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Change Agent

Few women are carpenters: Meet the master builder who wants to change that

Maria Klemperer-Johnson is getting women ready for the growing and high-paying field of carpentry by teaching them to build tiny eco-friendly homes.

By Erika LundahlYES! Magazine / October 9, 2013

Deborah Kelly (left), a carpenter who worked on Boston's Big Dig construction project, poses here with her daughter Jessica. Women carpenters are a rarity; fewer than 2 percent of those in the profession are women. Master carpenter Maria Klemperer-Johnson wants to change that.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Carpenter Maria Klemperer-Johnson is used to being the only woman on the construction site—but, thanks in part to her own work, that is beginning to change.

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She's leading a class of eight women in the construction of a tiny house in upstate New York, and hopes that the growing number of similar classes around the country will lead to greater gender equality in the construction sector.

According to the US Department of Labor, carpentry jobs are expected to grow 20 percent between 2010 and 2020 (significantly more than the average job growth rate of 14 percent), with a median wage of $19 an hour.

But the sector is extraordinarily male-dominated. As of 2011, women held 1.4 percent of carpentry positions in the United States—a number that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says has largely remained consistent over the last 35 years. Unless something changes, women will miss out on the almost 200,000 new carpentry jobs the bureau expects to see created in the next decade.

Women in construction often  face harassment and discrimination, as well as limited networking opportunities that stunt career advancement.

"You're up against this assumption that you don't know anything," Klemperer-Johnson explains. "Many women are never taught those skill sets when they're young, and so they don't feel comfortable walking onto a construction site to ask for a job, the way many men do getting started."

Klemperer-Johnson, a master carpenter and contractor, got her start as an apprentice cabinet builder at Red Barn Cabinet Shop in Brooktondale, N.Y. There she learned joinery and traditional cabinet building before moving on to work in home construction. She took advanced classes in timber framing at the Heartwood School in Washington, Mass., where she says she was almost always the only female student.

In 2005 she and her partner, Scott, began construction of their highly sustainable timber frame and strawbale home in Hector, N.Y. The straw insulation came from a local farmer, and the timbers were cut and milled from trees on their land.

"It took us about two years to build," explained Klemperer-Johnson in an email, "but I was pregnant for the first nine months of that, and then went back to work full time while Scott finished the house." At the same time, she founded her contracting company, DoubleDog Timberworks, which is also the venue for her classes.

Klemperer-Johnson's classes in carpentry for women debuted in the spring of 2013. In the first one, eight women are collaboratively building the walls and infrastructure of a tiny house, repurposing a 1987 camper trailer for the base. The house will be about 165 square feet in size and should be complete by January 2014.

"We started with basic tool skills and measuring to build the floor and cut and measure the plywood walls," explained Elizabeth Coakley, a student in the class who also funded the construction of the house.

The women who enroll in Klemperer-Johnson's classes come from all different backgrounds and levels of experience, she says, and many have told her that the all-women environment made them feel more comfortable.

"Some women come with very little experience with this kind of physical work," she says, "and watching their bodily comfort increase is gratifying to see."

Klemperer-Johnson believes having an all-women's space for teaching carpentry skills is a step toward addressing the gender imbalance in this sector—and she's not the only one. All over the country, there are small signs of support for women in carpentry and other "nontraditional" occupations.

The Heartwood School, where Klemperer-Johnson studied, currently offers a class in carpentry for women, as does Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vt., and the Workshop for Women in Denver.

In New York City, ReNEW, a branch of NEW Nontraditional Employment for Women is offering free, six-week intensive pre-apprenticeship programs for women who want to go into carpentry, solar panel installation, and other "green collar" jobs.

Support for women carpenters extends to the federal level. In 2012, the US Department of Labor announced its allocation of $1.8 million in grants for women in "nontraditional" occupations. The grant money is going to six different organizations aimed at better supporting women seeking long-term careers in manufacturing, transportation, and construction.

These federal grants "will better connect women with apprenticeships, helping them to gain skills in fields that offer long-term career opportunities," Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis wrote in a press release in June of 2012.

Despite these signs, there is still a long way to go. On Aug. 18, The New York Daily News reported that of the hundreds of hopefuls lined up outside the New York City District Council of Carpenters to land a spot in its carpenter's apprenticeship program, only one women, Gina Giuliano, applied.

Klemperer-Johnson hopes her carpentry classes will be an entrance point for women to become paid apprentices at DoubleDog Timberworks. It's her dream to build an organization supporting women learning carpentry skills by building tiny houses.

"Tiny houses are great for teaching," she says. "You can build them inside all year round, they use fewer resources, and teach a wide range of skills."

Encouraged by positive feedback from students, Klemperer-Johnson is excited to continue developing the series. It's just a matter of how.

"I'm currently pursuing funding options to expand the physical plant as well as our online presence," Klemperer-Johnson says. "The demand for these classes is there, and now it's a matter of developing the infrastructure to make them sustainable."

• Erika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is an editorial intern at YES!

This article originally appeared at YES! Magazine.

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