New movie defends the “Hard Hatted Woman”

“Hard Hatted Woman” is a new documentary about the experience of women in the trades. It’s currently in post-production in preparation for its 2020 premiere. FUEL got to talk to creator Lorien Barlow about the film as well as the challenges and opportunities facing tradeswomen today. Learn more about “Hardhatted Woman” here and check out the trailer, too.

FUEL: What planted the initial seed in your mind to do a documentary about women in construction?

Lorien Barlow, director and creator: In late 2012, I came across an out-of-print book called Alone in A Crowd: Women in Trades Tell Their Stories. It was published in the eighties as a collection of oral histories from women who worked as long-haulers, machinists, line-workers, miners and in many other other non-traditional trades. Their stories were so raw and powerful. I thought, “Surely there must be a documentary about these women!” There wasn’t. I instantly knew it had to be made, and apparently I was going to be the one to make it.

“Hard Hatted Woman” in the making.

Over the next two years I did research and interviews, launched a Kickstarter campaign and applied for grants. In 2015, I finally had enough money to hire a cinematographer and really ramped up production in 2016. Our editor came aboard in late 2017. It was a stop-start process from the beginning because I was single-handedly raising the budget along the way—there’s no other way to do it unless you have big financial backers up front. So, it’s been a six-year marathon uphill, and we’re still climbing, but we’re finally in the homestretch.

LB: I thought, “Surely there must be a documentary about these women!” There wasn’t.

FUEL: Will the film look at female business owners or focus just on workers?

LB: There are women breaking ground in all aspects of the industry, but I decided to focus on tradeswomen. Filming workers on the job site captured the beauty of construction in the most elemental way. I was also drawn to the strength and exertion of physical labor, set against the grittiness of the job site, as a metaphor for the emotional labor women go through to survive out there in male-dominated spaces. Lastly, I feel like the manual trades are one of the “last frontiers” of persistent gender stereotypes that I wanted to examine.

Vanessa is a tradeswoman and one of the documentary’s subjects.

FUEL: Do you feel like there are common attitudes of women who work in construction—or do different women have very different perspectives?

LB: Over this project, I’ve found a large disconnect between women in the office and women in the field. At the Women Build Nations conference, an annual summit for tradeswomen I regularly attend, there are very few representatives from elsewhere in the industry. And vice versa is true of many “women in construction” conferences I’ve been to—lots of architects, engineers, project managers…but no tradeswomen.

It’s completely understandable in some ways. But these women have many shared experiences and shared passions, and they could be wonderful allies in pushing for progress in the industry. I’d love to see a bit more of “reaching across the aisle” from both sides, and hope that the film can act as a vehicle for that.

LB: I’ve found a large disconnect between women in the office and women in the field. These women have many shared experiences and passions, though, and could be wonderful allies in pushing for progress.

FUEL: What types of problems do you think female construction workers face most often today?

LB: Tradeswomen struggle to get adequate training on the job; they are frequently made to work in isolation or on menial tasks, and have to withstand a lot of crude and offensive comments, images, and conversations. Sexual harassment and assault are common.

And women are rarely given opportunities for advancement. For instance, it is extremely uncommon to see a female foreman or superintendent. And the fact that there are so few women in the industry perpetuates these problems.

People break the challenges down into recruitment and retention. Recruitment challenges include everything from not steering girls towards these careers early, to lack of education and training programs. Retention involves the job-site culture. A lot of people are talking about the labor shortage and how recruiting more women can help solve that equation. But they should also be aware that many, many skilled tradeswomen are not getting enough work and/or they are leaving the trades, because of the job-site culture and structural barriers they face.

Steph, another documentary character, a.k.a. subject.

FUEL: Do you think the construction trades are presented to young women as a viable career path? Has this changed at all in recent years?

I definitely see SO much more momentum behind [recruiting young women] than I did even just five years ago. Now it seems like every other day, there’s a new article about some grassroots program or summer camp for girls to explore the trades and STEM. I’m even more often seeing journalists take a second look at skilled trade careers as an alternative to college and student loan debt. But we still have a long way to go. I’ve been tagging things with #BringBackShopClass. In most schools, we’ve gutted vocational programs, and that should have never ever happened.

LB: I definitely see SO much more momentum behind this topic than I did even just five years ago.

FUEL: Have you yourself ever done physical labor?

LB: While making the film I worked several part-time jobs so I could make ends meet. My brother took me on and trained me as a residential painter. So for two years, I was painting houses with him. I loved it—I loved coming home with my mind rested and my body tired. It’s the complete opposite of what it feels like to work at a computer all day, which leaves your brain tired and body restless.

FUEL: Were there particular places or ways that you saw women thriving in construction?

It’s sort of a cliché in the trades that women make great welders, but there are observably a lot of women welders. Then you can look at numbers in different trades—for example, sheet-metal workers, laborers, and electricians have the highest numbers of women—but I wouldn’t necessarily say that tradeswomen are “thriving” anywhere. Rather, some are having a better experience than others.

LB: I believe there’s a bit of “hard-hatted woman” in all of us, and that this is ultimately a universal story for women.

FUEL: Were there women who were unwilling to talk to you for fear of voicing their attitudes publicly and retribution from their coworkers?

LB: I feel honored that all of the film’s amazing and wonderful characters were so open and willing to share their stories. Retribution is very real in this industry. Though I have never had someone say, “I can’t be in the film because I’m afraid of what will happen,” all of these women will be more exposed and vulnerable after the movie comes out, and they know that. But they believe in the importance of what we’re doing. They all truly love their careers, and they want other girls and women to know that this path is out there for them, should they feel called to it. It comes with more than its fair share of challenges, but so many rewards, too.

Selena.

FUEL: What organization (or which woman) do you think are doing the most to advance the cause of women in construction today?

LB: Oregon Tradeswomen and Chicago Women in Trades are two of my favorite organizations. They run free pre-apprenticeship programs for women looking to enter the trades, in addition to providing support and community for women in trades. Oregon Tradeswomen does an annual Career Fair for school-aged girls that blew my mind! There are dismally few programs like these across the country—you can count them on your fingers. And the ones that do exist struggle for funding and resources. But they are still setting an amazing example for others to follow.

FUEL: What’s the scope of the film—places, job sites?

LB: The final film will probably depict about 10 different sites—following each of our five characters onto a few different jobs over time—but we shot on quite a few more that didn’t make it into the final cut.

FUEL: What do you hope to achieve with this film?

LB: Of course, I want the film to empower tradeswomen, embolden the next generation, and inspire women everywhere. I believe there’s a bit of “hard-hatted woman” in all of us, and that this is ultimately a universal story for women. I hope it speaks to decision-makers in the industry who have the power to change the status quo. By getting to know these women on screen and coming to care about them—which you can’t help but do—I hope that industry leaders feel called to make a meaningful difference, or at least start the conversation in earnest.

I also hope the film changes how audiences perceive construction work. I’m a big fan of Mike Rowe’s mission to “make these jobs cool again.” Ironworkers are honestly some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Watching them work, you can’t help but feel a little star-struck and in awe of what they do. I’d love to see some dignity and respect and admiration restored to the work.

 

“Hard Hatted Woman” will premiere on the festival circuit in early 2020, after which it will screen at other festivals as well as at schools and colleges, training programs, organizations and non-profits, companies, unions, and local theatres. Barlow will then seek wider theatrical distribution and will ultimately make it available on streaming platforms.

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