Structural steel and welding inspector Kay Sims has been instrumental in helping us understand the unique needs of women who spend their days playing with fire. Originally an artist and sewist, Sims sat down with us to discuss what it's really like on the jobsite and beyond. This interview is a continuation from our newsletter. Sign up to receive bi-monthly interviews, special discounts and more here.
How would you describe your job?
I’m responsible for inspecting that the welding is done to code and to the plans of the building. My favorite project that I worked on recently was the replacement of the roller wheels on the Broadway Bridge. Bridges are cool.
You once compared welding to "sewing with fire." How does a background in sewing apply to your career?
I learned to sew when I was really young- my mom taught me. When I was 18 or 19, I learned how to weld and make sculptures. I wanted to learn how to weld because I thought that it was like sewing... I would make skeletons out of metal, and then put the fabric on the top. They’re such different materials that they go together.
At my old job, I got to see how barges get put together. It’s sheets of metal, two-dimensional things being formed into a three-dimensional thing. That’s really similar to using a pattern to make clothes.
What are the challenges, if any, of being a woman in a male-dominated field?
People tend to have their minds made up about you often. A lot of men that end up working in that trade have a mindset about how a woman is already in that environment. It’s hard to get past that sometimes. You have to work 200% harder than everyone else, before they’re like, ‘oh yeah, I guess you’re fine.’
Has anyone questioned why you’re doing what you’re doing?
Oh yeah, all the time, but it’s fine. You can tell when somebody is maybe just a little ignorant about things and they don’t mean any harm by it, but you can tell when someone’s being mean-spirited and there’s a difference. Sometimes people will have an attitude and it doesn’t really matter. It depends on the people.
Do you think it’s because they’re scared for you?
Sometimes, or they’re scared for themselves. They don’t want to be shown up by a woman.
Has anybody ever given you a hard time then came back around?
Yeah, I’ve had that happen before. I used to have a really big problem with this guy. I was a supervisor on one shift and he was a supervisor on another shift, so we interacted. We always clashed and had problems. I started working hard one day and got a ridiculous amount of work done. He came in and was like, 'now I can tell my guys they have to work harder than that or they’re going to get beat by a girl.'
What is a lesson that’s helped you excel in welding?
Welding is a thing where you have skill — muscle memory skill — from doing the repetitive motion and practicing. Like drawing, the more you do it, the better you get. There’s this whole technical side of it, the theory about it, too. For a long time, I vaguely understood it. One day, someone was explaining something to me, and talking about the theory of minutely technical things and everything just clicked. From then on I felt like I could understand everything, because I could break down all these technical things.
What advice would you give a woman going in the trades?
Be prepared to work hard and be prepared to grow a thicker skin. Look inside, and find the tough person that’s inside of you, but still be yourself. You don’t have to act like a tough dude and be somebody that you aren’t if you’re a feminine person. You can still be that person, but know what it takes to fit into an industrial environment. For safety reasons, you have to be okay with speaking up, if you see something happening or if you need to communicate with somebody.
You’re working with us to develop a line of non-flammable pants for welders. What do you love about your Mavens as they are now?
The fabric is one thing I especially like. They’re stretchy without being flimsy. I like that they’re stretchy. I like the size of the side pockets, too, I’m really into pockets.
Any organizations you want to shout out?
I did Oregon Tradeswomen Inc’s program in 2007. They didn’t have [the welding program] then, they just had the being prepared to work in the trades thing, so that was a good introduction. They were very helpful with when I started my job.