A woman in Klemperer-Johnson’s class cuts a two-by-four board, while another holds it steady. Photo by Lauren Comly.
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. 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 U.S. 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 dollars 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 U.S. 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."
A student in Klemperer-Johnson’s class works on a tiny house. Photo by Maria Klemperer-Johnson.
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 2 years to build," explained Klemperer-Johnson in an email, "but I was pregnant for the first 9 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."