Given the apparent drop in women in the trades reported by Statistic Canada is enough being done to attract women into the trades and keep them there?
“I’d hesitate to say yes,” Lindsay Kearns, a Red Seal electrician and outreach co-ordinator for the BC Centre for Women in the Trades (BCCWITT) says.
“I meet women in their mid-30s like me who find out what I do and say, oh, I never thought I could go into a trade like that.”
Reaching out to kids in high school and getting them into shop class — especially all girl classes — takes a lot of the stigma and embarrassment out of the picture, she says.
“We can always do more,” she adds noting she was a late starter and many women also enter the trades at a later age.
“There’s all kinds of discussion from PPE that fits, dealing with pregnancy on the job and childcare,” Cheryl Paron International Representative, First District (Canada), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in B.C. says. “Sometimes it is just about having someone to talk to after a bad day.”
The outreach programs have been working, she says, focusing on kids in Grade 9 and up is critical for both boys and girls in terms of flagging construction as a career path.
“One of the key things I think is to have more women in leadership positions in construction as role models,” she says.
Lindsay Amundsen, Director of Workforce Development for Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU), says data is essential and we just don’t have the right data.
“Our office received federal funding a year ago for a pilot project to gather and track data in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia,” she says. “We need to be digging deeper.”
The hope is that the pilot will show the merit and logistics around having a consistent set of compatible data from across Canada for analytics and to drive future recruiting and retention programs for women in the construction trades.
Beyond the data, however, she says, ensuring places in training programs and job sites is also a critical tool to drive numbers.
“We need to look at Community Benefit Agreements, which they have with First Nations communities, for example,” she says. “By legislating a Community Benefit Agreement, we could ensure that vulnerable groups like women would get access to skills training and jobs on major projects.”
Kearns says construction is a tough job to acclimatize to. It starts early in the morning, doesn’t easily accommodate child care issues and isolation and loneliness are common issues faced by women, because there’s no one to talk to about their unique challenges.
Even if there are other women, being chatty and distracted on the job will quickly draw the ire of the site supervisor.
“We started a weekly meeting for women three years ago on the first Wednesday of the month,” she says. “It’s not run by the union, it’s run by us. You can bring your kids and it has been wildly successful.”
Women are free to talk about challenges such as finding PPE that fit, toxic work cultures, social isolation and trying to find a peer mentor, she says.
Sometimes toxic worksites are manifested in a lack of basic human decency, like having a clean, sanitary washroom so a woman — or a man — isn’t so repelled and disgusted they have to leave the site to find a suitable toilet, Kearns says.
Also, male or female, being an apprentice is hard. They tend to get assigned the dirtiest and most menial jobs and sometimes it feels like they’re being singled out. Women especially begin to feel they might be getting the raw treatment simple as a way to force them out.
“You feel the supervisor is not treating you with respect,” she says.
“You’re given a broom and told to clean out the basement or organize the materials. My journeyperson used to have me clean up the van.”
For a rookie, it’s hard to know what’s normal and talking to other women in the trade quickly clears up any misconception.
“They’re like, oh, yeah, that’s totally normal job for the apprentice and that’s your job,” she says.
One of the recent, biggest breakthroughs was the government decree that Community Benefit Agreements be included in project contracts ensuring skilled trade jobs went to women and other vulnerable groups, says Karen Walsh, executive director and project consultant at the Office to Advance Women Apprentices.
Collaborating with the trade unions also produced a united determination to get women into the trade, and more importantly, help them stay through.
“It’s hard because your job is to finish the project and put yourself out of a job,” she says. “Women were saying, I quit because I can’t take working four months and then not working. It is a cycle and they have bills to pay.”
It’s the data which is so important she says and she’s setting up pilot projects in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia to add to the established cluster. B.C. also has a good data collection scheme in place.