Sometimes they face sexist comments: “Women don’t belong in construction.” “Go back to the kitchen.”
Other times, they face harassment, physical attacks and sexual assault.
And for the women working in the trades who have experienced this abuse, being on a job site can also be a place where they feel there is little recourse.
While it doesn’t happen on all job sites, it does happen enough that the provincial trades council has struck a committee on how to improve the workplace for women, and also make the trades more appealing to them to choose as a career — and stay.
“I’ve been physically threatened on the job site — both sexually and otherwise violently — and I’ve been told probably thousands of times over the course of my career that I don’t belong in the industry,” said Kayla Bailey, a journeyperson steamfitter, gasfitter and welder in Toronto, who noted she’s had both amazing and awful experiences over the last decade in the industry.
“Sometimes that comes about very directly — ‘Women don’t belong in construction’ — and sometimes it comes through as a backhanded compliment — ‘Oh, you are strong for a girl,’ or ‘I’m surprised that you can do that.’
“Sometimes it’s not always direct, but I can tell you those microaggressions really build up. Especially when you are the only girl on site, it can really wear you down.”
Bailey is project manager for the Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen, a committee formed under the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario to address the issues women and under-represented gender identities face and to “ensure they feel inspired, welcomed, motivated, challenged, and empowered” through mentoring and other supports.
With the province concerned about huge labour shortages in the sector, with even more jobs forecast to go unfilled — trades will comprise 20 per cent of jobs by 2025 — more women are needed. Currently across Canada, fewer than five per cent of those in the construction trades are female; in Ontario, approximately two per cent are.
Apart from being in-demand, such jobs pay well — about $100,000 a year — and come with benefits and pensions.
“I think at the high level, everyone agrees that women belong and that women should be in the construction industry,” said Bailey, “but I can tell you it’s very different when you are on a site. I’ve been on job sites where I’m treated, for lack of a better term, as one of the boys — treated with camaraderie, and respect.
“Then I’ve been on other jobs where, again for lack of a better term, I wish I was dead. If I didn’t have bills to pay and if I didn’t absolutely have to be there to get a paycheque, I wouldn’t be — and that’s coming from someone who loves their trade. But the emotional labour you have to put in both at work and after work, to get through the day, doesn’t really matter when you are making $100,000 a year, when you are miserable.
“So we definitely want to change that in the industry.”
The committee, which began its work in 2019, looks at ways to recruit and retain women, providing mentoring and training, including monthly sessions for women to speak with others.
Bailey said while recruitment of women has been on the rise, the overall numbers haven’t really increased — a factor blamed on poor retention, with one in three women not continuing past the first year of apprenticeship. Even then, just half of female apprentices go on to become licensed.
“In the research and speaking to tradeswomen, it’s not hard to tell why,” said Bailey. “Women face all kinds of gender-based barriers … There are a lot of women who have worked for decades in the trades, and never worked on a job site with another woman. As you can imagine, it can be quite isolating and it has the potential to be quite a toxic environment if you are on a crew with people who don’t support you and don’t support women being in the trades.”
And while there is a complaints process, she said, “at the end of the day, most tradeswomen won’t actually file a complaint because if you do, your entire reputation goes down the drain. You’ll never find work again.”
The committee conducted a survey early this year that found while 89 per cent of women in the trades are “proud to be working in the construction industry,” just 42 per cent “felt welcomed when they joined the trades.”
There is high satisfaction with their pay and benefits, but 41 per cent feel “isolated from their crews by supervision due to their gender.”
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While 80 per cent say they have good relations with co-workers, 70 per cent report on-the-job harassment.
Samanntha De Coteau started in the business 10 years ago, drywalling and framing in Alberta, and seeks out all-female crews.
Now a roofer — who has gained popularity on social media as “Roofer Girl” — she said she “wanted to work with more women because I was always around men, and I wanted more women to bond with.”
De Coteau said she was tired of men “putting me down, and telling me to go back to the kitchen … that was tearing me down.”
She still gets offensive messages and “I have a lot of women coming to me and saying, ‘I don’t know how you deal with it.’ I deal with it by continuing to do what I’m doing. By empowering women and showing them that we belong, wherever we want to be. We’re strong enough to do this job — we’re strong enough to do any job.”
When she started in the business, she said an older supervisor would get very physically close to her and another female. “He hit both of us on our behind. That wasn’t OK … We both didn’t know how to respond or how to react, and because he was higher up than us, we didn’t know what to do.”
Neither felt comfortable reporting it, she said.
De Coteau, who is from Whitefish Lake First Nation in Alberta and has won awards for her entrepreneurship, now trains and mentors women, creating the “Summit Sisters,” and is founder of RooferGirl Inc.
“I am going to continue inspiring and motivating women to get into trades,” she said. “I feel so connected to my job and I’m passionate about it. I love my job so much — this is what makes me feel good. When I’m at home, I feel like a normal person, but when I’m on the roof, I feel like I’m somebody else — like I can do anything.
“I just want to make women more comfortable doing a job dominated by men. That’s my goal. That’s my dream.”
The trades council women’s committee is developing an anti-discrimination course — looking not just at gender-based discrimination but also racism, homophobia and transphobia, among other things — for widespread use in the construction industry.
Bailey said the committee wants such training to be legislated as a mandatory item in order to work on a construction site.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told the Star in a written statement that “careers in construction are meaningful, well-paying and a path to a better life for many. This is why our government is making historic investments to get more women, young people, and others from disadvantaged groups into these life-changing jobs” through specific programs for which it recently boosted funding.
McNaughton noted employers “have a legal responsibility to protect their workers from all forms of discrimination and harassment” and that the ministry should be contacted to investigate.
“My office has been working closely with the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario to address concerns,” he said in a written statement to the Star.
The ministry regularly review policies and requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, but has not yet indicated if it would consider the kind of mandatory training the committee seeks.
Adam Melnick, a program director with the provincial construction trades council, said mandatory training under the health and safety act would be “amazing, because that sets the standard … and puts it at a point where it’s not an option, not a discussion or puts us in a situation where we are relying on people to do their best.”
And while there is no instant way to “create the change that is long overdue and clearly necessary … there are plenty of scenarios where there are positive things happening,” he said.
“The work and effort that we are doing is in a way that is creating equitable and fair treatment for everybody so young girls today that are looking at the skilled trades as a viable option see it as a place that is welcoming and can see themselves there.”
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