Statistics on women in the construction industry. Source: New Homes & Renovations, 1 Oct 2017 online edition

Why Are There So Few Women in Trades?

Shawna HendersonDecember 19, 2017

Is that really a question?

With all the ‘revelations’ about sexual harassment and assault and systemic misogyny that we've seen in the past couple of months in the news, I've been thinking about the home construction industry and my experience in it. 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 'grab onto 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 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 could get away with 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.

Given my experience on site, 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, only a small portion 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. Here's a great article on Women in Trades and the numbers from New Homes & Renovations magazine, Oct 1, 2017 online edition. The article references a Build Force Canada report that indicates that in the li'l ol' Nova Scotia market alone, we can expect 8,200 retirements, with only 5,800 new trained workers to replace them in a business-as-usual scenario. 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 young women. There are some great Nova Scotian initiatives that the NHR article points to:

 - providing mentoring and role models for girls in high school.

Women Unlimited - running a 14-week Career Exploration Program through the NS Community College campuses.

It’s a cultural thing

At the same time, we need to alter the culture of the industry. That's not addressed in the NHR article. It's the elephant in the’s always been the elephant in the room. 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.

However, the elephant is still there. We’re losing skilled tradesmen every day to retirement. We need to be nurturing skilled tradeswomen to take some of those places. 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.

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.

Those of us in the industry already can focus on ‘courageous conversations, and hopefully make some small changes from within. 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.

That's a big challenge to get over when trying to entice women into the industry. Especially now that the curtain has been peeled back in such a dramatic way and we can see how normalized harassing behavior is in many other areas of life.

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