Why Are There So Few Women in Trades?

Why Are There So Few Women in Trades?

Shawna HendersonMarch 08, 2024

And why is this STILL a question?

I've been in the home construction and renovation industry for over 30 years.

For many years I was the only woman on site, except for the cleaning crew and one woman who ran an insulation company (and she was fierce and very good at her job). Over the years, I have met other women working in construction and I can assure you, each of us has put up with a lot of bullshit to follow our passion into this industry.

Here's some low lights from my own career:

Let's see, at the beginning, there was the engineering prof at BCIT who told the 8 women (out of 88 in our Building Technology class) that it was a 'given' that women were bad at math, and therefore his advice to us was to 'seduce one of the brighter guys and not let go of him for the next two years'. I marched right into the Dean's office to protest this nasty little piece of advice.

The guy who cornered me in a mechanical room, tried to grope me, grabbed a broom handle, waved it around and threatened to beat the shit out of me if I told anyone.

The client who's smarmy advances on a secluded building site and subsequent threatening phone calls led me to give him back his retainer, block him on all channels, and forfeit getting paid for the many hours I had already put in on his project. Apparently I wasn't clear about what services he was buying.

Let me repeat that: I. Lost. Significant. Income. Just. To. Stay. Safe.

Not to mention all sorts of tiresome verbal abuse over a +30 year career, having to prove my value 120% while the men around me succeeded on 70% effort. All sorts of tedious reckoning with language and ducking the slagging of those who felt I was an intruder on the site because I don't have a penis.

I can take a joke. I can also tell you what's not a joke, and never has been a joke.

Given my experience on site, echoed by nearly every single woman I know professionally, and the continued gender split that is taught from preschool on, it's no wonder women still make up a small proportion of the construction workforce. And that’s a problem for the industry. A serious one that is partially feeding into the looming jobs vacuum.

Statistics Canada studies show that 88 percent of the construction industry workforce in Canada is men. Of the 12 percent who are female, less than half of those are actually in the skilled trades category.

There's a very well-documented skilled trades shortage -- with retirement/attrition only making that worse in the next decade. There's something beyond an opportunity to engage the other 50% of the population and improve the chances of the industry being able to deflect the skills vacuum.

We need to engage women - now, and from an early age. After all, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

It’s a cultural thing

At the same time, we need to alter the culture of the industry. Sexism and misogynistic attitudes are rampant in construction industry, and to call it out can mean taking your career in your hands. I know many women who are loath to talk about anything to do with the blatant sexism they have experienced because they have also worked ferociously hard to achieve success in the industry. They don’t want to distract from their success by having attention brought back to them being the ‘girl’ on site. And rightly so.

We’re losing skilled tradesmen every day to retirement, and there's simply not enough men coming in to make up the difference. We need to be nurturing skilled tradeswomen to take some of those places.

To do that, we need effective ways of identifying, labelling, and shedding the descriptive and prescriptive biases that are layered over women, our behavior, abilities, and what's expected of us.

That's a big challenge to get over when trying to entice women into the industry. Where there are statistics available, they show that women leave construction within 3 to 5 years. To have babies? No.

To get away from the toxic environment.

We need to develop ways of talking about how to change industry biases, why they need to change and what we can do to effect that change individually.

We need to hear more from folks like HvAChicks Jennifer, Jodi Huettner, Jamie McMillan.

Both women and men who are coming into the industry need a whole toolkit to deal with systemic sexism to call out and make a course-correction in the way the industry is skewed to a male-centric model. And I don’t mean pink hardhats.

I mean allies. Folks who will 'lend us their hammers to break glass ceilings'.

There's a difference, however, between 'trades' and 'construction', where there's corporate structure and HR, and most of the home construction and renovation industry. Somewhere near 70% of all businesses in our industry have 0-4 people on payroll ('0' being the owner-operator who doesn't have a salary). No HR oversight there. How do we change the culture of this atomized industry?

I want you to do a thought experiment today. I want you to count the number of people you interact with regularly in your professional life. Then I want you to count the number of women (cis/trans/bi/other) you work with. Then I want you to note what their role is. How many are on the tools? How many are project managers/site supers? How many are owners/bosses? How many are in admin/support roles?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published