On International Women’s Day, let’s recognize bias and tackle it

Since 1911, on March 8 we’ve marked International Women’s Day — a yearly reminder that we must, as a society, continue to address the inequality facing women. It’s also a wakeup call to address our biases.

Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group; and unconscious biases are unconscious feelings we have towards other people — instinctive feelings that play a strong part in influencing our judgments away from being balanced or even-handed.

Coming from the construction sector, where women account for less than five per cent of the workforce, bias can be identified throughout a tradesperson’s journey, from being attracted to the trades during recruiting practices, through the apprenticeship intake process, on the jobsite, when opportunities for overtime arise, and when promotions are considered.

As a sector, we have to address the ingrained bias in our industry and work hard to address it.

Federal and provincial governments have taken initial steps. There are many policy incentives to encourage employers to hire women as skilled tradespeople or add apprenticeship opportunities.

A prime example is a $470-million federal incentive program in the 2021 budget that provides funding to employers who hire first-year apprentices. The incentive doubles if employers hire someone from an equity group that includes women, racialized Canadians and people with disabilities.

All three territories and nine provinces (and soon, we hope, Ontario) have signed on to Ottawa’s child-care system. But access to quality child care remains an issue to women and men in the skilled trades because of the need for more flexible work schedules. That’s why we held focus groups and put together recommendations for governments implementing child care, to ensure they consider people who work outside of a traditional 9-to-5 schedule, since they need access to quality child care as well.

As a growing number of companies seek gender diversity, more women are pursuing unconventional careers, such as the skilled trades.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, women account for 13 per cent of skilled trades jobs.

This is why Canada’s Building Trades Unions are proud to support the Office to Advance Women Apprentices (OAWA). OAWA offers wraparound support services for women seeking or already employed in the skilled trades.

For tradeswomen, programs like Build Together: Women of the Building Trades have created a way for tradeswomen in our industry to help uncover existing biases so we can work harder to address them. Build Together and our partnership with the Lean In Foundation have created networking opportunities, supports and mentorship, which are an integral part of retaining women in the skilled trades.

These support services are an important part of the work that we do, but there’s another step that needs to be addressed. We need jobs to put the interested, trained and highly qualified skilled women in our ranks. One way? Through workforce development agreements or community benefits agreements (CBAs).

CBAs enable the value of a project to extend far beyond the building of infrastructure. They create pathways to apprenticeship for those in the communities where infrastructure is built, including opportunities for underrepresented groups, and building the skilled trades workforce.

Why not mandate the inclusion of CBAs to ensure every public dollar spent sees the greatest return on investment, especially looking ahead to a post-pandemic economic recovery?

International Women’s Day should remind us all that there’s still a lot of work to do, to make every job, job site and industry open to women, and we all play a role to ensure supports are in place to increase the success of women in the construction industry. The skilled trades and Canada will be better for it.

-Sean Strickland, Executive Director, Canada’s Building Trades Unions

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