November 2010

North of 49°
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First District Opens Doors to Women in Construction

When Toronto, Ontario, Local 353 journeyman wireman Karen Pullen first entered the trade more than 20 years ago, the attitude toward women in construction wasn't very welcoming. In fact, it was downright hostile, she says.

"I went home crying almost every day," she said. Despite some bad experiences, Pullen's love of the trade pulled her through. "I knew I didn't want to sit at a desk, so I put on a tough attitude along with my boots each morning."

Today she is the chair of Local 353's women's committee. Pullen says a lot has changed for the better since then.

"It's still a man's world, but the culture has changed dramatically." She credits Local 353's leadership for pushing the union to be more accepting of women and less tolerant of some of the backward attitudes she encountered.

But there are still fewer than 100 women in the approximately 8,000-member local.

Local 353 isn't unique, says Rosemary Sparks, senior director of planning and development for the Construction Sector Council—a nonprofit partnership between the construction industry and the federal government.

The council estimates that only 4 percent of Canada's construction work force is female.

But the aging of the baby boomer generation and Canada's looming skilled worker shortage means that contractors and unions must tap into new sources of labour. This means targeting underrepresented groups like women, Sparks says. "We have to maximize the pool of available skilled workers, which means we need to get more women involved in the trades."

The council organized a national symposium on women in construction last March, bringing together 50 representatives from the construction industry, women's groups and trade unions. The symposium's report found that gender stereotypes and lack of information about construction careers were big obstacles to female recruitment.

"A lot of young women are just not aware of the opportunities that exist in construction," Sparks says.

The council's report recommends that students be exposed to opportunities in the trades early on, using women tradesmen to talk up careers in construction. It also recommends setting up mentoring programs that would team experienced journeymen like Pullen with new apprentices to help them through the often trying training process.

"There has to be proactive outreach to make it work," Sparks says.

Sparks says that while workplace culture has changed in many positive ways, unions and employers must continue to make clear what kind of behaviors are unacceptable in the 21st century construction industry.

"It just takes one bad incident to drive off a decent worker and to make everyone look bad," she said.

Pullen says she is pushing to get female IBEW members into local schools to talk to young women about the electrical trade. "We need to get to them as early as the sixth and seventh grades, so they can get started on a career path in the trades," she said.

"For the IBEW to continue to grow, we must make sure our membership reflects the diversity of Canada," says First District Vice President Phil Flemming, who participated in the symposium. "By knocking down barriers to participation in our great Brotherhood, we are improving the quality of life for all our members."