By Kim Arnott
Visit any construction job site in Canada and you'll be hard-pressed to find a woman in a hardhat. While better represented in management offices and in professional roles, such as engineering and architecture, women still made up only 144,800 of the 1.2 million Canadians employed in the construction industry in 2008.
Particularly underrepresented within construction trades, women make up only four percent of skilled workers. And while the last decade has seen a slight increase in the participation of females in certain trades, including cabinetmaking, tilesetting and painting, women still make up fewer than two percent of workers in many trades.
A study released by the Construction Sector Council last February found a myriad of reasons for the ongoing gender gap in the industry. Few young women are attracted to the industry, and those who do enter training or apprenticeship programs report difficulty finding employment afterward. Retention rates for those who actually make it onto the job site are also low, with tradeswomen citing conflicts between inflexible work policies and parenting obligations, as well as concerns with workplace safety, harassment and bullying.
While the numbers may be a concern, the good news is that this issue has become widely recognized, with a number of programs and organizations actively working to address the gender gap. The CSC report notes that a looming skilled labour shortage is driving initiatives to bring underrepresented workers, including women, into the industry.
Organizations like the Canadian Association of Women in Construction are developing a variety of partnerships and programs aimed at attracting women to non-traditional roles in the construction industry and supporting them as they begin their careers. From bursaries for female students, to networking meetings to link women working in the industry, the association aims to make it easier for women to succeed.
"We all recognize that women are still not being adequately supported in the industry," says CAWIC director Tammy Evans. "We strive to support both young women coming into the industry as well as those already working in the industry. We need to make sure they can get in and want to stay in."
One strategy involves pairing young workers with more experienced mentors who know the world of construction, like CAWIC member Nancy Regina, a 25-year-veteran of the industry who owns her own general contracting firm in the Toronto area.
Regina has seen several sides to the industry prior to launching Taylor Wakefield General Contractors Ltd. As a general contractor, she has had success bidding on a number of projects for municipal governments and other public organizations. "There's no discrimination at all as a female," she says. "The people in these organizations have no problems with a woman in authority."
Kate Stewart, a Vancouver-area carpenter with Tradeworks Training Society and Tradeworks Custom Products, experienced similar challenges in her 20 years as a construction and renovation contractor. She was once ordered off a job by a sympathetic general contractor who was responding to a homeowner who didn't want a woman working on his renovation.
"There were some men that were fabulous, but there were a lot of men who just didn't want women working in the trades," she says. "There's still major attitude out there."
Despite the challenges, however, Stewart says there are good opportunities for women in trades like carpentry. The work is interesting and well-paying, and "with power tools, it's really not as a heavy a job as it used to be," she says.
That's the attitude that Martina Ernst is trying to foster at her Toronto-area design and build company Wo-Built Inc. From its name to its marketing materials, the company has successfully used the fact that its co-owners are women as a way to differentiate itself in a competitive industry.
One of the company's goals is to mentor women entering the construction industry, to give them site experience that will help them find apprenticeships.
Ernst agrees there are great opportunities for women, particularly in areas like the finishing trades that are very visual and detail-oriented. "I believe that women can really make great headway with the trades but like everything else, it takes time," she says.
A partnership arrangement has just been established between CAWIC and the Toronto-area Building Industry and Land Development Association, and Evans hopes it will help welcome more women into the industry and increase the number of females found on Canadian job sites.
"The laws are in place. The education is available. So now the industry and CAWIC need to make sure lingering social perceptions regarding women working in the construction industry change," she says.