A lot of people tell my generation of young women that we can and should do it all -- be at the top of our field, raise kids and stay sane. Cheryl, Ruth Bader, Oprah and all the rest, thank you. But I got the answer to whether or not I can really do it from a group of lesser-known ladies, the 'Women in Roofing.'
According to the Department of Labor, roofing is the 10th most male-dominated industry in the U.S. Only 1% of roofers in the US are ladies. Other industries on this list include brick masonry and tile installation. The women in these jobs are a different kind of 1%-er.
During this year's annual International Roofing Expo and after a long day trading notes on acrylic content, the Women in Roofing held their first event. There were no official speeches, but halfway through one woman stood on her chair, wine glass in hand. "I never talk at things like this, but I have to tell you something. When I told my daughter about this event, she responded, 'Well that should be easy to plan, just ask the host for a table for 5.' And just look at us now!" A fellow woman in roofing shouted from the crowd: "Table for 74!"
It was no Seneca Falls and very few knew it was happening, but 74 women left that event more empowered to do it all. Our culture promotes individual examples of successful women -- heads of fortune 500s, the single mother who started her own company -- as guides and reason for young women to power ahead. These exemplars are amazing individuals, but I don't think any of us can do it alone. All the Women in Roofing did at their first event was share with each other their experience of being female in the same male-dominated industry.
They were leaning in together.
I have to confess that the tipsy woman standing on a chair at the first Woman in Roofing event is my mom (and yes, I am that jerky daughter who thought only five people would show). She is the fifth child in a family of six and joined her father's company, Karnak Corporation, about 15 years ago, all while tucking four kids into bed at night. Last year, after ages of managing a factory in New Jersey, negotiating with unions, and keeping men in line, she finally realized that she is good at her job. When she started, the leaders of the company were all men like her father, her main business deal with Home Depot was struck entirely with men, and the peer companies she competed with are led by men. For years, she tried to conform to the models of leadership and power around her, but, the more comfortable she became, the more she did things her way. Today she leads the men (and one woman) at the factory in a light stretch routine at 6am each morning. That's a woman's touch if I've heard one. Seeing other women in her industry inventing their own model - from the truckers to the line workers to the CEOs -- has given her more confidence to negotiate, manage, and lead like a woman.
I don't know much about feminist theory or modern feminist politics, except what I know from my own experience as a woman. Systemic institutional and cultural change is required for gender equality, but small acts of collective feminism are a critical part of making equality practical.
As I celebrate my mom on Mother's Day and consider the little ones I want to have some day, I am thinking about the women at my workplace and in my industry. I am going to need them. So today, no matter what you do or where you want to go, gather some of your lady friends and grab a table for 74.
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