WE’re Talking Unity

Where Are the Women?

Posted By Andrew Dey • April 11 2018 • Comments On

Stacey Delgado, the most recent addition to Unity’s project management team, had an interesting reaction to her first day on the job with Unity: “There’s a lot of male energy in the office.” She wasn’t saying this critically; it was simply an observation. I realized that as a male, I don’t typically notice this, because to me it seems normal.

Becky Adams in Bensonwood shop

Her remark reminded me of a comment made by a woman who attended a presentation about Unity that I gave several weeks ago to a group of building professionals in Northampton, MA. After seeing photos of our new production facility in which all the workers were men, she asked “Where are the women?” I had to admit that, while we have in the past had women working in the shops—including the timber framer Becky Adams—there are not any at the moment. We do have a number of women working in administrative capacities who support our shops: logistics, procurement, and project management.

It’s an issue that we wrestle with. We know the value of diversity, but we receive very few female applicants for our “hands on” jobs in the shop.

There’s a company in Sweden that is a role model for Unity in many ways, including their efforts at creating an inclusive workplace. Lindbäcks is one of the largest and most sophisticated builders of mid-rise housing in Sweden. Like most builders in Sweden, Lindbäcks uses off-site construction techniques that have been a model for Unity’s own processes. The new facility that Lindbäcks opened several months ago contains some of the most advanced equipment and systems to be found in a residential building company anywhere. And the company’s CEO, Stefan Lindbäck, is committed to encouraging women to join the company’s team in all capacities—including working on the floor of the production facility.

Tedd Benson and I were treated to a taste of Lindbäcks’ gender inclusivity several years ago when we spent a day with Stefan Lindbäck and his second-in-command, Helena Lidelöw, who oversees the company’s production. We learned that Stefan and Helena are approaching the challenge of bringing more women into the workforce from all angles, including work clothing.

Carpenter pants are a big deal among the tradespeople in many European countries, and Sweden is no exception. Carhartt-clad carpenters from America have been known to lust after the high-tech materials, ingenious pockets and integral knee pad holders that are common in these European pants. But until recently, these pants were available only in understated colors like black and brown – or perhaps dark blue for the particularly adventurous. Not exactly the stuff of fashion statements.

shop production at Lindbäcks

Stefan Lindbäck approached Björnkläder, Sweden’s largest manufacturer of carpenters’ pants, with a proposal: if they would produce carpenter pants designed to work well for women, then he would purchase a pair of Björnkläder pants for every one of the 300+ workers in his shop. Tedd and I witnessed the outcome of this effort in our tour of the Lindbäcks shop.

 

These pants were so well-received that Björnkläder has made them a part of their general offering. From the Björnkläder website:

Björnklädder pants

Carpenter Jubileum, Ladies Trouser

Fuschia trouser with a fit adjusted to all the women at work. They offer all the pockets and compartments to help keep track of your tools. The trouser includes a very smart double hem that allows you to lengthen the pant by only unpicking one single seam.

 

While the pink (“fuschia”) pants are a fun story, Lindbäcks’ approach to construction, which makes use of software-driven machinery in the controlled conditions of a shop, is the real reason they are making progress on gender inclusivity in a male-dominated field. In Lindbäcks’ shop, where equipment does the heavy lifting, cutting and fastening, qualities such as intelligence and dedication are prized more than brawn. 

Back in New Hampshire, we see similar opportunities in the new production shop that is now serving Unity Homes and Bensonwood—a shop that Lindbäcks’ Helena Lidelöw helped to design. The guys—and they are currently all guys—working in our new shop are fond of telling visitors that the work they are doing now, as compared with the work they were doing in our previous shop, depends more on their intelligence than on their strength. They are happy to have made this shift to using their minds more than their bodies. If this shift makes the work more inviting to women, then the guys in the shop will welcome them onto the shop floor.

I’m hoping that Tedd will reach out to Carhartt about adding a new color to their line of carpenter pants. Whether the guys will start wearing pink is another question.