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Women, Representation, and the Future of the Skilled Trades

Aug. 18, 2023
CONTRACTOR speaks with Oatey’s Katherine Lehtinen about the company’s Woman’s Resource Network, The House That She Built and more.

CLEVELAND, OH — Katherine Lehtinen serves as Senior Vice President of Marketing for Oatey Co. Oatey has been a manufacturer serving the residential and commercial plumbing trades since 1916, and now include brands such as Cherne, Hercules, QuickDrain and more.

In addition to the work she does promoting the brand, Lehtinen is a founding Executive Steering Committee member of the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Group as well as Executive Sponsor of Oatey’s Emerging Professional Group. She is a member of the The House That She Built Executive Leadership Council.

The House that She Built had its start in a project by the Utah chapter of the National Association of Home Builders’ Professional Women in Building (PWB) Council: a 3,200-square foot custom-built home in Saratoga Springs, Utah, designed and constructed by an all-female skilled labor team from across the country, and completed in 2021.

The House that She Built inspired a children’s book of the same name, written by Mollie Elkman and illustrated by Georgia Castellano. Following Elkman’s interview with Lehtinen on Oatey’s company podcast The Fix (, The House That She Built has transformed into a movement hoping to inspire young women and show them the real rewards a career in the skilled trades can offer.

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CONTRACTOR: Can you tell me a little bit about Oatey’s Women's Resource Network? About how it got started, what its mission is?

Katherine Lehtinen: Oatey’s Women's Resource Network is our third resource network that we have stood up over the years. It stemmed really out of our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey, and making sure that we have a diverse group of associates and making sure that they feel like they're represented and seen within the organization.

There are 17 members of the leadership board. All of them currently are women, but the events are open to everyone—men or women it doesn't matter. It's really just to have representation. But the Women’s Resource Network’s mission is to develop and support women at Oatey, both professionally and personally. The Network provides a platform for women's engagement and development through internal and external programming and community outreach, ultimately contributing to the development, recruitment, retention, and visibility of women at Oatey.

CONTRACTOR: Everybody knows that the skilled worker shortage is a big problem in the industry right now. Do you think the trades have an image problem, and do you think that problem is worse among women? Is boosting the image of the trades a part of what the network is trying to do?

Lehtinen: I think there's a couple of things. One is, representation matters. It really does. And especially for young girls to see their moms or see people like them doing things that they might have an interest in pursuing. I do think that there has been, over the years, an image problem. We need to make sure we're addressing this is a viable, fun, great way to provide for your family. And if you don't want to go to college—or you do want to go to college—there are so many different avenues to get into the trades. We’re just trying to tell that story through the work that we're doing with The Fix podcast, and with The House That She Built. 

CONTRACTOR: You talked about a couple different efforts that you've got underway. The House That She Built started as a book from Mollie Elkman and since then it's grown into a movement.

Lehtinen: Yes. What we know is that children already have these preconceived notions of what they should or should not do by the age of five. This book is geared towards young readers and shows how women have a place in this space and can be anything from the architect to the interior designer to a plumber to a tiler or painter. It's really trying to let girls—and also boys—see representation of women in the workforce.

As I talked about earlier, that representation is important. I have boys and my youngest (he’s six) said, well, “girls don't do that,” and I quickly said, “yes, they can.”

It has been a great initiative for the Women's Resource Network at Oatey to start local. Change starts in your own community, your own backyard. That means reading to school districts here in Cleveland, Ohio. Reading to my own hometown school where I live, putting books into little libraries throughout the city. My kids laugh because I always have a pack of books in the back of the car and I will pull over anywhere and go run and put a book into a little library. But it's those small steps, and if we continue to build out the ambassador group of The House That She Built, that will make a huge impact for the trade and the industry and for many women to come.

CONTRACTOR: The project had its origins in the Utah and the NAHB Women's professional organization out there. Both volunteers and paid workers came from all over to participate in the project, correct?

Lehtinen: That is correct, yes. And they are looking to do more of these builds throughout the country and utilizing The House That She Built to help promote and showcase those builds.

I sit on The House That She Built Leadership Council. It's made up of all women in different disciplines, and Oatey is one of their ambassadors for the plumbing trade. We work with them on the curriculum and training materials, with the goal of introducing girls and young adults to the trades.

The Leadership Council really helps give this global view of how we want to continue to grow and what we need to do to drive impact. One of those programs is the ambassador program, and this is really where anyone can participate. And it's signing up and taking that initiative of, I'm going to read this in my community, or I'm going to take this to my school.

We did a giveaway on social media a month ago where we were giving a case—which is 25 books—to four schools around the country. One of the schools that was the lucky winner is now putting the book in their curriculum. Just that small investment drove change in Vermont.

CONTRACTOR: Are there any other projects that the Women Resource Network or The House That She Built organization have planned for the future?

Lehtinen: There are a few things I'll touch on for you. The Women's Resource Group also does things outside of even The House That She Built, and one of the things that they're working on from now until the end of the year is the I am Remarkable program. It's a women's empowerment workshop encouraging women to highlight their successes and be supportive of the things that they've been able to accomplish.

The House That She Built has started a Girl Scouts patch program. And we're running an event here in the Cleveland market this fall. We are renovating a team room at a women's safe location here in Cleveland. Also, we are sponsoring and supporting American Heart Association STEM event here in Cleveland at one of our children's science museums. We are really looking for ways that we can drive change and impact in our local community.

We’re trying to get a bit out of the Cleveland area. Oatey is going to be a sponsor at the Big Build, which happens at the National Building Museum this October. It is a great event trying to bring awareness to all the elements of the built environment.  It gives kids hands-on experiences. For our event, they'll be able to put together and build all of these tubular pieces to create their own plumbing masterpiece. The National Building Museum predicts close to 5,000 kids will come through. It’s a partnership Oatey is really excited about.

CONTRACTOR: Is there anything more that you want people to know, either about the Women's Resource Network or about The House that She Built?

Lehtinen: My message in all of this is that we need everyone to participate. Including all the brands that are similar to Oatey in the trades. This is something that I feel that every organization should be supporting, talking about and helping with: activating how we get more people into the trade, how we promote and change that stigma against the plumbing trade. How do we get in into our schools, talk to our guidance counselors? Because if we all unify, we could really drive amazing change. Those of us who are close to this trade understand what an awesome, amazing, field it is to be in, as well has how important it is for our country and communities. I really want to encourage other brands and organizations in this space to get involved. It's going to take all of us to make a change.

Oatey Co. will be an exhibitor and sponsor at PHCC Connect 2023, which will be held Oct. 25-27 in the company’s hometown of Cleveland, OH.

About the Author

Steve Spaulding | Editor-inChief - CONTRACTOR

Steve Spaulding is Editor-in-Chief for CONTRACTOR Magazine. He has been with the magazine since 1996, and has contributed to Radiant Living, NATE Magazine, and other Endeavor Media properties.

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