Alivia Allen places a beam clamp that will help hold the weight of the iron beam while it is being moved into place.
Alivia Allen places a beam clamp that will help hold the weight of the iron beam while it is being moved into place.

hen Alivia Allen was little, she played with Barbie dolls but also rode dirt bikes and four-wheelers.

She remembers hitting a rock and being thrown from the four-wheeler. Get back up, her father told her. Don’t be scared.

Father and daughter tinkered on cars together, getting their hands dirty in the garage, her father taking note of how much she enjoyed the work and calling her the son he never had.

Allen, now 18, is the first female structural ironworker in the erector division at JPW Companies in Syracuse. Did her father’s encouragement help her succeed as a woman in a profession still thoroughly dominated by men? Allen thinks so, and the research backs her up. The authors of a 2017 study found that rigidly enforced gender norms can negatively affect everything from childhood development to long-term health and happiness.

Despite the impact of gender stereotyping at a young age, it is likely just one of many factors that have virtually shut women out of many high-paying professions. Experts say sexual harassment in the workplace, a lack of female role models, and out-right discrimination also play a role. And despite progress in recent years in some fields, experts worry that COVID-19 could set women’s workforce progress backward.

Overall, women have made significant gains in the workplace and now hold 46.8% of all jobs in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics. This increase in participation of women in the workforce may be in part due to the increase in women attending college. By 2026, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 57% of college students will be women. Yet, despite this increase in participation, few women study and work in STEM and the trades, creating male-dominated cultures that don’t support or attract women.

The most male-dominated professions in 2020 were construction and extraction; installation, maintenance and repair; architecture and engineering; transportation and material moving; and protective services like security, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons are among the most segregated professions with women only holding 0.3% of those jobs. And that’s unlikely to change soon, since college majors that would feed those professions are also the most male dominated, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The narrative that boys have more innate ability in math and technical subjects is one of many destructive misconceptions about gender difference, according to the American Psychological Association. The myth of the “math brain” has discouraged many girls from STEM subjects, despite research showing that girls outperform boys in school. Unfortunately, research also indicates that girls have greater anxiety towards math and less confidence in tackling math problems, which can negatively affect their math skills as early as second grade.

“I feel like when I was growing up, there was this idea that you either have a math brain or you don’t have a math brain,” said Elizabeth Carter, an assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering at Syracuse University.

Another key factor perpetuating the gender gap is a lack of female role models to inspire interest in these fields. Even media representation of women STEM characters has been limited, despite research showing that media is influential in shaping attitudes toward STEM. Research has even found “The Scully Effect”: A measurable increase in the number of women entering the sciences as a result of the 1990s show “The X Files,” which starred Gillian Anderson as Dr. Dana Scully.

One woman Carter looked up to was her master’s advisor. Carter was the only female member of her lab group when she was a doctoral student and worked on an all-male intergovernmental team as a postdoc. Having a woman advisor greatly aided Carter in learning to excel in a male-domnated workplace.

“My female role model was a life changer for me,” Carter said. “I never would have gotten as far as I did without her.”

More often than not women only enter trades or STEM occupations because one of their family members or role models works in the profession, said Ariane Hegewisch, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s pay-equity guru. Hegewisch emphasized the importance of women having a strong support system.

Allen, the structural ironworker, agreed.

“I get frustrated easily and I would not have had the patience to stay at welding and keep with it as long as I have if it wasn’t for my parents and teachers,” Allen said. It was Allen’s dad that first exposed her to welding at age 11. “I had just walked into the garage and he was welding and he was like ‘Hey, come try this!’” she said.

Although girls tend to take more career and technical high school courses, they often sign up for traditional “feminime” programs like cosmetology, child care, and health services while men take agriculture, engineering, construction and repair, automotive, and precision production programs.

Research also suggests blue-collar training benefits men more than women. Vocational training programs are more expensive, less supportive, and less effective for women than they are for men.

Allen holds a beam clamp used to help place iron beams.
Allen and her co-worker prepare to place an iron beam.

“I think a part of it that is intimidating for a lot of girls is the fact that there are guys there and the teachers for all those classes are guys,” Allen said. “And then all the teachers for cosmetology and nursing and childhood education are all women so they feel more comfortable in those classes.”

Another factor: Sexual harassment. In 2016, at least 25% of women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated. The problem is at its worst in traditionally male, hierarchical organizations, like the military. More than 60% of women employed in male-dominated workplaces reported sexual harassment as a problem in their industry, a Pew Research Center survey found.

“Sexual harassment is one way to belittle women to keep them out,” Hegewisch said.

When Allen was in the welding program at BOCES, the regional high schools that house most of the vocational in New York, teenage boys always had something to say to her.

“A couple kids in BOCES would always say sexually suggestive things,” she said. “I got so sick of it because I had already told them it wasn’t funny and it made me uncomfortable, so I reported one kid.”

Male-dominated organizational cultures also have a history of gender wage gaps, bias performance evaluations favoring males, and limited career development and mentoring resources for women that negatively affect women.

Hegewisch said middle-skill occupations often require apprenticeships and on-the-job learning, which can discriminate against women considering the trade. “There’s a bigger element of finding men who are willing to teach you and to take you seriously and let you in,” she said.

Once in an organization, women may see less room for growth and even fewer role models of rank since women are less likely to advance. “The further up you go, the fewer women there are,” Hegewisch said, adding that companies that have poor human resource processes and don’t regularly check on diversity also make it harder for women to rise.

The “broken rung” is one reason for this, as it slows women’s progress up the career ladder due to there being fewer women in the talent pipeline to hire or promote other women to senior-level positions. Other explanations include women being less willing to take on a leadership role in a male dominated environment, leadership being more easily welcomed when it stems from traditions within a culture and societal expectations and beliefs about women’s leadership abilities creating a no-win situation for women leaders. Regardless of the root cause, the outcome is clear: Women CEOs represent 37, or 7.4%, of Fortune 500 companies in 2020.

There is no doubt that trucking is a male-dominated industry, but one that Rhonda Rowser has broken into as a driver for Walmart. She said that the men at her job treat her female boss differently than their male counterparts.

“‘Oh, this is not right. That’s not right.’ Ain’t nothing right, but if she was a man, you wouldn’t be doing all of that,” she said.

Because she is a woman, the male workers constantly challenge her authority and expertise.

“If she was a man,” Rowser said of her boss, “they wouldn’t be complaining so much.”

The “motherhood penalty,” which plays a huge role in shutting women out of leadership positions and lower wages, also implicitly discriminates against women trying to enter male-dominated fields, even if they don’t have children. The 2018 Modern Family Index reported that 21% of women are nervous to tell their boss they are pregnant, and 65% of women without children are nervous about having a child, including 42% who fear it would negatively impact their career trajectory.

“If you’re out of the workforce for more than six months, it can be very hard to catch up,” Hegewisch said, adding that promotions also often occur during the age range when women have kids.

In high-earning jobs, people are expected to work almost around the clock while in low-earning jobs people’s work schedules are often unpredictable— two facts that put women at a disadvantage. This can make arranging child care especially difficult with most employers still not offering necessary benefits such as paid parental leave or flexible work schedules that could help balance women’s work and family life. The high cost of  child care also pushes many women out of the workforce, and is particularly problematic for women building their careers.

Rhonda Rowser smiles on a wintery day.

As a single parent of two twin daughters, Carter never really felt like she was able to talk openly about the fact that she had kids, getting time off, or even dealing with how much time her particular family situation required of her.

“I was doing research and computational engineering, but the hardest math I had to do was making my budget close at the end of every month,” she said.

According to the Pew Research Center, women are more likely to reduce their work hours, take time off from work, turn down a promotion or quit a job to care for a family member and less likely to get raises or promotions. This may be because women spend more time on housework and child care than men, even in families in which both parents work full time. Because women are more likely to work fewer hours than men, they experience the wage penalty more often, according to the Center for American Progress.

“The problem is when your male colleagues don’t have to weigh the same potential risks and penalties that are going to pull really qualified female engineers out of the field,” Carter said.

Most of the women that Rowser has tried to recruit into trucking all want to be owner operators.

“They want to be their own boss,” she said. “They don’t want to work for nobody.”

She believes a part of this decision may be because it allows women to have more time with their family.

Sociologists have also found that women leaders must work harder than men for the same recognition because of negative stereotypes and doubts from their male coworkers about their competence.

“What that looks like for me is a baseline amount of work or prep or time spent talking to my male colleagues to convince them that I have a very, very general skill set that would be assumed of my male coworkers,” Carter said.

Sometimes men will offer to help Rowser with various jobs like bringing her an empty trailer after dropping off a loaded trailer for the “novelty” of working with a female.

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“It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have a constant reminder that you’re a woman,” she said. “They always automatically think you need help just because you’re a woman.”

Rowser said her male trainers have been very respectful. But some male drivers still don’t expect women on the job site.

“They even use our bathrooms just because it’s available, but this is the women’s bathroom,” she said. “I don’t care if you have to go. Wait for whoever comes out of the men’s bathroom.”

Finding functional clothes for women in male-dominated professions can also be challenging.

“No one makes warm women’s clothing,” Allen said. “My boots are men’s because they don’t make the ones that I wanted in women’s. I just had to buy men’s long johns and I look stupid in them because they don’t make them for women, and it sucks. They don’t fit right. They are fit for a man.”

Pioneering women like Allen, Carter, and Rowser put up with these challenges — and more. In the process, they are breaking boundaries and creating toe-holds in male-dominated professions for other women.

“We’re catching up,” Rowser said. “Slowly, but surely.”