Women in Trades Blog Series #6: A Teacher’s Contribution

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Katie Wood Betanzo is a teacher in New Zealand who grew up in British Columbia. She is also an intellectual, a wife, and a mother. Here are her observations on what she is seeing in the field of education. I was captivated from start to finish…

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Q.

Can you tell us about you and your job role? How long have you been a teacher for?

A.

I teach English and Media Studies – basically, the subjects you either loved or hated in school. There’s no “meh” about it. I’ve been a teacher for 16 years and before that I was a teacher aide. Once upon a time I did my degree in Communication Studies (very pink collar!) with a major in journalism, then some years later I did a post grad in secondary teaching. I’m currently assistant head of English faculty and am a within school leader for our community of learning (basically, a network of local schools working together to improve pathways for all students.)

I should also mention an inherent bias I have toward trades: my dad’s a carpenter and both my brothers are builders.

Q.

What trends have you noticed across your teaching career in regard to female students entering trades programs/courses?

A.

As a bit of an aside, I have to say that high schools remain extremely focused on preparing students for university, I suppose because we don’t want to pigeonhole students too early, and on the theory (misguided, in my opinion) that if you’re academically prepared for university, you can do anything.

In New Zealand, over 50% of university students are now female. This is usually held up as a positive, but I wonder. For one thing, it doesn’t mean these young women are finding work; and it usually means they are accruing debt, which, coupled with the gender pay gap, has a serious impact on their finances in later life. I know women my age (40, thanks so much) who are still paying off student loans.

Another point we don’t really think about when we trumpet the number of girls heading for university is: where are the boys going? As educators, we are constantly looking at where our students are headed. Generally, it boils down to: university; polytech (aka, community college, I guess: I’m searching my mind for a BC equivalent – something like Malaspina or Camosun, I suppose – may grant undergrad degrees but primarily focused on industry/job related shorter courses); apprenticeships; police or military; or direct to the workforce. The vast majority of those going into apprenticeships are young men, as are the majority of applicants to the police and the military – and these options don’t come with student loans. So, young women are almost by default heading to university or polytech.

As far as trends are concerned: frankly, at least in this part of the world, little has changed. I did a quick and dirty survey of the technology courses offered at my school, which include: computer applications, computer programming, building, graphic design, engineering, electronics, mechatronics (aka robotics), hospitality, food, and fabrics. Boys outnumber girls in every single class at all levels, except for the last three, which are dominated by girls. My math is rusty so I called on an internet calculator, and I think I can say with confidence that in the classes where boys outnumber girls, they do so by a ratio of approximately 6 to 1. It’s a brave girl who sticks it out in such an environment.

You know, societal bias shows itself in funny ways. Last winter we took the kids skiing (a major undertaking here!) and, as I was unwilling to pay top dollar for a pair of “proper” ski pants that I would use for only a weekend, I went looking for waterproof pants at a local department store. Nothing, nada, in the women’s section. So I popped into the men’s section, and lo and behold, an entire section of windproof, waterproof, warm gear. I was taken aback until I registered that this was the “tradies” label – intended for people who work outside in all weathers, by extension: men.

Q.

Can you talk about the good things you are seeing as more female students pursue traditionally male dominated careers?

A.

There is a push toward encouraging girls into STEM (or STEAM) careers, although this is coming largely from universities, rather than schools or apprenticeships. I’m not sure what the pathways are in Canada, but here the traditional apprenticeship model still holds true – the majority of tradies get their training on the job. While there is a slow increase in women in trades, it seems to me that this happens after they finish school – girls don’t leave school intending to go into an apprenticeship (with the exception of farming).

I think there’s an opportunity here for life to imitate art, if only art would give us some great role models. There has been actual research lately into the anecdotal “Scully effect” which is women pursuing science careers after being inspired by Dana Scully of The X Files. SeeJane.org calls this “If she can see it, she can be it.” But when’s the last time we saw a woman portrayed in a trade in a major film or on a TV series? Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, maybe? And that was more or less, “Wow, she’s super sexy AND she’s good with cars? Amazing!” (And don’t get me started on the male gaze in those films – the less said the better. Not exactly a shining light of representation.)

The good things for the community about more young women entering trades are increased equality in the workforce, increased visibility, creating role models. Not to mention, being able to attract people who have aptitude in trades from 100% of the population, instead of only 50%!

As for girls entering trades – gosh. A job that interests them, that stimulates them, that keeps them physically active, that pays well (or should), without a student loan.

And of course, the more girls we can get into trades, the easier it becomes to convince girls to look into trades.

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Q.

Are there things you see that need to improve and do you have ideas on how to make those improvements?

A.

Yes! We currently have programmes through universities that target girls or indigenous students for particular areas of study. A similar programme targeting girls for apprenticeships would be a great start. But you know, we also need to start young. By age six, girls’ self-perception of their ability in math and science has begun to slide. Little boys get clothing emblazoned with monster trucks and dino skeletons. The ratio of boys to girls in what we call “tech” classes (6:1) is in place right from the beginning of our high school years – equivalent of grade 8. It takes a determined and very aware parent to circumvent that. I think also, a lot of parents still see university as a kind of holy grail for girls.

A lot of teen girls in my classes are also instagram-obsessed; they want to look pretty or sexy, and the prospect of getting grubby and wearing protective clothing probably isn’t that appealing.

Maybe we’re behind the times here – I don’t know. I know a few female tradies, but not a lot. We renovated this summer, and all our tradies – builder, hammerhand, plumber, plumber’s apprentice, sparky, plasterer, roofer – were male.

Q.

What, in your opinion, should the future of gender shared work places and educational spaces in trades industries look like?

A.

My goodness. This sounds like a small thing, but how about we begin by getting rid of gendered restrooms – or toilets as we like to call them here in the uncultured south. I know that for many tradespeople, toilet facilities are portaloos anyway, but where they aren’t, or in training facilities, a lack of female restrooms is a downside.

Likewise, as I discovered when buying waterproof pants, there isn’t a lot of “workwear” designed for women’s bodies, or even unisex clothing that is sized small enough to fit smaller women.

Ultimately, people of all genders should feel welcome into trades, and have their perspective celebrated. And that means the obvious things, like addressing ingrained and institutionalized sexism and misogyny, and the less obvious things, like restrooms and clothing. And – in my opinion the big one – attacking the unconscious bias held by parents and teachers that trades are for the boys.

Gloria Steinem said, “Though we have the courage to raise our daughters like our sons, we’ve rarely had the courage to raise our sons like our daughters,” but I think we still have a way to go to raise our daughters like our sons.

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Katie- thank you so much for taking the time to bring a teacher’s view into this conversation, it adds a very important layer! It is so encouraging to know teachers are out there being mindful of the larger picture for our young adults.

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