Five tradeswomen show what it takes to excel in the evolving world of construction
By Johanna Wolfert, Nathan Koslowsky, and Alison Brown
CONSTRUCTION IS A MAN’S WORLD. We’ve come a long way when it comes to women in the workforce, but when it comes to the construction industry, we’ve still got a long way to go. Even though construction is one of Canada’s largest employers, women account for just 4.5 percent of those working in the skilled trades.
But their numbers are growing—and just in time. BuildForce Canada warns that over 250,000 Canadian construction workers are retiring in the next 10 years—that’s more than 20 percent of the current workforce. At the same time, the pool of available younger workers is shrinking.
Governments at all levels are offering grants to encourage young women and other underrepresented groups to enter an apprenticeship and embark on a career in the trades. One of the highlights of the 2018 federal budget was $20 million to help increase the number of women in male-dominated trades.
Canada’s construction industry is evolving—and women are already a big part of that change. We talked to five tradeswomen who show what it takes to excel in the male-dominated construction industry, and how other women looking for an exciting and rewarding career can do the same.
Van Rooyen Earthmoving Ltd
“My favourite part of my job is working with a productive crew and being able to have a few laughs at the end of a long day.
“Being competent and assertive has helped me to become accepted into the mostly male workforce at VanRooyen Earthmoving. I want to be treated like anyone else on the job site. I always tell my coworkers, don’t treat me like a woman—treat me like a teammate. In my company, everyone does, and I really appreciate that.
“Even though construction is often seen as a man’s world, women can certainly fit in as well. I’ve actually heard from others that women are preferred because we tend to have a better sense of multitasking and are more careful with the equipment. I stress to everyone that you have to respect the equipment, because it’s probably more expensive than any house you’re going to live in!
“Some of the younger guys will tease me and call me mom, and I really appreciate that—they treat me like an equal, but they still share their girlfriend stories and pictures of their kids with me.
“One thing I really stress to women who are starting out at a new job site is not to live in a bubble, but to ask questions and get involved. The more we understand what we’re doing for the project, the more we’re a part of it.
“I remember one situation where one of my coworkers was being a jerk, so I confronted him about the way he was acting. After that, he was fine! That wouldn’t have happened if I had just complained about the problem when I got home or with other workers. If a woman wants to succeed in the construction industry, she needs to be confident, assertive, and good at her job.”
Owner and Operations Manager
Henry Heyink Construction Ltd.
“I decided to enter the construction industry because I liked the diversity and challenges of the work. My favourite part of my job is seeing the end product of a project: having a vision and being satisfied knowing that we made it happen. I can still point out the first fire hydrant I put in every time I pass it!
“It’s such a good feeling when you know the job is done and you’ve brought in clean water for houses. Most people take infrastructure work for granted when they turn on their taps, flush their toilets, and have a shower. They only think of construction as something frustrating that slows them down when they’re driving—until a water main bursts in front of their house in the middle of winter. Good infrastructure doesn’t always get a lot of attention, but it’s extremely important.
“I was called a trailblazer for a long time. For years, I was the only woman on committees or slugging it out as a labourer on site with the guys. I always encourage women who really want to pursue a career in construction to just go for it—don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it! If I listened to everyone who told me I couldn’t do something, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“Sometimes, you have to dig in a bit deeper to earn respect from others, and it can be discouraging when there are people who don’t have your back. You have to learn to let the negative comments from others roll off you; you need to develop a thick skin.
“You also have to know when to ask for help. Succeeding in the construction industry takes a willingness for hard work, determination, and persistence. It’s important to develop the skills of seeing what’s ahead as well as keeping yourself organized and driven.”
Hinton Scaffolding Solutions Inc.
“My interest in the skilled trades has been going on since I was 18. My father is an auto mechanic millwright, and even though he never let me help him because he was very old-fashioned, I always loved taking things apart and building things.
“A program in Alberta called Women Building Futures opened up an amazing door for me, equipping me with important skills and helping me to connect with an employer at the end of my training. I chose to apprentice as a millwright because you get to do a little bit of every other trade and work with all different kinds of tradespeople. I’m a company representative while Hinton Scaffolding gets off the ground in Ontario, but I was a CLAC member on the tools recently.
“I love working with my crew and the camaraderie among the team members. I also like the precision of the work. When you’re measuring something, you’re working in thousandths of an inch and using state-of-the-art tools to get the exact measurement that you need. At the end of the day, you feel like you really accomplished something great.
“Succeeding in the construction industry is about more than the trade-specific skills you bring to a work site. You need essential skills like math and English, as well as social skills like a good attitude and a sense of humour—nobody wants to work around someone who’s miserable!
“You’d be surprised how many true gentlemen you bump into on construction sites. I’m not saying everyone’s a gentleman, but a lot of men are fathers and brothers and uncles who show you a lot of respect for what you do. Some men are old school and have prejudices against you, but you just have to accept that it’s the way some people are. You can’t change them; you’re there to do the job.
“It’s important to always be yourself—don’t change for anyone! Walk in with an open mind, go in and get your feet dirty, don’t hesitate, and don’t be afraid. Always be thinking outside the box about what you can do to make the work site better.”
J.M.R. Electric Ltd.
“I always knew that an office job wasn’t for me. I liked working with my hands, and I knew that there would always be opportunities to expand my career after I was ticketed.
“It was difficult getting quality experiences at the beginning of my apprenticeship, since there was limited local work in Newfoundland, where I’m from. I eventually got my foot in the door working in the industrial sector of the construction industry, which, in my experience, is more women-friendly and better structured to deal with people of all backgrounds.
“The timing for trade school usually worked out perfectly. I would be laid off around the time that I had to go back to school. Studying between blocks takes a lot of diligence, but if you keep up with the code book and look at it even once a week, it helps a lot.
“Another great tip I picked up from a friend when she started out in the trade is to keep a journal or notebook detailing all the work and tasks that you do. Even if it doesn’t work to boost confidence in your skills, it is a major asset when it comes to resume building!
“One of the favourite parts of my job is being self-sufficient—it really changed a lot about myself when I got into my trade. Going through your apprenticeship, you quickly learn who you are and how to handle being around guys all day, every day. There’s a lot of intimidation, and there will always be guys who don’t want to work with women, but you just have to get past that. After a couple of years, I realized I was there for the work and learned to let things slide. It took me a while to get here, but nothing really fazes me anymore.
“You have to be prepared to show up to work every day and find the right attitude to make it enjoyable and a learning experience. Opportunities to get experience and improve aren’t just going to fall into your lap! You also have to realize that you’ll never know everything, even when you’re ticketed. Be willing to learn, be open to constructive criticism, and be diligent in asking questions if you don’t know something. In the electrical trade, that’s what will keep you alive!“It’s a very physically demanding job, so you do need to know your limitations, and women aren’t built the same as men—there’s nothing wrong with that or with asking for help. You have to make sure to carve time for yourself as well. Perseverance is super important: the first day is always the hardest, but it’s worth it to stick it out!”
Penn-Co Construction Canada Ltd.
“My interest in carpentry began because of my shop teacher in high school—she was actually the first woman journeyperson carpenter in Manitoba. She inspired me to pursue the trades. She told me that it was a struggle for her getting into the trades because that was a different era, but she had to stand her ground and not let the guys push her around. Just keep going and not give up. We built a shed in that class, and that’s what made me want to become a carpenter.
“I’ve done a lot of other jobs. I’ve bartended, been an educational assistant, I was a server in restaurants, but construction appealed to me because it’s more hands-on and interesting. I started out by taking a preemployment construction course. I saw an ad on Facebook, it was for a Construction Employment Preparation program, and I really enjoyed the challenge. My goal is to be a journeyperson carpenter.
“When I got my first construction job [not at Penn-Co], the manager was hesitant to hire me because I’m a woman. He said, ‘I’ll only pay you $13 an hour, because who else is going to hire a girl with no experience?’
“I wasn’t taken seriously at first. Some of the guys would say, ‘She’s just a girl; what is she going to do? How is she going to help us?’
“Others would overlook me. They wouldn’t really talk to me until they needed my help, because I was there for a while and had more skill than they did. There were some guys who didn’t want to work with me because I’m a woman and they’re older, and they didn’t think I had anything to offer. It was awkward at first, having to see them every day, but eventually as I started talking to them, it became easier and easier to work with them. I’m good friends with them now.
“Being a carpenter is so cool. I love that I can build something that was just a thought at one point, and then all of a sudden, it’s there—and I made it! I can look back at something and say, ‘I actually made this!’ It’s a very fulfilling occupation. But you can’t be afraid to fail. You have to keep going hard.”
Women in Construction Fast Facts
Canadians employed by construction industry
Total women in the construction industry
Canadian women’s share of total employment in on-site construction
Top 3 Construction Occupations Chosen by Women
3. Interior finishing
Helping Women Build a Future
Since 2008, CLAC has partnered with Women Building Futures (WBF), the nation’s premier trades training facility for women and the first of its kind in Canada. Through our sponsorship of WBF’s Women in Construction Awareness program, 7,500 women have learned about career opportunities in construction.
WBF has quickly become the go-to place for women choosing a career in the skilled trades and for employers wishing to hire them. It has a consistent student employment success rate of over 90 percent.
Founded in 1998, WBF prepares women for excellent careers in industries where they are underrepresented. Its areas of expertise include positioning construction as a first-choice career option for women, assessment and essential skills training, workforce training and coaching, and job search and retention support.
WBF’s headquarters and training centre are located in Edmonton. For more information and to learn how to get started in your career with WBF, visit womenbuildingfutures.com or call 1-866-452-1201.
8 Barriers to Participation
1. Perception by men and women that construction is men’s work
2. Lack of awareness that trades are really an option and what they are
3. Conflicts with home and family responsibilities/lack of accessible childcare
4. Isolation of individuals and remote construction projects
5. Lack of access to mentorship and peer networks
6. Insufficient essential skills—often individuals don’t understand what level of education is required to enter an apprenticeship program (i.e., math skills)
7. Ups and downs of construction—inconsistent work affects retention
8. Issues of respect—stereotyping, chauvinism, and discrimination