Illustration by Grace O’Keefe
There are plenty of construction workers in the city. It is common to see cones blocking the street, yellow tape, power tools, big trucks, cement being restored, and neon vests. What is uncommon to see is women wearing them, handling them, driving them, or using them. Today, construction is heavily male dominated, with women making up only one percent of its workers. Construction, tech, the film industry, the position of CEO, and most fields of science continue to be industries that are highly gender segregated.
Some jobs are labeled as “men’s work,” with gender roles so deeply ingrained that the profession is commonly accepted as a description of masculinity. This makes it difficult for women to take on certain positions. People aren’t used to seeing women in positions of power, or in jobs that require manual labor, as these have traditionally been male roles.
At Berkeley High School (BHS), students interested in the tech or the construction industry can choose the robotics or carpentry classes as electives. It is unsurprising that these classes are fairly homogeneous in terms of gender, although as the carpentry teacher, Matthew Wolpe, has said, “Our goal is definitely to have a 50/50 gender balance for next year and doing more outreach to female students.”
What inspired Sarah Blankespoor, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS), to take the carpentry class, was the skill set she will be able to apply in her future. “I chose carpentry because I think it’s important to know how to build and design physical objects,” she said. “I also enjoy working with power tools and machines such as the table saw and the drill press. Though I don’t want to be a carpenter, I do plan to use the skills I learn in this class in my career.”
Mailene Guerrero, a BHS junior, plans on studying at Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for eight years to get a PhD in mechanical engineering, and then joining the Air Force to ultimately be recruited by NASA. “I first decided I wanted to be an astronaut when I watched the Martian,” she said, “I think the fact that a whole team would go fly in a space shuttle is an extraordinary thing. It’s a rare moment you get to have when you go into the universe and you see the moon. You see stars fly past nebulas. You see the earth. You get to see the universe for what it really is and that’s extraordinary. Not a lot of people get to do that,” she said.
Even fewer women get to do that. Guerrero and Blankespoor are each one of the only female students in their classes. “I’ve watched documentaries,” Guerrero said. “I’ve heard stories. All females I’ve met, my mother, have been oppressed in some ways that are not as transparent as it was in the thirties. Oppressed by males saying, you can’t be an astronaut. Women can’t be astronauts.”
For women working in industries where they are underrepresented, there are many challenges, such as struggling to be visible and getting recognition. For example, the Nobel Prize in physics of 2018 was awarded to Donna Strickland, for her invention of the Chirped Pulse Amplification. She was the first woman in 55 years, and third woman ever, to be awarded. Women earning the Nobel Prize in physics is about as common as Halley’s Comet returning to Earth’s skies.
It is important to remember that, while we have made progress in abolishing gender roles since the thirties, our society was formed amidst deep sexism, in which women were expected to lead lives much more domestic than they are now, and most aspects of living were gender specific.
Women were denied the right to serve on a jury, buy athletic shoes, attend most ivy leagues, fight in combat, or practice law. Sexist ideals are still built into our institutions and perceptions.
“Being the only female, it’s an honor that I can even be in that class,” said Guerrero. Both Guerrero and Blankespoor described how male students in their electives will assume the role of leading. “To me,” Guererro said, “it felt like the boys were acting like somehow they knew exactly what they were doing and I had no idea what I was doing.”
There is more pressure for girls breaking into environments that have a long history of being men’s work to avoid mistakes. As Blankespoor said, “In advanced classes that are mostly male, I feel less confident giving answers out loud and volunteering my solutions. I feel more pressure to be correct in order to represent women well.” Even in introductory classes, female students have to prove themselves and their gender.
The gender disparity that we see in high school is a preview of how different fields will be divided in the future. “Better class advertising or exposure to Carpentry could encourage more girls to take the class,” Blankespoor said. Although it is difficult to be part of the gender minority, these electives can be really good experiences for anyone.
“I didn’t think it would meet my expectations,” BHS freshman Liza Gitelman said, “but it did. A lot. The robot we’re making now has a claw that can close and open. We’re connecting it to a controller so you can move it around.”
The robotics and carpentry classes are great opportunities to learn, build, and create. As more and morefemale students take these classes, other girls may be able to see places for themselves in them.
“When I do become an astronaut,” Guerrero said, “I feel that could open up other females’ lives.”