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One group hopes to empower women in trades through mentorship, networking


Posted: April 27, 2023

Some women report experiencing harassment, sexism and discrimination on job sites in skilled trades. (Patrick Swadden/CBC)

As more women enter skilled construction trades in Ontario, some say sexism and discrimination still play an exceptionally large role in how they are treated on job sites.

Women only represent five per cent of the construction industry in Canada, and while there has been a push to get typically underrepresented groups into skilled trades, some of those workers say stereotypes persist throughout the sector.

“It still feels unwelcoming,” said Samara Sampson, a Red Seal sheet metal worker and co-founder of Women on Site, which advocates for and supports both women and underrepresented groups in construction and trades.

“I’ve been asked why I’m taking a man’s job,” Sampson said, adding she has been questioned or sometimes even ignored on job sites.

The province says it will need 100,000 more construction workers and has been encouraging women to join skilled trades, especially as Ontario looks to build a million and a half new homes over the next decade.

“New apprenticeship registrations for women are up nearly 30 percent compared to last spring,” a representative from the Ministry of Labour told CBC News in an email.

Reports of unwanted comments, touching

Sampson, who’s part of CBC Toronto’s texting messaging community for skilled trades workers, says she has noticed that push, but worries not enough is being done to retain those who have chosen trades as a career.

“What about the women who are already here? What’s keeping us here now?” she said. 

Samara Sampson helped co-found Women on Site, which she says empowers women in skilled trades through community-building, mentorship and networking. (Submitted by Samara Sampson)

It’s the reason Sampson and three other women working in construction formed the group Women on Site last year. She says the organization empowers women in trades through community-building, mentorship and networking.

“We found the camaraderie that we’ve been missing,” says Sampson, adding that it’s easy to feel isolated in professions typically dominated by men.

Reta Swift, who’s also a part of CBC Toronto’s skilled trades text messaging community, is one of the dozens of members who have joined Women on Site.

A carpenter working in Hamilton, Swift says inappropriate comments, unwanted touching and harassment on job sites are well known to occur.

“Both myself and every other woman I’ve met who works in the construction trades has dealt with that,” she said.

Sampson says Women on Site has three major networking events planned for later this year, which provide mentorship and networking opportunities to women in skilled trades. (Submitted by Women on Site)

But it’s not the only problem she’s encountered. Swift says before finding unionized work with her current employer, Reimar Forming & Construction, she struggled with gender wage disparities and had to work a second job when she was an apprentice.

“I was making less than the labourers working on my team,” said Swift.

Women overrepresented in lower earning trades

A 2021 report by the Canadian Labour Market Information Council says women make on average less than half of what men make in skilled trades, though that’s not limited to jobs in construction.

One of the reasons, the report says, is that women tend to be overrepresented in lower earning trades.

Swift says she became pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic and worked —with her toolbelt — for six months before finishing her final trimester in an office role for the same company.

She was happy to return to her career 10 months after her child was born, but says it’s difficult for many new mothers who need to be at work before any daycare centres open.

A 2021 report by the Canadian Labour Market Information Council says women make on average less than half what men make in skilled trades, though that’s not limited to jobs in construction. (Patrick Swadden/CBC)

“I don’t know where you’re going to put your children when they’re requiring you to start at 6:30, 7:00 in the morning,” said Karen Pullen, an executive member of the union IBEW 353, who chairs the Ontario Construction and Building Trades Women’s Committee. 

“It’s very difficult to find daycare,” said Pullen, who used to work as an electrician.

Pullen, whose journey in the industry began over three decades ago, says it has made strides, but still has a long way to go.

Need ‘buy-in from male allies’

She is happy to hear about recent changes requiring female-only bathrooms on large construction sites, recalling a time when bathrooms were designed primarily for men.

“No walls, just a toilet in the middle of the room,” Pullen remembered of the earlier bathrooms, adding she had to ask everyone to leave just to use them.

But ultimately, she says the culture in the industry has to change. That means having more people, especially employers, who understand the value of having women in the industry to speak up and call out discrimination.

“We’re not going to get anywhere unless we get the buy-in from our male allies,” says Pullen.

Meanwhile, Sampson says despite issues continuing to affect women in trades, the careers are rewarding.

“It’s not a matter of if we can do it anymore. We are doing it. We are doing these jobs. And there’s a place for you.”

The ministry says anyone who has experienced workplace violence, harassment or discrimination should report their concerns by calling its health and safety contact centre at 1-877-202-0008.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Swadden

Reporter/Producer

Patrick is a reporter and producer for CBC News in Toronto. He is from Vancouver, BC, where he previously worked for CityNews and reported on the overdose crisis.

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