When Lorien Barlow discovered that there had never been a feature film made about the real experiences of women in the trades, she did something close to our hearts: she made one herself. We talked with her about what Hard Hatted Woman means for how the world sees trades jobs and more.
Tell us about your background in both documentary filmmaking and the trades.
Before this film, I was a newcomer to both. I’d spent most of my 20’s wanting to pursue documentary work but never took the plunge. And I had no previous connection to the trades either, but it has been a perfect match, because I draw a lot of inspiration from tradeswomen, especially as I started out. Most women entering the trades have to have the gumption to walk into a new arena, pick up the tools and learn to use them. You have to believe in your right to be there. It’s hard to muster that confidence as a beginner, but you just have to roll up your sleeves and say, “Let’s do this!” Tradeswomen have that moxie, and it helped give me the jump-start that I needed.
What led you to make Hard Hatted Woman?
It was really time for me to make a film and it was pure serendipity that placed this subject in front of me. I immediately knew I would love to spend time with these women and learn their stories. So on a personal level, it was the right project for me.
The very next feeling was a flash of anxiety: “Surely, someone made this film already!” I searched for feature documentaries about women in trades. When I realized that it had never been done before, that was the moment the course was set.
As the film’s website mentions, only 3% of trades workers are female, but we’ve seen women working in the trades and factories since the beginning of the industrial era. Why do you think this group of women hasn’t been highlighted before?
I’m a student of history and I think about this question a lot. It still has me flummoxed. Any short and simple answer would be inadequate. All I know for sure is that the way this group has been overlooked is an injustice. That said, I am so grateful to the small group of people who have devoted themselves—in many cases, their careers—to documenting and understanding tradeswomen’s experiences. That small body of research was invaluable to me starting out. And I certainly hope that it will continue to grow.
But I’m just a big nerd. I remember speaking on a panel about tradeswomen’s issues to a roomful of construction management folks, and I was like, “Go read this policy report, it’s fantastic! Here’s where you can find it...” And I was secretly a little miffed that no one seemed to be writing it down!
The truth is, research is important but humanizing the issue is essential to really engage people. And I’d like to think that’s where this film comes in.
What challenges and opportunities did you hear most when interviewing women in the trades?
Oh, there’s such a universality to their experiences. It’s unbelievable.The common challenges are getting your foot in the door, getting adequate training and tool-time as an apprentice, working consistently (because women in trades get equal pay but not always equal hours), coping with wear and tear on the body, feeling valued as a worker and dealing with the emotional toll of the job. Tradeswomen have to be hyper-aware and constantly navigating their interactions and environments. I’m not just talking about encountering toxic masculinity. Even in the absence of that, most tradeswomen just have to be constantly alert and strategic in order to safeguard their jobs. All of this hyper-vigilance takes a toll. Even men in the trades understand that feeling, but it’s hugely amplified for women.
In a way, it’s easier to talk about the challenges than the rewards. Of course, there’s the paycheck, the wages and benefits, which are awesome. But there’s something more intangible than that, which I focus on this in the film. I call it “communion with the craft”— how tradeswomen fall in love with their trade and how it becomes such a deep part of their identity. They derive bone-deep satisfaction from working in their bodies in the physical world, working outside and in ever-changing environments, seeing the fruits of their labor and feeling camaraderie with their crew. Despite all the challenges, tradeswomen as a group report higher-than-average job satisfaction, so that’s a powerful testament.
What is the most common misconception about women in the trades?
I’m not sure if there is one top misconception, but there’s a web of assumptions that people have. But I guess the one that bothers me the most is this idea that both women and men in trades ran out of other options like this was their last resort. Nothing could be further from the truth. The trades are a very smart choice and every woman who makes that “non-traditional” choice has already proven she is very smart and resourceful.
Along with seeing the film, what can people reading this do to support women in blue-collar building trades?
Before they can see the film, we have to finish making it! The film is going to be more than a viewing experience, it’s going to be a force-multiplier. There are many ways to support women in trades but I truly believe this film is a unique and important vehicle for change.
We are making a big push right now to raise finishing funds and are calling on everyone who is excited about the film’s release to please chip in and help make that a reality. Folks can donate directly on our website. Also, I encourage companies that are interested in supporting the film to reach out to me for more information about sponsorship opportunities.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You can contact Lorien Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow us on Facebook at Instagram @HardHattedWoman!