Men, Women, And Fear Of Power Tools


By Bruce W. Maki, Editor


My mother has always been a handy and capable person. About ten years ago she ran a small business in a turn-of-the-century home she had purchased by herself. While visiting her home one summer she gave me a basic Black and Decker circular saw. It wasn't a gift; she had bought the saw for herself but was not comfortable using it. I checked the saw over and cleaned it up but it still made a lot of noise. It made me a little nervous at first but I got used to it. I have been using it ever since.

Three years ago I devoted a couple of hundred hours to a volunteer project, helping to build a transition house for a domestic violence shelter. On Saturdays a lot of volunteers showed up, many of them women. The guys working on the project were anything but male chauvinists. Yet when it came to doing the more dangerous work, like installing shingles on the second-story roof or cutting lumber with power saws, most (but not all) of the ladies were rather... let's say... bashful.

And last fall, while working a part-time job for a major tool and hardware retail chain, our whole department, half of whom were women, went to a special tool training seminar. They had a room set up with all of the store's power tools and woodworking machines, so employees could try them and speak from experience when they talked to customers. I was shocked at the near complete reluctance of the women to even touch the miter saws, table saws and pneumatic nailers. So I coaxed a couple of female co-workers to try them out, explaining how safe the machines were if the wood was held firmly and their hands were kept in the proper places.

I'll admit that I have experienced moments of fear and intimidation when climbing ladders or using noisy, dangerous power tools. I'd bet that a lot of other men react the same way. I've seen guys who acted reluctant to use some tools. But males rarely verbalize any fear of common "guy things" like power tools.

That in itself, I believe, is a fundamental difference between men and women - the willingness to express fear.

Suppose a man took a job as a carpenter's helper, or even just spent an afternoon helping his friends build a deck. Suppose part of his job was cutting lumber. Suppose the only tool available was a circular saw. Observers may never notice it, but I'd wager that plenty of men feel at least a slight amount of fear when using a circular saw. I've worked with circular saws for years and sometimes I still experience a slight reservation to using them.

But I don't let that stop me.

My reasoning ability overpowers my fear. There are millions of circular saws in use. They have been in widespread use for half a century. They are carefully designed and engineered for the highest degree of safety. They have to be; the manufacturers would certainly be sued if they did not take the utmost of care in design.

When used properly, with necessary protective devices like safety glasses, circular saws pose a small but highly acceptable risk. Knowing the risks of any power tool is important. Anybody that thinks a circular saw will jump out of their hand and attack them is either totally unaware, paranoid delusional or in need of drug rehabilitation. The two greatest risks from a circular saw, in my opinion, are the danger of flying particles and the tendency of saws to kick back when the blade gets pinched.

The question remains: why are women so much more reluctant than men to use power saws? I'm not an expert in psychology, but I have made a few (hopefully objective) observations in my years.

Women willingly express fear. There's nothing wrong with that... unless it prevents them from accomplishing their goals or limits their potential.

Men may be afraid of some things, like power tools, but you'll rarely see it. I stated that I have observed in some guys a slight reluctance to use power tools. But I have never seem a man outright refuse to use a tool or climb a ladder. Rather than be called a wimp by their peers, guys will overcome their fear, "leave their comfort zone" as some would say, and just do the scary task. And after using the saw or climbing the shaky ladder they realize... that wasn't so bad.

Maybe I will be branded a sexist because of writing an article like this. Contrary to what some feminists may feel by reading this, I strongly advocate that women have equal opportunity in everything. I have read numerous accounts of significant differences in male and female brains. But I don't believe that can explain the female reluctance to operate risky equipment. Certainly many women do use these tools, I have met successful female carpenters and construction workers. What I think is the culprit is the socialization process that girls undergo as they mature. It's acceptable for girls to be afraid of slightly scary things. As much as we seem to loathe the peer pressure and intimidation that boys inflict upon each other, it does serve some useful purposes, such as coaxing males out of their comfort zones and trying things that are a little risky, "pushing the envelope" as we say.

Now I hope you don't misread my message here and think that I'm advocating that we all take up sky diving or base jumping or any of those dangerous "extreme sports" in vogue today. What I'm advocating is that people understand themselves, that they use reasoning to overpower fear when appropriate. If millions of others have done it, and the manufacturers of the tools or products are still in business, then there must be a safe way to do it. Find that safe way and stick to it.

And one more thing. Women so often complain that men won't express their feelings. Maybe some things are better left unsaid.


Read one woman's reply to this editorial.


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