Woodworking, like many other trades, has stereotypically been practiced by men while women have historically been discouraged from the field by society. Statistics on the construction trades show that in 2020 only 3.2% of carpenters in the United States were women.
What happens in schools is part of the problem. Industrial arts teacher Tim Zavacki says students have shared stories of guidance counselors pushing female students towards art classes versus shop, trade or engineering classes.
Young women like Alyssa Fiantaco see this as a big problem because for her woodworking has proven very beneficial.
“With woodworking, not only did I develop a really nice skill that I can take off with in the future, but I also learned a lot of life lessons, like that any mistake you make can be fixed as long as you’re willing to fix it.”
She has also learned to look at things at a different angle to get around any obstacle she encounters and concludes, “Woodworking is more than just a life skill, it really teaches you to think outside the box.”
Above and beyond the valuable life lessons she learned from woodworking, she’s making it a career by launching her own business. Even before graduating from Henry Ford II High School in Michigan earlier this month, she had projects lined up.
Image: Christopher Davis
Breaking barriers to building the world girls want to see
Unfortunately, it is very common for women to be discouraged or afraid of taking up carpentry, she admits. It can appear as a difficult or even dangerous activity and since women aren’t commonly seen in the shop, some feel intimidated.
Zavacki’s former student Alisson Egerer, who took three years of woodworking before graduating from high school in 2019, talked about her fear of using the table saw after it kicked back on her once. Although it didn’t hit her, she was scared it would do something like that again, but her teacher patiently stood near her and encouraged her to try again.
Zavacki himself advises, “Encourage female students to use the equipment and provide them the support needed to operate that equipment independently after being trained how to safely use the equipment. They may be scared at first, but positive reinforcement helps build their sense of comfort.”
Egerer, who has long overcome her fear, now reports, “A month ago I helped my friend build his deck. I was able to cut the wood and all that because I knew what I was doing with measurements and stuff like that. It was kind of cool to do something really big with what I knew.”
Yet, both of the young women we interviewed have seen other girls drop out of woodworking classes. Some have been discouraged by family members, relatives or even friends.
“When I started there was one girl in my group who loved doing woodwork,” recalls Fiantaco. “But other people like her family and significant other didn’t want her doing it and tore her down. I’d encourage her “let’s work on this!” and she’d just spark up while working.”
It is very unfortunate to see young women like her classmate give up great opportunities because of other people’s opinions, notes Fiantaco, who wishes others had the same support she had from her parents, especially her dad. Despite family and friends, a good support system in schools and supportive teachers can be part of the solution.
There are many ways teachers can help students face these challenges and ensure a better experience for them at the workshop.
Emily Pilloton, an educator with a background in architecture and construction, has dedicated herself to creating a supportive environment where girls aren’t afraid to build.
“To give girls the tools to build the world they want to see,” she founded the nonprofit Girls Garage, a design-and-build program and dedicated workspace for girls and female-identifying youth. Since 2013, her team has mentored nearly 500 girls from the East Bay of San Francisco in carpentry and welding who have built real-world projects for their community.
Riding the wave of student interest and engagement
Zavacki also advocates for allowing student choice to keep projects gender-neutral. For example, when teaching about raised panels in woodworking he allows them to choose something that incorporates the procedure that fits their taste.
Image: Christopher Davis
“Allowing project flexibility helps draw students into the course while providing them a sense of ownership instead of making something they have no value in.”
Christopher Davis, Fiantaco’s woodworking teacher, recommends that teachers get away from traditional woodworking projects.
“It was my sophomore year and the first thing our teacher, Christopher Davis, said to us when we walked through that door was, ‘Who wants to build a stand up paddleboard?’ and I was like, ‘We can do that?’” recalls Fiantaco.
“Our projects are all based on student interest. Our main projects are paddleboards, surfboards, skateboards, and snowboards. We call ourselves the “Board Builders” and focus on building projects related to the action sports industry,” reports Davis.
After building these boards, students ride them so they can test how each board rides when different materials, shapes, and molds are used. The kids will build boards to fit the kind of ride that they want and that takes learning to the next level.
Fiantaco, who recently won the 2021 Breaking Traditions Award from the Department of Education, reports that there are many more girls in woodworking classes at her school, which she believes is directly connected with Davis’ beliefs that girls like her are capable of doing a great job if they want to.
Davis himself attributes the growth in the number of females signing up for his classes to girls like Alyssa who’ve taken an interest in the class combined with the projects we are making.
Similarly for Egerer, seeing the different types of projects she could make got her in the woodshop door. “Something caught my eye and I was like ‘wow, I want to do this!’”
Taking action to attract more interest in woodworking
While there’s still a long way to go, these small steps in woodshops around the country are slowly making a difference. In a recent article in Family Handyman, Ashley Papa reports that interest levels in skilled trade careers in home renovation are almost as high for females as males among high school students, partially due to high school class/training programs, social media and actual home improvement project experience.
Mark Smith, industrial technology teacher at Reed-Custer High School in Illinois, has also seen more females in his program the past few years. He points to possible reasons.
“First are changes in the school culture, meaning girls are now encouraged to take CTE classes, which wasn’t the case back when I was young. Another might be setting up a curriculum that’s friendly to both males and females. Thirdly, industry is more open to hiring females in what was traditionally seen as only for males. Finally, high school counselors are steering more females into classes that used to be ‘boys only.’”
As Davis said, seeing other young women creating amazing things in the shop is a huge piece of getting more girls to sign up for woodworking in high school. We also asked the recent graduates we interviewed what they’d say to other girls like them.
“It’s definitely beneficial for girls to try something like this, just because not very many girls know about tools and doing projects like these with their hands. So, I would definitely say ‘just to try it out and see if you like it, because even if you don’t like it, you still learn from it,’” says Egerer.
“When I first walked into it, I really thought I was going to be out of place, that I wasn’t going to be able to do many things or that people were going to look at me differently, but once I started doing it I couldn’t stop. It was different. It made me feel as if I was capable of doing a lot more than I thought I was,” says Fiantaco. “So honestly, I wish more girls would do it.”
Precisely to put the power these young women talk about into girls’ hands around the world, Emily Pilloton wrote “Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build the World You Want to See.” The 300-page book released this June features 175 illustrated tool guides, how-to projects, essential skills and inspiring stories from real-world builder girls and women.
Why the book? As Pilloton puts it, “When you search for ‘how to’ books, construction manuals, or even video tutorials on how to use tools, that content is almost always written by men for a primarily male audience. Of course, these books aren’t called, ‘Encyclopedia of Tools for Men,’ but they’re also not very inviting to all readers, especially if you’re a first-time builder.”
“I want girls, who have big dreams, goals, and ideas, to have zero barriers to access the tools they need to be successful. That tool might be a hammer, a little extra confidence to try something new, or the ability to see yourself in the world of STEM.”
Reaching out beyond school walls on social media is also important to both Smith and Davis.
Davis notes that shop teachers from all over the world follow each other’s Instagram accounts, and says, “It just takes a second to post a picture of a project that a student has made so the kids and community can see what you’re doing. The student is proud to be highlighted and it promotes your program.”