Source: Government of Prince Edward Island

Supporting Women in Trades

July 03, 2019

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

In February 2017, a report was compiled by SkillPlan, the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, and IBEW 213 entitled “Enhancing the Retention and Advancement of Women in Trades in British Columbia.” Then, in October 2017, another report called “Services to Support Tradeswomen: A BC Environmental Scan” was published by M.J. Whitemarsh. Both of these reports revealed that there is a shortage of skilled workers in most skilled trades industries across Canada. The term “trades” generally includes construction, transportation and mechanics, manufacturing, and service. Increasing participation of women in the labour force could help mitigate these shortages, but a rise in women's participation is yet to be seen in the trades.

Women in trades represent an average of 4.8% of the total trades workforce in Canada, but this number has not increased despite a trades labour shortfall and initiatives introduced by governments, training organizations, not-for-profit organizations, and some employers. In addition, there are not many investments made to retain women who are already working in trades.

Why is this happening? What barriers are women in trades coming up against, and how can we better support women who are already in trades?

Source: Tulsa Welding School

The underlying causes to the barriers that women in trades experience are systemic in nature. These barriers can actually start as early as the pre-apprenticeship phase in a woman's career. There are prevailling attitudes that trades are not ideal for women, and that trades do not fit with what is expected of girls early on. Children can be known to categorize their gender as early as the age of 3, therefore, the gender roles and expectations that are taught to children can be instilled in them very early on in their lives. This gender bias becomes inherent, and it translates into systemic under-promotion of and under-exposure to trades for young women and girls at a family and peer level. Later on, this means they can often start on an uneven footing compared to their male peers, and they have more misconceptions and misinformation about trades. Recently, we interviewed Nemaiah Shaw, an Apprentice Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, on WWEST's Best of the WWEST podcast. She shared that her high school discouraged her from entering the trades, even though she had expressed an interest in them. Women are also often in the top 10-15% of their class while studying, but almost always among the last 10% to get hired after school. Leigh Wall, an Apprentice Truck and Transport Mechanic, shared in her interview on Best of the WWEST that there are extremely low numbers of women studying trades.

Source: Birmingham Live

In the apprenticeship phase of a career in trades, women often experience discriminatory recruitment and hiring practices at an organization level that prevent them from getting their foot in the door. They also experience challenges such as a lack of mentors and supportive networks and often describe feelings of loneliness. This is outlined in the SkillPlan, et al report mentioned earlier, which also states that when facing bullying or harassment, there are few or no resources available to them. These barriers are common in both pre-apprenticeship and when someone becomes a journeyperson (when that person has successfully completed an apprenticeship and is to receive their license and work as a full-time employee in their trade), but these barriers appear more pronounced in the apprenticeship phase. This causes many women to leave the trades at this point, without having even become a journeyperson.

Source: The Nest

The gender imbalance is pronounced in on-site occupations and skilled trades professions after women finish their apprenticeships. Those barriers mentioned earlier that prevent women from getting their feet in the door are also in place when women try to advance in their fields. Well-known and widespread issues for women in the field include personal protection equipment designed for men instead of women, barriers to washroom use because of location or, in one instance, lack of a door or toilet seat; and another specific example of a woman who was not able to access a plant on her first day of work because she would have had to enter through the mens' changing room. In addition, women report feeling isolated in the field because of the lack of other women around them, both as mentors and supervisors, but also as coworkers.

Unfortunately, programs and organizations that address barriers to women in trades are fractured. These organizations operate independently from others, and those organizations keen to do more to support women in trades lack the awareness of who is doing what in this space. There have been industry and government efforts to promote careers in the trades to women. Tina Kelly, the co-chair of the Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (CCWESTT) 2012 conference and Academic Chair of the School of Trades and Technology at the Nova Scotia Community College, says "it is always a struggle for the first few women in that company or that trade because they are the ground breakers."

But she has some advice as well. She suggests that women in trades join professional associations for skilled tradespeople as well as industry associations to network with other people in a trade and industry. Even though these organizations may be fractured, they still offer many valuable resources. She also suggests finding a mentor or more than one. Scholarships and bursary awards are also available for women who want to enter trades.

The reports by SkillPlan, et al and M.J. Whitemarsh contain suggestions, too, namely support for programs in K-12 schools that reduce social biases against women choosing to work in trades; facilitating a service for tradeswomen to seek information on their legal rights and protections; and tackling the barriers that women face at each stage of their career (pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeship, and as journeypeople). These wide scale efforts are necessary to create safe and supportive places for women in trades, will help encourage more girls and women to have an interest in trades, and create balance in diverse workforces that will benefit greatly from the creativity and activity of women.

Read the extensive reports by SkillPlan, et al and M.J. Whitemarsh here and here. See this big list of organizations that support women in construction. Visit the website of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (CCWESTT) for more information about pursuing trades.