Women in the construction industry continue to break barriers but still face bias.
A panel spanning generations of industry experience looked at the state of women in the construction industry at the Bridging the Gap Safety Conference held recently in Vancouver.
The panel consisted of M.J. Whitemarsh, the former CEO of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, BC Tradeswomen Society president Lisa Langevin, Goretti Guilbault, a heavy equipment operator and IUOE 115 member, and Chelsea Barron, a Red Seal machinist who works for Raute Canada Ltd.
The experience of entering the industry as a woman varied with the age of the panellists, though all agreed there is more to be done to make conditions better for women in the trades.
“Twelve years ago, I refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and kicked down doors. I decided I was going to run a bulldozer and I just went and did it,” Guilbault said. “In the position I’m in now, I want to give that feeling to other women.”
Whitemarsh said cultural change in any field is slow, but “for women in the construction field back in 1982, it was different. It’s changing, but not fast enough.”
Barron is a recent graduate and said as someone who grew up with a family in the trades it wasn’t a difficult transition for her.
“I grew up with my dad and brother being tradesmen and when I played hockey I dealt with guys, so I’ve never had a problem dealing with men,” she said.
“There’s less of a problem now with more women on jobsites and it’s getting better.”
Langevin, by contrast, was “just grateful I got a job” when she joined the industry in the early 2000s.
“I went to an electrical company and was offered a job as a project assistant. Everyone else in my class got a job before I did,” Langevin said.
She also noted a difference in levels of enthusiasm between men and women when she went to the Women Build Nations Conference, one of the largest annual gatherings of tradeswomen.
“All the women there loved their jobs, but lots of the guys there were in the trades because ‘their parents made them’ or ‘they didn’t know what else to do,’” Langevin said.
While the panel agreed the situation has improved for women in construction, they still face challenges.
We don’t celebrate mentors and those ‘white hats’ out there that help women in trades
— Goretti Guilbault
“The reality is that some women have a lack of confidence and there are some invisible rules that only apply to some people,” Guilbalt added. “There are many challenges you have to be adaptable and strong in order to respond to.”
“There are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes of women in the trades, so before you even walk through the door you’re judged. But all in all it’s been a positive experience,” Barron said.
Guilbalt also pointed to bullying and harassment as an ongoing concern in the industry.
“Bullying and harassment is a big part of it, and some women aren’t prepared for that level of harassment,” she said.
“One thing that should be brought back full circle is that any time we see bullying or harassment, that’s impacting productivity on the site and these behaviours are an impediment to your safety,” Whitemarsh said.
Changing the culture requires a process that says what’s acceptable and what isn’t and stick to it, she added.
“It has to start from the top. Employers have to embrace acceptable behaviours, and it will cascade down to superintendents and others,” Whitemarsh said.
Guilbault said at the same time male allies in the industry should be celebrated.
“We don’t celebrate mentors and those ‘white hats’ out there that help women in trades,” she said.
Langevin pointed to the Be More Than a Bystander anti-bullying program where BC Lions players speak about the impact of men’s violence towards women.
“We’ve modified the curriculum to focus on construction, and we’ll have the BC Lions doing a three-day workshop with male construction leaders to get them to stand up, speak out and get other men on the jobsite to stand up and speak out,” Langevin said.
Langevin added with more women on jobssites, there are more reports of “great allies speaking out.”
“But every woman has to prove herself. Once you do prove yourself, the guys are great,” she said.
While men are judged individually, she added, a woman in the trades is still expected to represent all women.
“I feel the burden of other women. We know what we do on a jobsite will affect the women that come after us. That’s a burden we all carry,” Langevin said.