This post is a paper by Rachel Wegner, student in my MCOM 473 class: Women, Communication and Leadership at TWU; posted with permission.
A close friend of mine worked for a commercial construction and landscaping company for the summer before she started university. She was usually the only woman on the job site and was working mostly with men who were older than her. During these four months, she was paid less than equally experienced men of the same age, rarely provided a separate female washroom, openly objectified and harassed, and subjected to listening to very crude conversations around her. I interviewed her about her experience and have inserted a transcription of the interview as an appendix at the end of my proposal. She has asked that her name and the name of the company remain anonymous since it is owned by some family friends. I’ve changed her name to Lauren and will refer to the company as X Construction.
X Construction is an Abbotsford-based company that works on commercial and residential job sites across BC’s lower mainland. As an entry-level employee with little experience and as a minor at the beginning of the summer, Lauren was paid minimum wage, working for three different crews on a range of job sites. Each site had a supervisor who would oversee all the different crews and tradespeople on site, and crews were hired from companies like X Construction for a variety of landscaping and construction tasks. Each crew had a manager, known as the foreman, and the foremen and their crews were employed by the boss, the head of X Construction.
In the crew that Lauren worked with for the majority of the four months, most of her crewmembers were between the ages of 25 and 40. She worked with a few other minors on different crews, however, her crewmembers were always male. The work was hard, physical labor – building Allan Block walls, shoveling and wheelbarrowing gravel and dirt, cutting and laying bricks, planting trees and shrubs, and other odd jobs within that realm of work. She enjoyed this kind of mindless, hard work, and had been looking forward to the good pay for the long-hour days. The job in itself was exactly what Lauren wanted to be doing, but the environment that she entered into within the construction industry was anything but welcoming. Below I have listed some of the situations, issues, and needs she faced, and how they relate to women, communication, and leadership.
Shortly after she started working for the company, Lauren learned that she was making a dollar less per hour than the males starting out with the same amount of experience as she had. After confronting her foreman about this, he asked the boss if she could have a raise since he saw that she was a hard worker, but the boss only gave her a fifty-cent raise. Even though she worked as hard as – if not harder than – her male crewmembers, Lauren was paid less because she was female. Of all the job sites that she worked on, only the first had a separate washroom for women. The men’s washrooms that she inevitably had to share were filled with disgusting graphic drawings and statements on the walls, objectifying and demeaning women. Understandably this was uncomfortable and lead her to avoid using the washroom all day if she could manage it. Other issues that Lauren faced because she was a woman include being provided men’s workwear that was oversized and unsafe for her to use, being watched through a vent as she was in the washroom, being purposefully flashed by a worker who ripped his pants, being asked to walk in front of men on site so that they could check her out, having bets placed on how long she would last working there, having sexual harassment as the running joke among the workers on site, constantly being perversely stared at while she worked, being told that other workers on site wanted to hook up with her while she was a minor, and being left by her crew to work alone in unsafe areas.
The communication systems Lauren dealt with were anything but clear and professional. As the only woman on site, information often came to her indirectly, through her crewmembers – which was sometimes a good thing in her opinion because they would filter out some of the misogynistic and crude things other workers on site would say. However, when with her foremen, she was often subject to listening to them talk about sex and other topics that she was uncomfortable with in the work setting, and as a minor. The masculine environment that she was in lead her to keep her thoughts to herself and not express how these issues were affecting her because she didn’t want to be made fun of or dismissed. Though her boss let her know that she could always tell him if she was facing any issues, Lauren didn’t feel as though each individual issue was enough to bring up and make a big deal out of, and from experience with him, she knew that he would lie to make her feel better and make promises that he wouldn’t keep.
The existing leadership within X Construction was not prepared to be hospitable or equitable towards female employees – with foremen who would talk about sex and purposefully try to make Lauren upset, and a boss who would lie instead of trying to fix the problems. The lack of effort they put into gender sensitivity and inclusion within the whole company continues to perpetuate this toxic and sexist atmosphere that no woman would knowingly want to be a part of. This makes it very hard to keep female employees, let alone give them enough experience to promote them to leadership. With no female leaders, forewomen or supervisors in the company, fewer women will want to work there, and the environment will remain unchanged and unwelcoming.
Experiences like Lauren’s are hardly uncommon within the trade industries. The trades are a highly male-dominated sector of the career world. In fact, according to a report by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum in 2016, women account for only 14.2 percent of all registered tradespeople (Kong, 2020). Trade careers have a notorious reputation of being inhospitable and harsh for women, signifying the immense need for reform and restructuring within many of these companies. Research featured in the Harvard Business Review found that “the collective intelligence of a team increases with female involvement,” and “companies have observed that greater attention to detail and precision in their female-dominated teams ensures equipment runs more efficiently, causing fewer delays and maximizing productivity” (Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, 2017, p. 5). Most tradeswomen, however, are employed in the service trades rather than manufacturing or construction, where they make up less than five percent of these sectors (Kong, 2020). As Canada continues to progress and diversify, and more and more research becomes available about the benefits women bring to the trades, why do we continue to remain so underrepresented and unwelcomed?
We want to see more women thrive in construction and trade careers. This starts with encouraging and empowering young girls to pursue STEM-related classes in school and creating more awareness for sustainable career paths beyond the scope of university. When Karen Struthers, a researcher at Griffith University, interviewed female students at four different high schools, she learned that more girls would enter the manual trades, “if they knew more about the trades; if more girls [entered] the trades, making it less intimidating; and if they weren’t made fun of” (Struthers, 2015). To increase knowledge about and confidence in the trades as a career, female students can attend women-specific trade conferences like the Jill of All Trades event at Conestoga College in Ontario, which provides a full day of hands-on workshops for teenagers, and helps them to build connections with women in the industry so that they can see trades as a viable option for their future. Girls should also be informed about pre-apprenticeship programs that provide basic training in particular trades to prepare them for the workforce and help them secure an apprenticeship (Kong, 2020). Teachers and adults should not try to scare girls away from pursuing a physically demanding, highly skilled, and traditionally masculine career, and should work to reverse the attitudes towards women in the trades among students, colleagues, family members, and friends (Bridges et al., 2018).
Workplaces also need to be spaces that encourage growth, comradery between genders, and promotion for women, beginning with entry level positions like Lauren had, to skilled trades, as well as to management. Crews, job sites, and other workplaces should be sensitive to the specific needs of women and should maintain appropriate professionalism in both talk and action so that women can feel welcomed and valued. Women should be provided gender-specific workwear and washrooms so that they can feel comfortable and be safe. There should be no gender-based employment discrimination or pay-gap, and mentors and sponsors should be made available to women, helping guide their career paths, looking out for them, and providing them with opportunities (Kong, 2020). This will continue to make the trades more appealing to women, drawing them in, and keeping them loyal long-term, which will result in a widening percentage of women entering the trades, and thus balancing the gender divide and further extinguishing sexism and misogyny in the industry.
Including women in upper management and as board members has also been shown to increase gender equity within the whole company, however, women rarely last long enough in the construction industry to make it into these positions. This is because men are promoted far sooner than women, women often have more family responsibility, resulting in less time for work, and as well, the inequality of pay and treatment often just doesn’t make it worth staying (Lingard et al., 2004, pp. 409-410). This means that while men may remain in a company in the trade industry from their twenties to their seventies, the small number of women who enter in the industry in their twenties drastically lessens through the decades. The women who do make it onto company boards “improve the operation of the boards themselves…[and] provide a greater range of perspectives and insights, more closely representing companies’ demographically diverse stakeholders, as well as improving collaborative teamwork” (Moncaster et al., 2018). Women on boards also streamline company communication, create a more positive work environment, and “are more likely to promote other women, as they are more likely to recognize their skills” (Moncaster et al., 2018). Gender diversity on company boards also helps to improve the company image publicly and with investors, increasing revenue and market performance. In an industry widely known for its bad public image, like construction, including women on company boards and in all levels of employment will highly improve the company’s image and satisfaction both internally and externally (Dillon et al., 2017). Having female board members will benefit the company in nearly every aspect, and ultimately reinvigorate the now-diminishing trades workforce with passionate and hardworking women.
In order for workplace gender equity to be actively implemented within X Construction and similar companies in the trade industry, I have broken down my action plan into two segments: Policy, and Environment and Practice (Chawala et al., 2019, p. 15). Policy will be the formal rules and guidelines that management, foremen and future forewomen, and crewmembers will follow. Environment refers to the adjustments made to the physical job site or workplace to better accommodate to women’s needs and inclusion, according to policy. Practice will include the attitudinal, accountability, and relational ways that management, foremen and future forewomen, and crewmembers will behave in a way that promotes gender-equity.
Firstly, employees will receive equal pay based on their experience level regardless of their gender. They will be provided a high-visibility shirt and work gloves in their own size. Women will be provided designated washrooms at each job site. Verbal, physical, and sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated and will result in immediate termination of employment. Discriminatory language and actions will be prohibited. Foremen, forewomen, and company leaders must maintain a professional relationship with all crewmembers and lower-level employees, keeping topics suitable for work, and appropriate for minors. All employees will attend mandatory gender sensitivity training and unconscious bias training every two years. Full-time employees will be provided health insurance that includes coverage for mental healthcare and gender-affirming healthcare. Maternity leave will last for a minimum of 26 weeks to allow for full physical recovery. Crewmembers must always be accompanied by at least one other crewmember at any job site.
Environment and Practice
These policies may be similar to company policies at X Construction, however, without a commitment to put them into practice, they are useless, and women like Lauren will face similar discrimination and negative experiences and will continue to leave the company soon after starting. To actually begin implementing changes that promote gender equity, X Construction should start with a gender diversity goal. It may be unrealistic to expect an equal number of women and men in the company immediately or even within a couple of years, but ten years is a reasonable time frame to set in order to achieve at least forty percent female employees in each level of the company. In order to reach this goal, X Construction will host and attend events encouraging girls to pursue the trades and making the construction industry seem accessible to anyone, not just men (Bridges et al., 2018). They will rewrite their job descriptions to include gender neutral language and a fair description of the physical capabilities required, and suggested training to reach specific strength and endurance requirement. New female hires will attend a support group preparing them for the challenges they may face in a male-dominated workplace. X Construction will have five-minute crew meetings at the beginning of the workday and once in the afternoon to establish clear communication and expectations, as well as check in with crewmembers, encouraging vulnerability and asking questions (Miller, 2019). X Construction will also implement a mentorship program within the company to help lower-level female employees get promotions and reach their career goals. As part of their corporate social responsibility initiative, they will have an annual volunteer day in which employees and volunteers work on construction and landscaping related projects for low-income families or small businesses within Abbotsford, helping to improve the company’s local reputation and engage youth and young women in the satisfaction and rewards that result from manual labor and community building.
By implementing this action plan, X Construction will take major strides towards gender equity in the workplace, actively reducing the discrimination, harassment, and negative experiences that women face on construction sites and in the trades industry and increasing the number of female employees loyal to the company. Working minors like Lauren will feel safe and comfortable in the work environment and will be committed to returning to work for the company year after year, even considering pursuing a career in the skilled trades. With more women in the industry, companies like X Construction will reach their maximum potential efficiency, quality of work, and revenue, and encounter a revival in employee satisfaction, loyalty, and capability.
Bridges, D., B. Krivokapic-Skoko, E. Wulff, L. Bamberry, S. Jenkins. (2018, May 31). The female tradie shortage: why real change requires a major cultural shift. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-female-tradie-shortage-why-real-change-requires-a-major-cultural-shift-97091
Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. (2017). Hiring and Training Women in the Skilled Trades: The Business Case for Employers. https://caf-fca.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Women-In-Skilled-Trades-eng.pdf
Chawala, S., & R. R. Sharma. (2019, June 19). Enhancing Women’s Well-Being: The Role of Psychological Capital and Perceived Gender Equity With Social Support as a Moderator and Commitment as a Mediator. Frontiers. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01377
Dillon, M., & A. Moncaster. (2017, November). Women, Boards and the UK Built Environment. The Equilibrium Network. https://equilibriumnetworkgroup.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/women-boards-and-the-uk-built-environment-executive-summary.pdf
Kong, S. L. (2020, February 7). Why We Need More Women in These Particular Careers Than Ever Before. Maclean’s. https://www.macleans.ca/work/women-in-skilled-trades/
Lingard, H., & Lin, J. (2004). Career, family and work environment determinants of organizational commitment among women in the Australian construction industry. Construction Management & Economics, 22(4), 409–420. https://doi-org.ezproxy.student.twu.ca/10.1080/0144619032000122186
Miller, B. (2019, November 11). Training for Gender Inclusivity. HR Daily Advisor. https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2019/11/11/training-for-gender-inclusivity/
Moncaster, A., & M. Dillon. (2018, January 25). How gender equality can help fix the construction industry. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-gender-equality-can-help-fix-the-construction-industry-90413
Struthers, K. (2015, January 27). Where are the female tradies?. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/where-are-the-female-tradies-32273