The Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen committee, chaired by Toronto Local 353 Business Representative Karen Pullen, aims to recruit and retain more women to the trades.

Toronto Local 353 Business Representative Karen Pullen will chair the newly formed Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen committee.

"We want women to be able to speak for women," Pullen said of the provincial building trades' effort to create a committee led by and serving tradeswomen.

The OBCT committee is the product of an effort by the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario to attract, graduate and retain more women in Ontario's construction industry. The effort began with a women's conference held last year where attendees — all of whom were women — crafted a resolution to create the committee as well as an advisory position on the council's executive board specifically for a tradeswoman. Both initiatives were passed by the Building Trades Council Convention. It's believed to be the only advisory position of its kind in the building trades in North America, said Building Trades Business Manager Patrick Dillon.

Pullen, who also chairs Local 353's women's committee, will serve in the advisory role. Despite these multiple hats — she also sits on the women's committee for the Ontario Federation of Labour — she stresses that it's been a group effort to get the OBCT up and running. That group includes representatives from the Ironworkers, Carpenters and most other trades who, alongside Pullen, comprise the full tradeswomen committee.

"Women need to see and hear from women who have found a career pathway in the trades, and this organization will help make that happen," Pullen said. "We're hoping to be a place where young women can find fellowship and a place to talk."

Ontario tradeswomen account for just 4% of the province's construction workforce, Dillon said.

"For way too many years our industry has given more lip service to outreach for women than it has action to making it happen," said Dillon, who is also a member of Hamilton Local 105. "This committee, which is a ground-up effort, aims to change that."

While the coronavirus has hampered many of the new organization's plans, they've still managed to secure government funding, create a website and are moving forward with training opportunities, the first of which focused on mental health.

"We're making mental health a priority, especially now with COVID and the lockdowns," Pullen said.

The courses will teach participants the basics of mental health, how to identify the warning signs, and what to do in order to help someone in need.

"Women tend to take on way too much. It's how we're taught," Pullen said. "There also needs to be self-care, a way of ensuring checks and balances."

The OBCT committee further intends to offer mentoring opportunities and training on public speaking and leadership. They're also planning to conduct a survey. Pullen says they want to know why so many women feel the need to leave what is, for men at least, a lucrative and rewarding career — and one that you can raise a family on.

"With a union electrician job, you can bring home a decent wage for working about 37 hours a week, with benefits. And when you clock out, you're done. You don't bring the work home with you," Pullen said. "Why wouldn't you tell any interested woman to try it?"

Pullen noted that women tend to be the first let go from a job and they don't always get the best training opportunities, often relegated to less challenging work, which could contribute to their decision to leave. The survey, they hope, will give them a better understanding into these issues.

For Pullen, she says her father put her on a path that eventually led to the IBEW.

"When I was about 10, we got a boat and when I told my father that the motor didn't work, he handed me the manual and basically said, 'Fix it,'" Pullen said. "He never treated me any different than he did my brother. He supported my interests and that made a big difference."

Still, it was a difficult road for Pullen when she first started. Some men outright refused to work with her. That doesn't happen now, she says, but that doesn't mean that sexism has left the jobsite.

"It's less overt today. It tends to be more insidious," Pullen said.

Most of the men don't like the harassment either, she said, but they don't necessarily speak up, likely fearing reprisal themselves.

"We should be working toward a harassment-free workplace, where no one has to deal with emotional warfare just by showing up to work. That's not what we're paid for. We're paid to do electrical work, not deal with someone's fragile ego."

Pullen also noted the sense of empowerment and accomplishment that comes from a job in the trades, especially for a gender that's been taught that power tools aren't for them. With groups like the OBCT, women can learn a trade that also teaches them skills to fix their own homes, making them more independent — and confident.

"There are an awful lot of women out there who aren't happy with their jobs but who are mechanically inclined," Pullen said. "We can give them not just a good-paying job, but a sense of pride in their work. And in themselves."