Emily Pilloton-Lam: Girls Garage helps kids break into the trades Men dominate trade work. But Emily Pilloton-Lam says it's time to put the power (and power tools) into the hands of young women and gender-expansive youth.

The trades need more gender diversity. One woman is training the next generation

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today's show, DIY - do it yourself. It's an ethos very often associated with hammers and nails.

EMILY PILLOTON-LAM: Oh, I could talk about tools all day long. My true favorite is a Makita impact driver. It is the best tool for driving screws. It makes a very satisfying noise. It's like a da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (ph) but, like, way louder, and screws just go in like butter.

ZOMORODI: This is Emily Pilloton-Lam. She has always loved building.

PILLOTON-LAM: Even as a young 4- or 5-year-old, I was really drawn to the physical world, like building forts, going out in the forest and, like, making ad hoc treehouses. And so it helped me feel like, OK, I'm able to shape my own world.

ZOMORODI: When she was 16, Emily worked on her first construction site.

PILLOTON-LAM: And that was the first time when the idea of a career in building became tangible and real for me.

ZOMORODI: So she decided to study architecture in college and then in grad school.

PILLOTON-LAM: And I loved my architectural education. I really, really did. But I think some of the rose-colored glasses came off when I left graduate school and I was met with a little bit of disappointment that the love that I found of building physical things was kind of lost within the architectural profession.

ZOMORODI: And she noticed something else.

PILLOTON-LAM: Within the construction trades, only 11% of jobs are filled by women and then, on an actual construction site, only 4%. So there's a huge gender imbalance. And I have walked onto construction sites - I've walked into rooms where I have to do this social calculus and think, like, how do I prove that I'm smart enough to be here? How much am I going to volunteer? How much am I going to show what I know? How much am I going to just, like, sit back and try to understand the dynamic here? And it's exhausting. It's frankly exhausting.

ZOMORODI: So when she turned 26, Emily decided to call a timeout on her career.

PILLOTON-LAM: It was a way for me to say, like, look. I don't know how I'm going to practice architecture, but I know how I'm not going to practice it. I kept thinking about young people. Like, how do young people think about space? What kind of future are we building together? And so I was super-interested in these, like, one-off, really small, really localized projects that lived in your community. And within a couple months, I was standing in front of a class of students in a barn that we had turned into a wood shop.

ZOMORODI: She got a job teaching a co-ed woodworking class at a high school in North Carolina.

PILLOTON-LAM: Yeah, at a public high school within a town of about 2,000 people in a way that really hadn't been taught before - thinking about shop class as a mechanism for community service instead of, like, let's build birdhouses to take home to our moms.

ZOMORODI: So you're looking at these kids, and are they looking at you blankly? Or are they thinking, like, yeah, let's do this?

PILLOTON-LAM: I think it was a little bit of both. I mean, this was a school district where everything is pretty standard. You have five class periods. You have English, math, science, maybe an elective and a language. So to say, guess what; you're in this design-build shop class now - there was a lot of, like, huh (ph)?

ZOMORODI: And what about the gender thing? Did you see it playing out there?

PILLOTON-LAM: The class itself did have more boys in it. It was about two-thirds boys. But pretty much everyone's skill level was about the same. I mean, my female students knew how to use the chop saw as well as any of their male counterparts. The biggest difference that I saw was just in that social calculus. I would say, like, hey; I need someone to go cut 10 pieces at 96 inches on the chop saw. And I could just see that brief moment of hesitation where my female students would look around and be like, should I raise my hand? Like, if I'm the first person to raise my hand and say I will do it, who's going to be rolling their eyes at me? Like, what is that saying about the boys in the room? Are they feeling threatened? Like, these are not things we should be thinking about, but they're so ingrained in us.

There was an ongoing and ever-present and nagging voice in my head that I think came from my own experiences on construction sites, in architecture firms. There is a very gendered dynamic within, really, any industry that is responsible for the built environment - architecture, engineering, construction trades. And as I was teaching these classes, I started to feel that that gendered dynamic was also something that my female students were experiencing even with me as a woman as their teacher. And that was really the moment when I realized my female students really deserve to have a safe space.


PILLOTON-LAM: We must create intentional spaces for the next generation of tradeswomen to learn technical skills while being unconditionally supported by a community of other women.

ZOMORODI: Here's Emily Pilloton-Lam on the TED stage.


PILLOTON-LAM: So in 2008, I founded a nonprofit to teach design and construction skills to middle and high school students, specifically young women of color. Now, nearly 14 years later, that nonprofit, Girls Garage, has taught over a thousand girls and gender-expansive youth how to use power tools...


PILLOTON-LAM: ...Weld, draft construction documents and work on a job site. And together, we have built over 150 pro bono projects for other nonprofits in our community. When young women walk into Girls Garage, they are acknowledged as capable and whole. They are taught by female instructors who are architects and carpenters and welders, who have lived lives and who've walked paths similar to their own. When a student uses the chop saw for the very first time, I'm standing right next to them saying, you got this. And these are the things that make the difference. And so the next generation of tradeswomen, our students, will enter the trades knowing what it feels like to be respected and valued and will know how to demand it when they're not.


ERICA CHU: Hi. I'm Erica Chu. I'm 21 years old, so I've been part of Girls Garage for a decade now. When I completed my first weld, I was 11 years old. And you can imagine, like, a little girl in this, like, big welding gear with, like, the shield on. You have to put your hair up. And I do remember being very timid seeing those flames for the first time. I mean, I've never, like, felt that power of fusing two metal pieces together. It was exhilarating. I always say, like, how many 11-year-old girls do you know that can weld? In college, I'm studying civil and environmental engineering with a focus in construction management. Learning how to build and construct really made me want to apply that into the real world and learn how to work in construction.

ZOMORODI: Emily, your students are growing up. I mean, it is clear that you and Girls Garage made a huge difference in Erica's life. But I just read a statistic that the number of young people applying for technical jobs fell by half last year compared to 2020. I mean, this country is facing a big problem. We are not going to have enough people to build new bridges or roads or fix our infrastructure.

PILLOTON-LAM: Yeah. The legacy of vocational education is a complicated one, right? So I think we're kind of up against this pejorative history of, like, vocational used to be the track for kids that aren't going to go to college. Right? It was for quote, unquote, "those kids," which is horrible. I think our role in helping young people think about their careers is to ask, how do you take that power that you feel when you're welding and bring that into your college applications or your gap year or your job? We've had over a hundred graduates and alumna. And between a third and a half have gone into a field related to the built environment. So that includes architecture or engineering or design or directly into the trades.


PILLOTON-LAM: For women, a job in construction can pay more than twice the hourly wage of a comparable job in child care or health aid work. And while the gender pay gap in the U.S. hovers around 82 cents earned by women for every male-earned dollar, in construction, the pay gap is nearly nonexistent, at 99 cents to the dollar.


PILLOTON-LAM: The trades desperately need women, too. With over 300,000 jobs left unfilled, women are hugely untapped labor pool. And this is a time when the demand for infrastructure is only growing. We already understand the value of having more women in historically male-dominated spaces like politics, C-suites and STEM. What is it going to take for tradeswomen to take part and to take over?

ZOMORODI: Your talk is called "What If Women Built The World They Want To See?" In your mind, what does that world look like?

PILLOTON-LAM: Yeah. So women do experience the built environment very differently than men. We think about safety. We think about how we navigate space with our families or with friends. And so I think a world built by women is more inclusive in its thinking about how the physical world serves people. And it's about rethinking the really old and tired narratives about who gets to build the world, that the authorship should not just be owned by white men, that we all deserve a say in what our world looks like.

ZOMORODI: That was Emily Pilloton-Lam. She is the founder and executive director of Girls Garage, a nonprofit that teaches design and construction to girls and gender-expansive youth. And many thanks to Erica Chu. You can see Emily's full talk at ted.com.

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