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Networking groups in construction-related fields attract women to the industry

By Barb Feldman

 

In 2014, the non-profit Deep Foundations Institute (DFI), whose membership includes more than 4,000 excavation and deep foundation academics, contractors, engineers and suppliers from over 50 countries, established its Women in Deep Foundations Committee (WiDF). The committee’s mandate is to raise awareness of career opportunities for women in geotechnical engineering and deep foundations design and construction, increase professional development opportunities for women in the industry, and support women’s career readiness and growth through professional development programs, networking, mentoring and outreach.

“Being part of the DFI and WiDF has given me tremendous confidence, opportunities and career success – I wish I’d been introduced to this group when I was a student or a young engineer,” said Lucky Nagarajan, WiDF chair and general manager of engineering and business development at Giken America. 

Her involvement with WiDF has helped her better understand the industry, meet inspiring and influential people, learn tools that are important for her growth and exposed her “to a world with women engineers,” she says. WiDF provides casual social events, as well as more structured activities and opportunities to develop professional relationships and forge friendships with other women in the male-dominated industry.

WiDF’s membership includes industry stakeholders of all genders – researchers, contractors, owners, manufacturers and equipment suppliers as well as engineers. The committee’s professional development skills workshops, technical presentations, mentoring program, webinars and networking receptions and lunches focus on establishing, maintaining and growing the professional and soft skills that all professionals – women and men – need to succeed in the industry, Nagarajan says. Open discussion is welcome during monthly conference calls that are typically attended by 30 participants or more, with conversations that often challenge the participants to think differently and more inclusively about issues concerning women in the design and construction workplace.

 

Support for women in the construction trades

In Canada, the number of professional and networking groups helping to connect women in the skilled trade, construction and deep foundation sectors has increased over the years as the number of women entering these industries has grown. Although not targeted to women in the deep foundations industry specifically, many are designed as resource hubs, providing information and support for women in construction trades in general, sometimes in partnership with labour organizations, industry, community colleges or other stakeholders interested in increasing the percentage of women employed in these sectors. They range from volunteer-run regional, national and international Facebook and LinkedIn groups to company-specific female-employee networks to programs that include networking and mentorship funded by Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The Facebook pages of New Boots/Nouvelles Bottes, a tradeswomen-run group and resource hub in New Brunswick, and Build Together, Women of the Building Trades, a national program sponsored by Canada’s Building Trades Unions, have more than 2,500 likes and followers each. Dozens of similar government-funded or volunteer-run Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, created to recruit, retain and support women in the building trades, such as the Build Together BC and Build Together Manitoba Facebook pages, have hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of followers; The Canadian Association of Women in Construction LinkedIn group has over 1,700 members.

“Online communities are crucial for providing women in trades with the mentorship, support and access to resources and information that they need to build successful and rewarding careers,” asserts the Facebook page of the BC Centre for Women in the Trades (BCCWITT), which also maintains private tradeswomen Facebook pages for each of British Columbia’s eight economic regions.

 

Tradeswomen on jobsites often socially isolated

BCCWITT operates with funding from B.C.’s Industry Training Authority under the umbrella of the BC Federation of Labour to support women’s career development, working to reduce barriers for women seeking training and jobs in the skilled trades. However, it’s not just about getting women into the trades, says Karen Dearlove, BCCWITT’s executive director.

“The biggest issue is retention; from apprenticeship to becoming a journeyperson to permanent employment, they’re losing women at every single step,” she said.

Often, tradeswomen are socially isolated at work and feel the challenges they face are unique. This prompted BCCWITT to host monthly Zoom meetups to give tradeswomen across the province a place to discuss these challenges. To make the workplace safer and more inclusive, BCCWITT began its “Be More than the Bystander” program, which urges skilled tradesmen to recognize and intervene against workplace “bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment and assault.”

After Newfoundland and Labrador opened the first Office to Advance Women Apprentices (OAWA) in 2009, the percentage of female tradespeople rose to 13 per cent in the province, far surpassing the national average of four per cent among Canada’s 1.2 million people who work in construction. In addition to working with women interested in entering the skilled trades, OAWA enlists tradeswomen “to mentor women who are thinking, ‘Are the trades for me, and if so, what trade?’” said Karen Walsh, OAWA’s executive director. There are OAWA locations in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, all of which partner with employers, trades unions, government and training institutions to provide services and supports to women, including networking opportunities for female skilled-trade apprentices and tradeswomen who’ve completed their training.

“The thing is that women have a support system, a resource, a place to go to help them find employment, to help them decide if the trades are for them and to help them get in the building trade unions, in with the contractors and small companies,” said Walsh.

 

A safe, non-judgmental environment

The goal of the Ontario Women in Trades Facebook group “is to offer universal support to women in the trades, so that no tradeswoman feels isolated or without resources,” and to provide “a safe, non-judgmental environment for tradeswomen to openly chat about everything from schooling to tool knowledge to workplace harassment,” said Meg Mulligan, one of the group’s volunteer administrators and a licensed electrician and co-owner of an Ottawa-based electrical contracting company.

She says it’s “a great avenue for women in trades to share their stories,” ask questions, offer knowledge and mentorship to others, and share information about upcoming programs, events or information sessions related to trades. Many of the group’s 500-plus members are also part of Women in Trades Canada or other related groups.

Since 2015, when it established its own provincial Facebook group, the BC Tradeswomen Society has grown to more than 2,400 union or non-union members who work in trades where women are underrepresented, such as construction and HVAC, identify as female and live or work in B.C. “There’s absolutely a need for women’s skilled-trade networking groups,” said Lisa Langevin, the Society’s president. “Even simple things like access to clean bathrooms or PPE in women’s sizes, women face issues and barriers that the guys don’t face. We’re different, we don’t naturally meet each other on jobsites,” she said. “It means that there needs to be opportunities for us to be able to connect and converse outside of work.” 

 

 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.