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Women in Construction

In our last series, we explored emerging smart solutions for indications of where our industry is going. This article explores an area in which the sector lags.

Working Women’s Status in Canada

In 2015, 82% of women of working age found paid employment across Canada. In 1950, that number was just 21%. Today we see women earning more advanced degrees, taking positions at higher levels, having greater visibility, and approaching wage parity with men. Canada consistently leads the world—outdoing all other G7 nations—in gender equality at work. But the data on women in Construction tells a different story.

Construction trails the pack in gender equality. Only 17% of construction jobs go to women. That’s behind even agriculture, logging, fishing, and hunting—a single category—though not by much.

All this data, incidentally, is from Statistics Canada, which conducts Labour Force Surveys annually. The obstacles they find for women include the idea that leaders need to be assertive, decisive, and independent and that institutional and organizational structures still see men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Another obstacle is that women have a hard time breaking into informal networks, access to influential colleagues and mentors. Finally, there’s a lack of role models.

That’s the big picture. We decided to dig into the story by seeing how the male-dominant work culture plays out in different segments of the industry.

Two Women Project Managers

Makers is an organization promoting women in all areas of the marketplace, from the arts to high tech. In a 2015 article, “What It’s Really Like to Be a Woman in the Construction Industry” They talked to two female project managers, one a recent grad and the other a seasoned veteran.

Caroline, a 2014 Notre Dame graduate in civil engineering, started working as a project manager soon after graduation. Surrounded by all-male teams with many years of experience, she felt the old boy’s attitude right away, from off-hand comments to casual sexism. “I have noticed that a lot of young women in the industry get mistaken for a secretary or an assistant just because they are young women,” she says. “Between this and being an entry-level employee, it can be difficult to distinguish whether you are being asked to do something because they genuinely need your help or because you’re the girl on the team.” Her strategy has been to show that she values older teammates’ knowledge and experience by asking questions and trusting their judgement. 

Once the actual work gets going, however, she thinks the playing field is almost level.

“I feel like a lot is expected of us, being recent college grads, and I think I get held to the same standards as my male counterparts, which I appreciate”

Caroline

Veteran project manager, Lynn Hurley, who started at Allen Construction in 2005, had a similar experience. “Uncomfortable … you better believe it,” she says. Every time she met a new crew, the men would stand and stare at her, trying to assimilate the strangeness of a woman on the site.

Her strategy was a bit more macho. “I always treated them with respect, but was clear about who called the shots.” She also used humour. Ultimately, she says, men don’t really care about gender, but competence. “I try to give them some room to get used to the idea of a woman being in charge and let them see my capabilities. Usually, it’s smooth sailing from there.”

Both women say that they’ve learned to tout their accomplishments, something many women aren’t comfortable with, while men tend to flaunt their successes.

“I have been overlooked for less qualified men and feel that I have to work harder to make my successes known. I have to consciously remind my male co-workers of my successes.” 

Lynn Hurley

The 40%

The Media Planet article concludes with a new statistic: While women are only about 17% of the total construction workforce, they fill 40% of the off-site jobs. That means they’re approaching equity with men in the professions. (Only in Saskatchewan do women opt for on-site work, filling 40% of jobs in the trades.) Even so, there are still significant issues.

The Globe and Mail reported in 2017 that 20% of Canada’s registered architects are women: The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada says 23% of its members are women. Meanwhile, in the same year, Azure magazine in “The Glass Tower” (By Linda Besner) reported that “By the early 2000s, female architecture students in Canada were winning more than half of the prizes for excellence during their education – in the 1990s women made up a third to one half of architecture students – but then many of them dropped out of sight, or out of the profession altogether.”

The conventional wisdom has it that women sacrifice their careers to raise children. But women architects say no. They say that while life balance is an issue, what matters more is how they’re perceived on the job.They don’t get promoted as quickly as men, don’t get the big projects, aren’t paid as well as men, and don’t have enough mentors and role models.

The issue of perception still clings to women architects. Women encounter comments like, “What paint colours are you considering” (she couldn’t be an architect: she must do interiors), or “Oh, you know what a two-by-four is!” They walk into a meeting, say they’re the architect, and all the men express surprise. Many start a practice (note that all five Canadian women on Azure’s list of 30 must-know women architects own their practices). But they typically stay small, and can’t do the high-profile commercial and institutional jobs.

Besner says there are encouraging signs: demands for equal pay and equal representation have been addressed by legislation in some cases. Other sources, such as BEAT (The Toronto chapter of Building Equality in Architecture), tell the same story.

Where is the other 20%?

If only 20% of architects are women, where are the women who fill the other 20% of off-site jobs? The national data isn’t granular enough to tell us about construction-specific participation in such roles as administrator, estimator, cost consultants, electrical, and even engineering, so we now turn to the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC). 

Recognizing that more needed to be done to integrate women into the industry, CAWIC teamed up with The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) to launch Level Best, a program to advance women in Construction. 

They aimed to develop “an action plan to increase hiring, retention and advancement of women within the Canadian construction industry.” The first step was to survey female construction labourers, professionals, and employers. The research phase in 2016, and they’re now working to implement the findings.

Among women workers, a little more than half are in skilled trades. Participation in management, engineering, architecture, and human resources follow, with administrative support at the bottom of the list. They work in all sectors of the industry, from non-residential and residential to heavy and civil engineering and specialty trades. About 22% say they’re the only women on their site.

The survey shows that 92% of women report harassment, such as being treated differently from men, sexist comments and jokes, and having their competency challenged. Three-quarters of them say their technical skills aren’t recognized, and they don’t have opportunities to advance.

About a third of women have children and have to do most of the child-rearing work. Affordable daycare, especially on-site daycare, would be a big plus. Oh, and they need more bathrooms.

Even so, the overwhelming majority are optimistic about their careers, and about 85% recommend construction jobs to other women.

Employers are very supportive of gender inclusion in their shops and the broader industry. They say about 25% of their staff is female. All have women in administration, and most have women in skilled trades and management. While they claim to promote women, only 20% have promoted as many as half their female staff. Why so few women? Employers say, “lack of supply in the pipeline.”

None of the employers offered on-site childcare. They don’t think harassment is an issue, because they have policies in place, with measures to enforce them. About 87% of employers say that networking, associating with like-minded women, and access to mentoring are the keys to advancement. None mentioned implementing networking or mentoring programs.

Based on these findings, CAWIC developed an action plan. Their advice on what to do to increase women’s participation is echoed by other trade associations for women and Statistics Canada. It’s reflected in multiple governmental, educational, and industry programs—it’s an area we’re planning to investigate further.

Women in the Trades

People have been talking about this for a long time. A 2011 article in the Toronto Star, “Women in Construction: Breaking the Glass Ceiling” (by Donna LaPorte), presents the need for and movement toward greater inclusion. Tammy Evans, CAWIC’s director and head of public relations and marketing, said,

“We’re not doing enough to support the women who are coming in, we’re not encouraging more women, and we have a succession problem.” 

Of the 126,000 people in construction trades in Ontario, only 3,200 are women. Evans goes on to say that there’s a perception that they can’t pull their weight. They need different clothing and safety equipment. About half of them dropped out of school, and about a third have small children. Meanwhile, women excel at jobs that need attention to detail and a high degree of finish. Jobs like drywall taping, painting, finished carpentry, cabinet making, ceramic tiling, shower installation, and siding.

And Construction needs their labour.

“Breaking Gender Barriers,” an article from Women of Influence, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the workplace, talks about this. With an ageing workforce, labour shortages, and economic growth across the country, the Construction Sector Council estimates that there will be a labour shortfall of more than a million skilled workers by 2020. Many employers are looking for women to make up the numbers.

The article mentions that Women Building Futures (WBF) is encouraging women, who are often unemployed, have dropped out of school, and have children, to enter the industry. WBF offers industry-recognized training and affordable housing for women looking to enter the construction, maintenance and driving industries. CAWIC helps fund apprentices through bursaries. Some apprentices who go through WBF’s training see a 169% increase in salaries. 

Other groups, especially in the government, are doing their share to encourage women to fill the labour gap. Ontario alone funds several Women in Skilled Trades programs. One is at Conestoga’s School of Trades & Apprenticeship, which runs a pre-apprenticeship program explicitly aimed at getting unemployed or under-employed women into skilled trades. 

In a press release for the college, Nadine Jannetta, the program’s liaison, said, “Women are underrepresented in the skilled trades, yet many employers welcome them with outstretched arms.” Given the national labour shortage, this represents a significant opportunity for young women.

Careers in Construction counted 14 organizations aimed at helping women get started in the construction trades across Canada. They all offer career counselling, training, and job placement. WBF, for instance, finds jobs for 90% of its graduates.

Conclusion

In a letter to the editor of Canadian Architect, September 2019, Tanya Southcott, MRAIC, AIBC, commented on a film celebrating pioneering women architects whose work was overlooked by the star system of the 60s and 70s. She notes that the renewed interest in them the film reflects was driven by “the rising tide of the women’s liberation movement in North America and the conviction, felt by many, that gender equality was possible, desirable, and ethically necessary…as a social issue; however, it could only be addressed by society as a whole.”

In that 2011 Toronto Star article, we found a story about Nina Amaral, 28, who was working as a plumber.

“I’m small. I’m short. I always have to prove myself.”

Nina Amaral

Even though she can carry 120 lbs. of tools, some supervisors have told her that they don’t like having women on job sites. But this may soon change as younger men come into the workforce. She said that at school that year, “The guys were awesome. I felt very accepted.”

With the generational shift, society as a whole may soon make it possible for more young women to follow Nina Amaral into lucrative jobs in Construction—and supply the labour the industry so desperately needs.