Defining and Removing Obstacles to Women in HVACR

I recently attended the Comfortech/Women in HVACR Conference. It was in Nashville, y’all. A city of country music, friendly southern folks and more fried foods than I care to admit to eating. I met some flat-out amazing women and I am so proud to be part of an organization of such tough, smart and savvy people. There was one common theme throughout the conference, “We need more women in the HVACR industry.” Speaker after speaker said it. It was a general theme with attendees and it was echoed in my own thoughts. However, what I didn’t hear anyone talking about was HOW we do this.

I see some very real obstacles to bringing more women into the industry, especially as HVAC technicians – which, let’s face it, is the heart of the industry and probably the best jumping off point for basically any other job in the industry. Until we focus on these very real obstacles, removing the ones we can and finding a way to accept/ignore/overcome the ones we can’t, we’ll never get where we want to go.

Personally, I don’t believe that the HVACR industry owes women anything. I don’t think that there should be quotas to fill or artificial tipping of the playing field to our advantage*. If we want to compete for HVAC jobs, we need to be able to do the job, same as any person. Until we get real about this, women will always be the exception and not the rule.

What we’ve BEEN focusing on:

The top two issues that always seem to get discussed are, I believe, not issues that can be solved in the short term and should not be the focus of our dialog as we move forward into the future. Here they are:

  1. Some people may not want women in the industry. I think we’ve all dealt with the “Let me talk to your husband.” folks who simply can’t accept that a women could know her stuff. What do we do about these people? Absolutely nothing. You can’t change someone’s mind for them. You just be the best that you can be and they’ll either come around or they won’t. End of story. Let’s not waste time discussing that which we cannot change. Let’s bitch about it, commiserate and MOVE ON.
  1. Some women may not want to be in the industry. Call this whatever you want, educational bias, cultural stereotypes, whatever. To me, this is a nature vs. nurture issue. I believe nature will outweigh nurture over time. Girls who want to be technicians will pursue it eventually despite any bias. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to eliminate gender bias in our culture, but I don’t believe it’s the central issue keeping women out of blue collar jobs.

Before getting into what I consider to be the central issues that we need to focus on to be effective in increasing women in HVACR, I think it’s important to answer the question of, why does HVACR need women? HVACR needs women in the field because it is currently shorthanded with talent and will probably only get more so in the future. Excluding ANYONE when you’re shorthanded seems, well, dumb. There’s a whole bunch of other personal reasons I have, but the most obvious and incontrovertible reason, is simply that women make up half of a potential and much-needed workforce. So let’s make this happen!

What we need to START focusing on:

1. Physical Strength. Our biology is holding us back. I’m not talking individuals here. There are some Herculean women who could kick 99.9% of men’s asses. But those are the exceptions. I’m talking the Bell Curve. The average woman vs. the average man. For whatever reason, God, Mother Nature, Darwin, whoever you want to personally blame, created men with more muscle mass than women. So wherever you are on the women’s Bell Curve, there’s a man on the men’s Bell Curve stronger than you. Rather than debate the science, let’s accept that this is generally true and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

There is a LOT of heavy lifting in this industry. My company is exclusively commercial/industrial which makes this issue even more pronounced. Bigger equipment means bigger heavier motors, piping, accessories, etc. Let’s provide women (and men) with tools/tricks/technology that remove the “She’s a girl, she can’t carry that 30′ ladder/50 lb. recovery can/etc.” excuse.  Why can’t we make these heavy things easier to carry so that ANY woman can easily manage them and be equally effective as their male counterpart? I’m not suggesting I know exactly HOW to address these issues. But I think we (and by “we” I mean, anyone who feels that there need to be more women in this industry) need to adjust our focus and work to address these issues together. So let’s find some smart engineers to look at the tools we use and the types of work we do and engineer some solutions. I think there are several men on the low side of the Bell Curve (or the high side of the age Bell Curve) who would appreciate these solutions as well.

2. Sexual Harassment. Our second major obstacle is one that literally comes up every time I’ve dared to discuss hiring a female: sexual harassment. (Damn you Clarence Thomas!)

I joke, but this is no laughing matter. Harassment of any kind should not be tolerated. But I believe the fear of a massive lawsuit for a real, perceived or fabricated sexual harassment claim has become an excuse to exclude females from our industry. No employer wants to open themselves up to potentially company-killing claims of sexual harassment by pairing a female apprentice with a male technician alone in a service van. By keeping the technicians all male, the risk of a sexual harassment claim is virtually nil. What motivation is there to justify the risk? I have no idea how to fix this. But perhaps other, more intelligent, seasoned, or legal-minded folks can help with this one.

One of my favorite comments from the conference was when one woman said she’d like to see more women “infiltrate” the HVACR world. That really resonated with me. I’m not the type of woman who wants to parade around in a pink shirt waving my pink flag in the faces of those who would prefer us not to be here. I’ve always bristled at that approach. I don’t want to “take a stand” or “get in anyone’s face.” I want to do my job and earn the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in the industry. I think “infiltrating” the industry in this way is essential to our sustained success. It’s all about finding a way to get the job done as well as any man. If we can do that, the rest will work itself out.

ElvisThat being said – though I really hate pink – I will proudly wear my pink Women in HVACR shirt, bandana, cowboy hat and whatever else to show my support and solidarity within our own organization. I believe in what Women in HVACR does and I look forward to being as big a part of it as you will allow me to be…even if it means I have to wear pink while I’m doing it. 🙂



*Disclaimer…I need to fess up with a disclaimer here. I hate the idea of reverse discrimination, quotas, etc. I don’t believe that you can make up for discrimination by discriminating. I do however intend to apply for Women-Owned Business certification in Massachusetts, which basically makes me a giant hypocrite. I have no defense to this except to say that I am also a practical business person who plans to use this legal, albeit idealogically-complicated, avenue to succeed. To shun an advantage on principle may be the noble high road, but I’ve got 20 employees counting on me to do what I can to make sure they have a job. And I’m also incredibly proud to be a woman and a business owner. So, judge if you must. I’m not exactly comfortable with it either.