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Construction sector ‘inhospitable’ to women: Conference Board of Canada

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The construction industry was singled out as being “inhospitable” to women in a Conference Board of Canada report titled Women in Senior Management: Where Are They? But some female construction executives think “inhospitable” is too strong a word. Kelsey Ramsden, owner of Belvedere Place Development Ltd., and Dawn Tattle, president of Anchor Shoring & Caissons Ltd. offered their take.

Women have been left behind in the ranks of senior management in both the private and public sectors and the construction industry was singled out as being “inhospitable” a report from the Conference Board of Canada concludes.

“Women have made great progress over the past 22 years, but not in the ranks of senior management positions,” said Anne Golden, president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada as she presented the report, Women in Senior Management: Where Are They? Increasing women’s representation at the senior level is not simply a matter of justice or fairness. Companies that fail to integrate women’s perspectives into high-level decision making risk losing market share, competitive advantage and profits. We already know what to do. Now we simply need to do it.”

The study found that despite increasing participation in the work force, the proportion of women in senior management has “virtually flat-lined over the past two decades.” Conversely, since 1987, men are “two to three times more likely than women to be senior managers and one-and-a-half more times more likely to be middle managers.”

The conference board report also cited a survey by consultants Mercer Human Capital of managers at 290 Canadian organizations, showing most employers still do not have a clear strategy in place for developing women into leadership roles.

It found women report that many workplaces — particularly in traditionally male industries such as mining and construction — remain “inhospitable” to women.

The findings weren’t shocking but women executives in construction interviewed by the Daily Commercial News say “inhospitable” is too strong a word.

“This industry does take a lot of sacrifice,” said Kelsey Ramsden, owner of Belvedere Place Development Ltd., who spent her summers working as a sign person at her father’s company on the Alaska highway before getting her MBA and starting her own company. “And it’s not an industry women traditionally tend to go into.”

She said the only push back she’s gotten was temporary. The key for any manager is to establish their credentials with a crew. The rest is just business.

The Canadian Association of Women in Construction points to Statistics Canada reports noting recruiting both men and women into the trades has been a struggle because, for the vast majority, it’s not a first career choice for most and apprenticeship drop-out rates are high for both men and women.

Women already in the trades say promoting basic issues within the industry such as safety, workplace respect, family-friendly policies, stronger employer leadership, good hiring and HR practices and careful education of all employees, goes a long way to making the sector more attractive to women.

“I think you have to walk the talk and have field experience,” said Ramsden, mother of three who recently delivered her fourth. It’s also demanding physically because work demand can mean living in remote areas with only crude facilities.

Still, she said, things are changing as more women engineers take on more senior positions, a shift Jane Gowing, owner of Gowing Contractors Ltd., water and wastewater treatment specialists, also sees.

“I was only one of five women out of 120 in my engineering class,” says Gowing. “But things have improved. I have a woman welder in our fabrication shop.”

She said “once in a blue moon” she’ll run into someone who looks at her and wonders what’s she’s doing on a job site.

“I had someone ask me if I was the site secretary once,” she laughed. “And he was actually working for me. You have to prove yourself.”

Still, she said, the “old boys” contractor network is “alive and well” but it is not as unwelcoming as it used to be.

United States author Joseph Hallinan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Why We Make Mistakes, says women tend to take advice, are less over confident, more collaborative and do not make as many mistakes.

Dawn Tattle, an engineer and president of Anchor Shoring & Caissons Ltd., says the challenges faced by male executives aren’t much different than those of their female contemporaries. “Clients want the job done right regardless of whether you’re male or female.”

Both are called on to make difficult decisions and to step up in tough times. Recently one of Anchor’s employees was killed on a jobsite when an unrelated contractor’s equipment collapsed.

“The immediate rally of support offered by everyone at Anchor, whether male or female, the family and each other, was a testament to the strength of our team and did not differ by gender,” she said.

Tattle says construction needs to be better positioned as a viable career option for women to help encourage them to enter the sector.

The real driver for her — also expressed by other women — is creating something tangible: “There is a tremendous feeling of pride and accomplishment in changing the skyline. It feels great to drive by buildings and be able to say, yeah, we helped build that.”

Ramsden agrees: “I’ve done other things but at the end of the day I like moving dirt, because I like to see things happen.”

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