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Labour + Industry
Gender + Sexuality

Forty Years on, Tradeswomen Still Battle 'Hostile' Work Culture

Why do so many women leave trades? Ask the three per cent who stick with it.

Kate Richardson 18 Dec

Kate Richardson is completing a practicum with The Tyee.

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Four per cent of industrial electricians are women, Kavan Smith among them.

Kavan Smith was looking for stable, long-term work when she made the decision to become an electrician. From the outset, she expected most of her classmates would be men.

''I had one woman in my class every year, in a class of about 15 people,'' Smith recalls of the four years she spent training at BCIT, with apprenticeship stints at Seymour and Cypress ski hills.

When she finished the program, the number of women in her field dropped even further. ''I worked in a camp in the tar sands. I think there were two women out of 500 to 600 in my company.''

While more women like Smith are pursuing trades training, those shifting demographics haven't translated to the workforce. Since the 1980s, the number of women working ''on the tools'' has stalled around three per cent. Today, in Smith's trade as an industrial electrician, female participation sits at four per cent, according to Work BC data. That number falls to two per cent for millwright mechanics and carpenters.

"I've crunched the numbers for Canada and know that we are at three per cent," says Marcia Braundy, author of Men & Women and Tools and other resources on gender in trades work. "We have not changed in 40 years."

'I know that I'm a strong person'

Braundy was the first journeywoman to enter the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and has been organizing for workplace equality in trades since 1980. To help understand why so many women drop out of trades, she points to a male-dominated work culture that resists the presence of women and breeds isolation and harassment.

''I remember I got onto a bus up at camp and I yelled back into the bus, 'Are there any seats back there,' and about half of them patted their laps and said, 'Here baby, I've got a seat for you right here,''' Smith recalls. ''I can't even explain that to people.''

Fellow electrician Michael Logan acknowledges the ''perpetual level of hostility on job sites'' that turns women away.

''Conflict resolution on most jobs tends to be through increasing conflict which will then rupture into a solution,'' says Logan. ''It's much like a couple of alley cats facing off. There's a lot of hissing and spitting, there's not really much of a fight but the idea is to look as mean and fierce as possible while maintaining your sense of machismo.''

Braundy says the work culture affects both women and men, "but women certainly pay the greater price." She adds not all men working in skilled trades express hostility toward women, but those who do have a deep impact on the workplace environment.

In seminars designed to help men understand how to aid integration of women on job sites, she studied the complex reasons for men's resistance. Ranging from assumptions about "breadwinning" and physical capability, to the protection of jobs in perceived scarcity and the threat of technological obsolescence, her book details union as well as institutional and governmental resistance.

Braundy identifies a "wolf-pack mentality" that causes ranks to close and lock women out -- something she even observed in teaching settings. ''The vocational instructors to me seemed to be the worst cases. They say, 'We're not responsible for the way people relate to each other in our classes,' but in fact they were the most recalcitrant.''

Smith sees those group dynamics in action, even when coworkers are sensitive in private. ''There's so many levels to it, these people are my friends," she explains. "I know them on a one-on-one level. They are wonderful, they are awesome dudes, and you get them en masse and they do this absolutely shit thing that made me want to fall apart.''

''I know that I'm a very strong person," adds Smith. "I feel a sense of responsibility. I feel that a lot of the crap that I've dealt with as a tradeswoman I can deal with and it just rolls of my back. And I feel like I know women that it wouldn't roll of their back. It would closer to wreck them.''

Trading clothes

Kate Duncan, a former educator and now a furniture designer, wrote her masters thesis about the pitfalls of technical education for girls in the public school system. ''Women in the program just sort of stand out,'' she says.

Duncan says women who succeed, like Smith, do so because they can adapt to "boy's club" norms. She interviewed senior high school students about how they were succeeding in their tech-ed classes, many describing night-and-day transformations.

''They said they changed the way they walked, the way they talked. They said they laughed less, because girls shouldn't laugh in a tech-ed classroom... their clothes, everything. Right down to their mannerisms.''

Smith credits her post-secondary education as a key to keeping perspective in that challenging environment. ''It's that extra notch in your belt that allows you to hold your head a bit higher when you're being kind of shoved down.''

For other women, self-employment, support from upper management and connecting with female peers can all be catalysts for success.

''I think that, more than anything, it's that more women need to be in trades," says Smith. "But it's a catch-22 -- how do you get more women into trades? You need more women in trades to get women into trades.''

Smith is optimistic that Women in Trades and Technology programs like the one at BCIT will shift the numbers and challenge the idea that women don't belong in trades work. Smith's workplace recently hired four female electricians, which she says is a good sign. ''I think people like me and the women that I've worked with are changing that attitude.''

On Monday, The Tyee looks at solutions and supports that women in skilled trades say are working to bridge the gender gap.  [Tyee]

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