They bend pipe. They move earth. They juggle site logistics. No, they aren’t superheroes; they’re women who’ve made construction their chosen field at member companies of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA). And whether they realize it or not, they’re role models; driving a change in attitude and culture and proving there is a place for women in construction.
There’s no question that change has been slow. Of the more than one million tradespeople who make up Canada’s construction workforce, only a fraction of them are women; about 4.7 per cent. But as Carol Anne DeNeve sees it, “this decade is the perfect storm, the stars are aligning and inroads are being made.”
DeNeve is the office and human resources manager at McLean Taylor Construction Limited and Stone Town Construction Limited in St. Marys. As demographics shift and baby boomers retire in large numbers, DeNeve says there’s a notable change in attitude.
“As the workforce becomes younger, women are more widely accepted. Now, as more women come on board, it’s all about where workers are needed. It makes no difference whether they’re men or women.”
Miranda Van Rooyen started out as a summer student at Van Rooyen Earthmoving Ltd. in Woodstock, Ont. Her dad is a foreman at the company and encouraged her to “give it a try and see how it goes.” Now into her ninth season in construction, she’s earned her way from driving a packer and rock truck, to becoming the company’s first female bulldozer operator.
“It took me a long time to admit to myself that I actually like it,” says the 24-year-old, who graduated from university with a degree in psychology and worked in the mental health industry, before realizing how much she missed construction and working outdoors.
“That’s when I decided to stick with it,” says Van Rooyen, who hopped on a bulldozer for the first-time last year. “It was a new challenge, it felt more hands on, and I discovered I like working with my hands.”
Van Rooyen’s goal is to learn to run every machine. Her advice to other women considering a career in construction is to be positive.
“I’m not tall or big, but I can drive a big machine. It’s not about brute strength. Everyone brings a different skill set. Just bring a good attitude.”
Madeleine Becke, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, is a project co-ordinator at JMR Electric Limited in Exeter. Always “really big on organizing,” she reviews shop drawings, organizes permits, equipment and sub-contractors before construction gets underway on public projects, like schools and hospitals.
“For as long as I can remember I wanted to be in an industry where I could prove myself,” Becke explains. She grew up helping her dad with projects, from basement renovations to deck building.
“In construction or any other male-dominated industry, you have to be confident. If I had a different opinion, my father always encouraged me to speak my mind.”
Becke and Van Rooyen both have dads who are strong role models. Adriana Brouwer, a first term plumbing apprentice who also works at JMR, was encouraged by a friend’s grandmother who believed the skilled trades have a lot to offer women.
“She always emphasized how getting in the trades would be an essential under your belt and something you could be proud of accomplishing,” says the 21-year-old. “I remember that every day.”
Brouwer, who started at JMR six months ago, worked for a while in retail and manufacturing before finding her calling in the construction trades, where she shapes metal as she builds and installs boilers in public buildings.
“I think if given the opportunity, a lot of women would enjoy construction. It makes you feel that you can stand with the rest of them.”
Women are wanted and needed in construction to counter a massive wave of retirements. Also, the door will open even wider for women, as construction plays a crucial role in rebuilding the economy from COVID-19. For women graduating from high school or considering a career change, construction is the industry of opportunity, where their skills have never been more valued or in demand.
Danna O’Brien is the principal at O’Brien Communications and wrote this op-ed on behalf of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.