this very reason. There needs to be continual education within the department among all the members that homophobic attitudes negatively affect everyone in the workplace. I agree with Glenn below. The unions must be a part of the solution in order for change to occur.

  2. As the picture above shows, women can do any job a man can do, and if not for them in (then) non-traditional jobs, we would have lost WWII. As for the building trades today, there is widespread discrimination against women, although plenty of women would love to do these high-paying union jobs. Like minorities before them (and still), the building trade unions have to open their doors to women and actively recruit them into the unions and union apprentice training programs. If the unions don’t act on this, nothing will change. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  3. I agree with Seattlite. This is outdated. I am in my second nontraditional job. I work in Bronx NY. Men’s attitudes have improved since the ’80’s. Men are willing to give a woman the opportunity if she asks for it. They are surprised. Their attitudes are shaped by the women in their lives; wives, daughters who have traditional values and roles. A woman has to prove herself. A man is assumed competent. She has to be able to do all aspects of the job on a level equal to men to be accepted. I have not encountered sexual harassment. Men mind their manners. Men treat women better than they treat each other. They are not nice to each other. Don’t wait for the unions to actively recruit women. Encourage women interested in construction work to get the training and apply for jobs.

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