By Stella Kemper
In my current makerspace, I had set aside time for shop maintenance and tool-building with a guy who would occasionally teach metalworking classes for us. As the morning went on, he (we’ll say Sean) teased me for letting him know when I was about to weld—so he could shield his eyes and avoid spark burns: “Wow, you’re so much safer than me! I just burn myself all the time, but I heal like Wolverine, so it’s fine.” He compliments my work, then proceeds tells me it ‘doesn’t have to be so good you know. I didn’t really bother to make it look that clean the first time.’
Sean’s work isn’t as good as mine. I’ve been doing it for longer, despite him being ten years older than me. I’m also just better at it; he’s a bad welder. He knows more than me about traditional sheetmetal working, but he also has never completed a large metal-only project, mostly using fiberglass paste instead. The tools we’re building take him just as long to make, and are inferior.
I can feel the pressure building up in me, the machismo that drives me nuts but also makes me want to show off my scars--my badges of honor-- to prove that I belong where I am. I pull off my left glove and show Sean the scar on my wrist where, alone in my garage at age 19, I had burned off two patches of skin with a welding torch in less than a second. One scar is now about the size of a dime, the other about the size of a half dollar. I tell him, “You know, this happened because I couldn’t buy women’s welding gloves. They didn’t make any, and I couldn’t find any small enough men’s gloves online or in stores. I had to weld for years in gardening gloves that don’t cover my wrists because they’re the only full-leather gloves that came in women’s sizes. All the gear I have now is women’s gear.” It had literally never occurred to Sean that women were inherently unsafe doing this work. I told him how women are expected to just wear men’s gear, which either doesn’t accommodate breasts and hips, or is so baggy the extra fabric is a safety hazard. Sean says, “You should start you’re own line of women’s workwear! Call it ‘Stella’s Clothes: For Girls Who Don’t Suck.’”
I went on with my work, neglecting to tell Sean that I don’t think that women suck by default. Somehow, I don’t think it would sink in. Later that week, I got a call from a student who had taken his class. She had injured her shoulder during his class because he never bothered to explain that there’s an ergonomic difference between swinging a hammer at 6’ versus 5’2”.
I wonder how many women leave trades, not because they’re ‘not cut out for it’ or because they ‘feel’ unwelcome, but because trades meant for men are inherently unsafe for women. There are currently 2 lines of women’s welding gear compared to the dozens available for men. My local welding shops have stopped restocking them past their initial shipment over a year ago because they say they don’t sell enough. The lines that are available are very incomplete and are more expensive than men’s gear.
If you go to a store that specializes in workwear, like Carharrt right now, women have maybe 1/4 the selection of men. Most of that selection won’t be workwear, instead it will be prominently-branded, properly-feminine clothes, like rhinestone-pocketed jeans and fleece pullovers, much in the same vein as the camo army jackets you can buy toddlers at military surplus stores. You’re not intended to DO anything in those clothes, just flaunt the brand. You can directly compare the exact same styles in men and women’s, pants, overalls, snow pants, work shirts. And the women’s gear overall is more expensive, more cheaply made, and less useful; from missing pockets to added elastic in the fabric, it is unsafe in a welding shop and less durable, period.
Shops online that specialize in work gear for women don’t have a much better selection. Their best-sellers are items that are identical to men’s—tool sets, hard hats, tool belts, “unisex” work gloves—except they’re pink. Because how else will we know it’s for us?
If your makerspace has a woodshop, if it has a welding station, if it has a CNC mill or Shopbot, it shares roots with American shop culture, not just tech culture. It’s not just poor representation that makes women feel unwelcome in these spaces, it’s poor design, it’s being physically unsafe, and it’s being bullied into thinking you deserve more respect for your injuries than for your health.
Stella Kemper is an artist, designer, maker, and teacher in Tacoma, Washington. She believes in the power of equitable access to digital fabrication to transform the future. To see her art and find out about commissioning Stella for a project, lesson plan, or consultation, please visit stella-bell.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.