by Brenda Iasevoli
High school auto mechanics teacher Kristina Carlevatti knows what it’s like to be one of just a few females in a class filled with males. That was her frequent experience while earning a degree in technical and trade education at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“There was the sense that you were being judged, like you didn’t know what you were doing, so the guys might try to help you or hit on you,” she said.
Carlevatti has been teaching auto repair for six years now at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a booming automotive industry has produced plenty of jobs. Boys dominated the shop courses until Carlevatti started an all-girls Intro to Auto class this past school year.
When only coed trade classes were offered at the school, Carlevatti would see one or two girls at most. But “Intro to Auto” filled up quickly, drawing 16 girls.
“These aren’t men’s jobs; these are people’s jobs. Luckily, there are a lot of pioneers out there putting on the boots and doing what they need to do.”
Girls-only trade classes like Carlevatti’s are gaining traction, and the timing is right. A shortage of skilled workers is driving up wages in the trades, especially in traditionally male-dominated professions such as auto repair, construction and welding. (Nationwide, only 2 percent of auto mechanics, 3 percent of construction workers and 4.5 percent of welders are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) High schools like Myers Park have found that when they offer female-only trade courses, the girls sign up.
The trouble is, such courses could run afoul of Title IX regulations regarding single-sex education. The law prohibits separation of genders in vocational training. Still, advocates see plenty of reason to forge ahead, and the labor shortage is just one factor. They argue that all-girls trade classes embolden girls to push against gender stereotypes that threaten to hold them back, whether they want to swing a hammer or break into the boardroom. Shop class, it seems, is a new path to female empowerment.
Evelyn Harris, who just finished her junior year at Myers Park, said she never considered taking an auto course until Carlevatti’s class. But once she started, something clicked. “This is my kind of class,” she said. “I like the hands-on work, getting oily and greasy, showing the guys I can do what they do.”
For Harris, there’s another advantage. The class, she said, has become a sisterhood of sorts: “We all learn together and teach each other. It’s not a competition.”
The all-girls construction class at Abraxas Continuation High School in Poway, California, is an example of a trade course whose lessons extend well beyond typical building work. Last year, the girls cut and assembled pipe for a hydroponic filtration system. (Hydroponics refers to a method of growing plants without soil.) The students engineered the whole system using science and math skills, along with muscle. A network of pipes now carries fish poop filtered from a pool of 300 classroom-bred tilapia to the school garden, where vegetables such as butterhead lettuce, cucumbers and kale grow. The system is so efficient that the school says it is able to donate 300 heads of lettuce a week to families in need.
The girls’ success showed what they could do with a little elbow grease and a lot of problem solving, and it deepened their camaraderie, according to Alana Johnson, an 18-year-old who recently graduated. It helped, she said, that the students could work without the distraction of “super loud guys” who tend to get “way too rowdy.”
Now that Johnson has tackled mixed-gender advanced construction courses, she feels confident enough to help her mom take on small plumbing jobs like replacing a part on the toilet or just hanging pictures around the house. “We somehow automatically think of construction and plumbing as a guy’s thing,” said Johnson, who is entering a nursing program in the fall. “But these are things everyone should know how to do regardless of gender.”
That sense of bonding appears to be common among students in single-gender classes, according to Rosemary Salomone, professor of law at St. John’s University and author of the book “Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling.” Salomone says that while some studies have shown that single-gender classes don’t improve academic achievement for males or females, there is evidence to support modest claims of benefits in less quantifiable areas, such as self-esteem, belonging and motivation.
Yet Salomone, who helped draft the Department of Education’s 2006 Title IX regulations for single-sex public education, says she questions the legality of girls-only shop classes. The regulations allow the use of federal dollars only for single-gender classes in academic subjects such as math and engineering. Vocational classes have generally been prohibited from separating genders, Salomone says, because of the history of schools channeling girls into lower-paying technical fields.
Salomone says she’d like to see the regulations changed to permit all-girls classes in traditionally male trades. But she stressed that these classes would have to be voluntary, and schools would have to offer all-boys’ as well as coed options to satisfy the Title IX requirements of “substantial equality” and evenhandedness.
For the time being, concern about violating Title IX may prevent some schools from experimenting with single-gender classes. That was the case at Oregon’s Sherwood High School, where in 2015 the principal canceled the school’s popular all-girls welding class, “No Boyz Allowed”, because he decided it did not comply with the law.
Schools that are offering all-girls shop classes are either unaware of Title IX’s ins and outs, or they assume the classes comply with current regulations since the courses often have an academic, nonvocational purpose, such as teaching math or engineering concepts. This could be why, to date, they haven’t caught the eye of regional Title IX coordinators.
As the number of these courses grows — and if Title IX does not discourage that growth — it could be a while before women turn to traditionally male-dominated trades in large numbers. Women still tend more toward caregiving jobs, such as nurse’s or teacher’s assistants, even though they often don’t pay a living wage, says Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“Go where the boys are,” Smith tells students. “That’s where the money is.”
Nurse’s assistants and teacher’s assistants, 90 percent of whom are female, earn a yearly median wage of $27,510 and $26,260, respectively. By contrast, welders, 95 percent of whom are male, earn a yearly median wage of $40,240, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For many women, putting on a hard hat or even a pair of safety goggles remains a big leap. But Smith says that girls-only career and technical classes are a start. “These aren’t men’s jobs; these are people’s jobs. Luckily, there are a lot of pioneers out there putting on the boots and doing what they need to do.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report (hechingerreport.org), a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.