I hadn’t given much thought recently to how women are faring in the sheet metal and HVAC industry before reading this month’s cover story.

When I asked associate editor Audrey LaForest to look into the issue, I wasn’t sure if there would be much to write about since the last time we covered the topic several years ago. Sheet metal is a field where change can be glacially slow, and construction has long been known as an overwhelmingly male industry where gender stereotypes still linger.

I once watched a booth representative at a trade show get an earful from a female attendee he called “sweetie.” I wonder if her reaction broke him of that habit.

And as I solicit and edit articles for our website and magazine, I find too many industry writers still refer to every HVAC construction technician as “he” and all office workers or dispatchers as “she.” They probably don’t think about it — most techs are men and a lot of dispatchers are women —  but such language subtly reinforces the belief that the industry is not available to females outside of narrowly defined roles. It reminds me of the phrase “male nurse,” which has similar problems and is thankfully disappearing from common use.

So I was pleased to see that the ranks of female HVAC workers have increased slightly in recent years. LaForest reported that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of female sheet metal workers increased from 2.3 percent in 2011 to 4.5 percent in 2015. Among HVAC technicians, women in the field increased from 0.8 percent to 1.7 percent in the same period. Not a lot, but a bigger bump than I’ve seen in a long time.

Higher profiles  

It certainly seems many women are taking a more visible role in the industry. In the past couple of years, I’ve talked to representatives of groups such as Windy City Women in HVAC and Women in HVACR that are working to boost the industry’s female presence. And there are companies around the country, such as Allied Ventilation in Warren, Michigan, and DiFilippo’s Service Co. in Paoli, Pennsylvania, that have women in high-profile positions.

But as representatives from some of those companies acknowledged, they rarely, if ever, have women apply for technical jobs, despite that they’re constantly hiring. If the studies from groups such as the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation are accurate, the industry worker shortage will become acute within six years, where an additional 115,000 workers will be needed.

Why not see if some women are interested in filling those positions? As many experts have noted, much of the skilled-job growth in the next decade will be in fields such as HVAC and sheet metal, which require learning beyond high school, but short of a four-year college degree. And the pay is pretty good, too.

Former Women in HVACR president Ruth Ann Davis, a longtime employee at Williams Product Co., said the industry has been pretty good to her, and she told LaForest she believes other women could benefit, too.

“I see it as a huge opportunity for women in all aspects of our business, whether you want to be a contractor or an installer,” she said. “It’s a wide-open field for women in our industry, whatever aspect you want to be involved in.”