Homophobia Hinders Women in Building Trades

Despite 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.