As a Sculpture major, I often find myself in woodshops and metal shops, I’m a regular at hardware stores, and I’m the friend you call when you’re in need of any sort of tool. I’ve worked for a building management company, spent a summer teaching teenagers how to use saws, and have frequented construction sites. As a 21-year-old woman, I often find myself feeling out of place.
A couple of weekends ago, this was not the case. I experienced something I never have before – a completely female construction site. This unusual experience was made possible through my summer internship with Sawhorse Revolution. A week in, I was asked to come along to a Women’s Build, which is part of a year-long building and design afterschool program for high school girls. I was pretty excited to participate in and see one of their projects in person, and I figured the female aspect would probably be pretty cool too.
This was definitely an understatement. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect (or exactly sure where I was going) as I made my way towards Franklin High School. I wandered for a few minutes, but as I finally rounded a corner, I immediately knew I was in the right place. Right outside the school’s main building was a make-shift construction site, complete with piles of lumber, all sorts of power tools, and right smack in the middle: an extremely impressive tiny house. As I approached the site, one of my bosses, Sarah, put down some tools to come over to say hi.
Sarah is one of three founders of Sawhorse – all of whom met during their undergraduate years at the University of Puget Sound – as well as the Executive Director, and currently running this particular job site. She started to introduce me to various women walking around the site: a few architects, a couple of builders, and of course, some students as well. She explained that this structure was actually a security booth for a tiny house village that Sawhorse has contributed many homes to. Sarah paired me with one of the architects to get me started on some tasks throughout the afternoon. I was quickly thrown into the flow of things and was immediately asked if I knew how to use a chop saw. I said I did and waited for the inevitable surprise and questions that usually follow my unusual knowledge of power tools. Much to my own surprise, she simply said, “Great,” and asked me to do a couple of cuts for her while she went to grab something else.
For a moment, I just stood there – confused. Confused by the lack of attention that was being drawn to my skills, confused by the amount of trust she had just given me, and simply just confused about how to proceed. I started to think about how I had been conditioned to think that it wasn’t normal for a woman to work with tools or wood. I realized I was so confused because no one had ever just expected me to be competent and skilled when it came to building. It was in that moment that I started to realize just how different this afternoon was going to be.
The rest of the afternoon continued on with experiences like this. I spent the next six hours helping to install a wood-paneled ceiling into this small security unit, and found that the time was flying. When something heavy needed to be moved, there was no man to ask to help, so we just did it. When we weren’t sure about something, there wasn’t the incredibly handy guy you find on most building sites, so we just tried different things until we figured it out. It was kind of exhilarating.
I met many of the girls working on the site and was incredibly impressed by the ease in which they operated various saws, torches, and all sorts of power tools. The women, of course, kept an eye on them, and offered assistance and words of advice when needed, but they didn’t stand hovering and gave trust when it was deserved. Some of the girls I chatted with told me about how much fun they had on the job, mixed in with their plans for the next year or complaints about finals. It occurred to me that maybe they didn’t realize just how unique this opportunity was.
Hours later, after the girls had gone home, Sarah and I strapped the last couple of items to the back of her pickup truck and talked about how my afternoon had gone. I tried to explain to her how much the program she had built meant to me, and how much I wish I had an experience like this earlier on in my life. This project left me feeling incredibly empowered and confident in the skills I know I have, but am often afraid to use. I didn’t realize the extent to which I rely on asking males for help, or how little I trust myself to know what I’m doing. Since then, as I’ve continued to participate in this build, it has gotten me thinking about the way I react to girls having shop skills. It has occurred to me that perhaps the lack of a reaction is the most impactful one of all.
Going into that first afternoon, I figured this build must be a really amazing experience for the girls in the program. I hoped that maybe I could make some sort of impact, be some sort of role-model for these girls. By the time I left –sweaty, covered with sawdust, a splinter in my hand –I started to realize that maybe I was the one who needed female role models in my field. I hopped out and shut the door of Sarah’s truck, and thought to myself, this is going to be a good summer.