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With Labour Scarce, Where Are Women in Trades?

Confab to tackle barriers females face.

Tom Sandborn 19 Apr 2007TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues. Read his previous stories here.

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Rosie redux?

Despite decades of feminist campaigning to open up jobs and careers that have traditionally been reserved for men, only two per cent of workers in the skilled trades in this province are women.

Why? At a moment when B.C. is hurting for skilled labour, the question grows more pressing.

Some experts point out that even with more effort to recruit women into non-traditional jobs, a lot more needs to be done to help women remain active in these areas once they finish training and enter the work force.

A conference to be held April 20 and 21 at the downtown Vancouver campus of Simon Fraser University will try to bring together women currently working in the trades with women who want to make careers in such non-traditional jobs, potential employers and academic experts to discuss what it would take to increase and sustain women's involvement in the trades.

'Recognition and proper reward'

"The numbers for women in trades have hardly budged since I was doing my first research in the 1970s," Kate Braid, SFU Woodward Chair in Women's Studies and one of the conference's organizers, told the Tyee. "From the beginning of time women have always done heavy labour. The issue here is recognition and proper reward. It is time women and women's labour were taken seriously."

B.C. finds itself facing a labour shortage in construction and other trades, and Braid thinks the time is right for more women to gain entry into those fields.

"When you realize how many concerns there are now about skilled labour shortages in North America, it just makes no sense to allow half the potential trades workers to be excluded or discouraged because of gender."

The conference opens Friday evening with a report from Heather Mayer, an SFU grad student, on the current status and numbers of women in trades and trade training in B.C. and the Yukon. A panel representing two generations of working tradeswomen will respond to the research presentation and reflect on their experiences. The event, which starts at 6 p.m. the Segal Business Centre, is free and open to the public. (Co-sponsors of the conference include the B.C. Federation of Labour and the B.C. Business Council.)

Saturday's events, open only to conference registrants, go all day and into the evening on April 21 at SFU Harbour Centre. Workshops offered will include "Snappy Comebacks," "Cultural Challenges," "Life After the Ticket," "The Face of the Ideal Workplace" and "Alternatives to Grievance or Human Rights Complaints."

Time to gather

"I'd like to stress there hasn't been a gathering of tradeswomen in this province for about 10 years, and it's time," Braid told the Tyee. "I'd also like to stress (for all the organizers out there) that the organizers of this one (BCIT and SFU) see this as a seed event. There's a huge amount of work to be done around women in male-dominated jobs -- witness the firefighting issues -- and our hope is that this conference will begin that process by creating links between women themselves, who are notoriously isolated, and the larger community."

Braid emphasized that conference organizers are particularly eager for women from outside the Lower Mainland to attend, and that scholarships are available to make attendance possible for women who would otherwise not be able to afford the event.

The conference will be preceded on Friday afternoon by an invitation-only roundtable discussion where employers and tradeswomen can examine what issues are keeping women from fully participating in BC/Yukon trades employment.

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