Addressing and solving challenges women face in construction
By Jay Koblun
By Jay Koblun
More than 500 industry professionals attended Rock to Road’s Women In Construction Virtual Event held on International Women’s Day and listened to three of the Canadian construction industry’s top voices discuss issues women still face today in their sectors.
Stephanie Hnatuk, operations manager at Prairie Crane; Jennifer Green from Skills Ontario; and Nancy Chadwick, senior HSE director at Graham Construction, took questions from viewers and shared insight into what the construction industry is doing well to support women in the industry and also what it could be doing better.
One of the biggest takeaways from the panel that all three women agreed upon was that whether on a construction site, in the office, or operating a machine—women have a place in construction.
“Knowing where to start to get your foot in the door, and that there is a place for women in construction is the most difficult challenge to overcome,” said Hnatuk. “Once you’re in the industry, it’s quick to realize and learn there are a lot of people who have changed their ways and have accepted women in the industry. There is that setback in the beginning where you don’t know if it’s the right thing to do. Do you fit in? Will you be accepted? The biggest challenge is knowing where to start.”
Green said some of the biggest challenges women face in the industry comes down to things as simple as not having a washroom or change room designated for females or those that identify as female. She recalled a facility she used to work at that converted one of two male change rooms into one just for her. She then had to begin work knowing there were male co-workers of hers upset that they gave up a change room. She said these types of barriers should be addressed long before women start work at a new facility.
“One of the change rooms had to be given up just for me, it wasn’t in place until after I started,” she said. “All the people who had that space before me, that didn’t go over very well having just lost one of their two places. Companies should be making sure balances are in place.”
Even though a barrier had been removed by creating a separate change room for Green, another had been created by those who were upset one of the male change rooms was converted to female. A barrier she says could have been entirely avoided if addressed prior.
Chadwick said there are several barriers women face in construction, but honed in on the fact that most facilities still operate with personal protection equipment (PPE) designed for men.
“The majority of PPE we ask our folks to wear is designed by and made for men. We come to projects and we are forced to sort of conform to what is provided to us. If you don’t have the right fitting gear that can be a big risk to people as well,” she said, adding that the industry is beginning to expand on this but it currently is a very real challenge and barrier.
One thing the three speakers agreed upon was that there is the mindset in the industry that woman have to behave a specific way. All three agreed that should not be the case and suggests to just be yourself.
“Sometimes there is the mindset that you have to behave a specific way or that you have to be a tough person. And really you just have to show up and let your work speak for yourself. Don’t feel like you have to portray yourself as something else,” said Chadwick.
Hnatuk is operations manager for Prairie Crane in Saskatoon. It is a family business and she started right out of high school doing administration work and odd jobs in the shop. Today she’s risen to manage the day-to-day operations of this large crane rental company that provides lift equipment to light and heavy projects throughout Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.
She said her greatest challenge when she entered the industry was remembering to be herself.
“When I moved into operations manager from a junior position, I was in the position of directing our crew. Primarily middle-aged men. Also dealing with clients who are primarily men. What do I do? Do I put on my tough face and say ‘this is how it is and how it’s going to be’? How else am I going to gain their respect?”
Hnatuk said she quickly learned she needed to just be herself and allow her work to speak for itself and in doing so she has made a lot of great relationships with her employees and clients.
“That’s definitely a challenge,” she said, adding that in her time as operations manager she has had many men come up to her and ask to speak to the manager in charge. “It’s about knowing how to deal with those situations, and being yourself and working hard at your job like anyone in your position would have to do.”
Green said one thing she continually ran into was that most men had never worked with or under a woman before. To work around this Green said she became very used to saying “I’ll meet you halfway because I’m here to stay.”
“One of the big things I learned was how to handle situations tactfully. Figure out how to read the room when colleagues or superiors are constantly answering questions for me, or doesn’t allow me to finish thoughts. Someone who is not licenced or is less trained, trying to tell me how to do something.” She said it comes down to knowing how to deal with those situations tactfully and respectfully keeps the department moving forward.
Green is a licensed industrial mechanical millwright and the apprenticeship advisor for Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. As a millwright, she won gold at the Skills Ontario competition and went on to win silver nationally. She’s been recognized nationally for her work promoting skilled trades for women, including the WXN Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award, the Guelph YW-YMCA Women of Distinction Award and Conestoga College’s Alumni of Distinction Award. She’s president of the Skill Ontario Alumni Association and chair of the alumni committee for Skills Canada.
Recruiting more women
‘How can you decide on what to do as a career if you don’t know what’s out there?’ is a question Green asked during the panel. “Students and young women need to know what’s available and out there,” she said, continuing on to say the first step for women interested in the field is being curious.
“Ask questions to make that decision yours. Step one, pure exploration,” she said. “The next step is companies. Letting the public and women, or those that identify as a woman, know there are programs and inclusion groups in place that show you are welcome.” Green said it is important to be welcoming and inviting and to let potential new recruits know that you as a company have her back and that she can walk into a new work atmosphere feeling comfortable and confident with herself.
A tip she suggested for companies is to promote it on your website that your company has inclusion and diversity groups or programs.
Chadwick is the health, safety and environment director for Graham, a major heavy construction contractor headquartered in Calgary. Before joining Graham, Nancy ran her own HSE training company and worked at the Saskatchewan Construction Safety Association. She’s a member of just about every construction safety organization that operates in Alberta. Nancy’s experience takes in mining, energy and infrastructure projects and she has a degree in occupational health and safety from Ryerson.
She said it’s important to connect women interested in a career in construction with organizations that support initiatives like those listed above. “Support them in a way that makes sense to you. If you can give back to somebody, whether it’s just a conversation or advice or guidance on their career, there are lots of ways to do it and have an impact. You have to understand what the individual is looking for and ask ‘How can I connect them with what they need?’”
The panel discussion was hosted and moderated by Sukayna Ray Ghosh, associate editor for the light construction group at Annex Business Media.