British Columbia’s construction industry still seems to be the last frontier in terms of attracting women to the trades, as the number of females in the field has remained relatively unchanged for years, hovering around the four-to-five-per-cent mark, depending on the trade and who you talk to.
However, there is some hope that the tide may be changing, as issues such as discrimination, bullying and harassment are now in the public eye, and a number of organizations and groups have picked up the gauntlet to try to encourage more women to get into the construction industry.
“The visibility of women in trades is still fairly low,” says Chelsea French, a member of Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in B.C. and co-chair of Build TogetHER, a committee of the B.C. Building Trades that is tailoring strategies to recruit and retain women. “There are a lot of women working in trades, however they are in small numbers on job sites and in companies.”
French, a commercial transportation mechanic by trade, says it’s a big issue with lots of layers but, personally, she believes a big reason for the low numbers is that women still aren’t exposed to the trades.
“There is still a tonne of advertising for toys that show tool boxes and building sets with boys only on the cover and I know, as a parent, my little girls see this and think it’s not meant for them, even with a mother who works with tools.”
In addition, French says there are still barriers that stand in the way of women getting into the trades such as availability of child care to accommodate women in construction who work long hours.
“The hard truth is that the culture in trades is still behind compared to other fields of work in some cases,” she says. “Bullying and harassment are still sometimes overlooked and seen as part of the job.”
Lack of clean washroom facilities, personal protective equipment that does not fit, and little support or accommodation for pregnant women are also factors deterring women in the trades, she notes.
“On top of that, there are still a large number of employers that just aren’t hiring women and companies that aren’t willing to change their culture (and) make it welcoming to women to work there.”
Still, there are signs of change, says French, as more resources are being made available for women looking to start a career in the trades, and legislation is being changed to put women on equal footing.
A goal of the B.C. Builders Code, for example, is to ensure construction employers can more easily champion HR policies that guarantee fair treatment of women in the province’s ICI construction workforce. Created by the BC Construction Association with input from construction sector partners, this is a “fix the system, not the women” project to help drive a culture shift in B.C.’s construction industry that will contribute to improved retention of women in the trades, and in the longer term, lead to a decrease in the number of unfilled skilled trades jobs in the construction sector, says French.”
This is a “fix the system, not the women” project to help drive a culture shift in B.C.’s construction industry that will contribute to improved retention of women in the trades, and in the longer term, lead to a decrease in the number of unfilled skilled trades jobs in the construction sector, says French.
Lisa Langevin, an assistant business manager at Local 213 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and president of the BC Tradeswomen Society which provides support for women in the trades, says construction still has low numbers of females but more are starting to take up trades.
She figures roughly five per cent of the construction workforce is female, depending on the skilled trade.
“In some trades they’re going at about five per cent, but in my hall I think we’re about eight per cent right now. The numbers are increasing, but more importantly we’re starting to track more accurately.”
Certain trades, like elevator constructors have had huge success stories, she says, noting that the number of women has traditionally been below one per cent, but in many a place it’s starting to rise.
Langevin says there are a lot of programs underway to get more women into the trades and the focus now should be on retention because word of mouth is the best advertisement for the industry.
“Most of our efforts have been put towards retention rather than recruitment because what we found in B.C. was that we actually had some ground-breaking recruitment programs and we were recruiting more but we weren’t retaining them. So, most of our efforts have gone towards retention.”
The more women that are having positive experiences in the trades and telling other women, the better chance more will sign up, Langevin says.
Dana Taylor, executive vice-president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of British Columbia, says attitudes amongst employers and male workers are changing, albeit slowly, and young women are also increasingly recognizing the potential benefits of pursuing careers in the trades.
“It’s a deep dive to change it. I’m told the wall calendars with the girls in bikinis have disappeared from the site offices.”
Taylor believes the provincial government’s Community Benefits Agreement which requires employers to give women and other groups job opportunities may have an impact on women in the trades.
“The jury is out on how well that will do,” she says, but “presumably, if matched by specific incentives, it might have some bite.”
The BC Centre for Women in the Trades, a two-year pilot which is working to eliminate barriers faced by women in the trades, might also help, she notes.
Taylor believes women can’t go wrong by pursuing a career in the trades – even if they don’t stick at it.
“Construction is a good career for anyone – women and men – just look at the paycheques. A trade builds confidence and gives a person skills that are portable – used anywhere, and even if one moves on to other things, the skills learned in the trades can always be a plan B along life’s unpredictable highway.”