Women in the crane industry
By Andrew Snook
Cranes and heavy construction have long been stereotyped as “men’s work,” and the demographics of the industry could enforce that perception. The industry is fairly dominated by men. But that perception is changing, as more and more women are establishing themselves as driving forces within their companies and within the industry as a whole.
We spoke to three such prominent women about their experience growing up around family-owned crane businesses, their terms serving as chairperson of the Crane Rental Association of Canada, and their experiences as women in the crane industry.
Canadian Crane Rentals
“I’ve been exposed to the crane industry since a very, very young age,” says Sheena Baker. “Growing up, most people had Tonka toys, I had real life-sized heavy equipment and that’s where my love for the equipment started.”
Baker represents the third generation of her family to work in the crane industry. At 10 years old, Baker began by doing cleaning and other types of grunt work for her family’s business – Canadian Crane Rentals in Wingham, Ont. After leaving the industry briefly to pursue an education, she was drawn back in her early 20s.
“We also had a pumping division, so we were running a significant amount of equipment at that time, so we needed extra help,” Baker recalls. “I came back just to temporarily help out for a little bit and rekindled that interest in heavy equipment and running a business; and learning more about what goes on in the field of a construction site, multi-site projects, that type of stuff. I started there and built on that to what I do today.”
Baker worked on the safety side of the business initially and slowly added more and more skills – learning what size equipment would be needed for which projects, dispatching, managing employees, overseeing the shop floor and overseeing the operators. Today, she serves as operations manager.
Her brother technically works underneath her, but there is no sibling rivalry.
“He’s running the equipment but he has no interest in actually managing the business,” she says.
There were no gender roles in their household growing up – if her father needed help fixing the car it fell to whoever was handy. They were both treated the same and exposed to the same things.
Baker is also an owner and instructor for Huron and Bruce Safety Training. Grown out of her experiences focusing on safety within Canadian Crane Rentals, she saw a need for training options that were more affordable for smaller businesses.
“I understand the risks that they’re being exposed to. So, from an instructor standpoint, I don’t just have a book that tells me, I actually have hands-on experience,” says Baker.
Canadian Crane Rentals has been associated with the CRAC since the beginning. Her father is currently serving his third term on the board and was also president. Baker herself served on the board for six years and was president last year.
“I was very grateful that they accepted somebody, relatively very young in the industry,” says Baker. “I was only in my mid-20s when I was nominated. There was no, ‘I’m older, I’ve been around longer. Can we trust you?’ It was very well diversified between anyone on the board – everybody’s opinion mattered.”
One of Baker’s proudest achievements with CRAC was putting an enhanced focus on the safety aspect of the business – getting information about what’s happening in the field, what the trends are, and getting the forum to discuss how to deal with those issues. She was also very happy to provide a voice to smaller companies in the industry, such as Canadian Crane Rentals.
“My father owned a crane company and I drew the short straw,” jokes Shawna Boreen.
At a young age, Boreen was extremely interested in business.
“Even as a young kid, I would read the business section of the Edmonton Journal, totally nerdy,” she says.
After finishing her university degree, Boreen worked for her father’s company, King Crane Service Ltd. There, she worked in the office and came to understand the basics of what her family did.
The biggest lessons she learned from her experiences working with her father were about decision-making and leadership – how it’s not about always being right, but about being able to make a decision that helps the team get to where they need to go. Her father entrusted her with responsibility early on and was adamant that she develop the skills she would need.
“One of my first tasks in the crane industry was to get a loan for my dad to buy a crane,” says Boreen. “I had to go to the bank manager and said, ‘Mr. Simpson, I’m here to get a loan’ and he said ‘I don’t ideal with you, I deal with your dad,’ and he sent me away! So I came back to my dad and he’s like, ‘Get back there, you’re the future. You’re going to learn how to get a loan from a bank.’ I had to go back to see Mr. Simpson and I said, ‘I’m more afraid of my father and going back without a loan than anything you can do here.’ And I got to write a check with more zeroes than I’d ever seen in my life.”
She remained with King Crane Service until its closure. Following that she did some freelance work for other crane companies on specific projects, from the opening of a new branch, to helping with health and safety aspects, to managing rough terrain crane fleets.
During a lull between jobs, she was approached by Sarens and became their special projects manager. Currently, she is based out of Nisku, Alta. serving as senior project manager and site manager for the company.
In the early days of the CRAC, her father was asked if he would like to sit on the board – he declined, but suggested Boreen would be a good fit. She became a board member and would go on to become chair in 2006. She did a lot of community and committee work with the association. She will finish her third tenure on the board this May. She says she was particularly proud of the CRAC conference she was in charge of in Kelowna, B.C. in 2006.
“What I bring is a sense of collaboration and communication. I think those are my strengths as a leader,” says Boreen. “We helped to really establish the spousal program with regards to having some value for the spouses who attend, men or women, and we really developed that. We were really diligent in ensuring that the speakers we bring are informative, are relevant to the times and can speak to the issues that are of a nation instead of just specific areas.”
Amherst Crane Rentals, Ltd.
“I was one of the oldest, so the kids all got involved in helping right from the get-go in one way or another,” says Valerie Brennan. “I began to do invoices for my mother when I came home from school and I helped her with some of the bookkeeping. It was a family business, no question about that.”
Brennan’s father started his company – Amherst Crane Rentals Ltd. – in Scarborough, Ont. in the early 1960s as a one-crane operation. Brennan began working in the company’s office, but started getting very hands-on with the equipment shortly after her father bought a full shop.
“I liked to be outside, so I got into the shop and got involved in watching what they do and why they need things and what broke down and learning a lot about it,” Brennan says.
Brennan took a brief sabbatical in her early 20s, working in the Caribbean islands. When she returned, she began working for Amherst as a bookkeeper and developed further skills in other aspects of the industry.
“It was all just continuous learning and an enjoyment of working with the people in the industry who I find very creative,” Brennan says. “Art and music and cultural things have always been a big part of our lives. My parents were like that and taught us that. So the construction industry sort of follows suit – the people that you need in this business are builders. They always have great ideas and strong conviction, so they move ahead and build. I enjoy that environment, so I’ve made myself a big part of it.”
Today, Brennan says she touches on all aspects of the business – perhaps not as an expert, but well-versed in all of it. She has participated in the development of education for crane operators and has sat on committees with the government for regulatory bodies. She manages the office and staff, and helps with legal issues while also being a capable crane operator, and able to cover for a dispatcher, if need be.
Brennan, and Amherst, joined the CRAC in its second year of existence. Brennan thought it would be wise to join it as a social club and networking opportunity, to get to know people in the industry who had the same type of machinery, the same concerns and the same dealings with manufacturers. Eventually that social club evolved into what the CRAC is today.
“Now it’s becoming more of a voice,” says Brennan. “Obviously, there are projects that are more connected in Canada, so it’s more sophisticated than it was 15 or 20 years ago. It’s been a great asset to already have that base.”
Brennan is particularly proud of the work she was able to contribute to with CRAC, including Red Seal training and a current project looking at law surrounding heavy machines and their impact on the road. She was also very proud of the CRAC conference in Toronto during her time as chair, where they brought in elephants and other animals from the Bowmanville Zoo, based on an incident where cranes were used to rescue elephants that had slid down an embankment at the zoo.
As women in the industry
There was a time when the crane industry was something of a boys’ club. While there have been exceptions going back many, many years (see story on WWII-era crane
operator Rose Grant Young in the October 2016 issue), attitudes and perceptions have persisted. It has been the contributions of women like the three we spoke to for this article that have worked to help reverse those trends. But it hasn’t always been an easy path.
“There’s quite a few challenges being a woman, I think, in any trade,” says Baker. “Bullying is a big factor. Being taken seriously is a huge obstacle that women undertake every day. You can have the same education, you can have more experience than a male. If you say something, the exact same, often times in this industry, they will take a male’s opinion over a female’s opinion.”
Baker says the first time she entered the classroom to get her crane licence, the instructor asked her if she was supposed to be there. She got the impression that he was thrown off by having a woman in his classroom. But by the end of the course, she had proven her aptitude and knowledge and “his tune had very much changed.”
Boreen wouldn’t say she had experienced challenges specifically as a woman, but rather as a new person within the crane community. She credits the men she has worked for as having been extremely generous in their mentoring.
“You start off trying to be what they want you to be, but at the end of the day they accept you for who you are,” says Boreen. “That’s probably the voice we have to give all young men and women in industry – to be who you are in those industries, not a reflection of your gender. The people I work with know my weaknesses and my strengths and we try to put those puzzle pieces together so we have a really strong team. The fear that I had as an individual, I think a young man in the industry would probably feel, too.”
“There are always some challenges over the years, but I’m the kind of personality that let’s that just run off my shoulder,” Brennan says. “I’ve encountered, occasionally over the years, men who have fast attitudes about women, but as Winston Churchill might say, ‘There’s always opportunities to keep your mouth shut.’ I understand that people have their prejudices, so I find ways to work around it and educate them and encourage them slowly rather than confront. It’s worked well for me over the years.”
Brennan says that there may be hard feelings over someone showing themselves to be more capable than someone else, but that would be the same with a man or a woman. They may use being a woman as an excuse, she says, but it’s just that – an excuse. Brennan sees a different “culture of men” and that rather than trying to change it, she looks to make the most of it.
“I’ve worked with strictly men almost, for many, many years of my life,” says Brennan. “I’ve enjoyed that. I can use my feminine power, if that’s what they like to call it these days, to my best advantage without taking advantage of people. At the same time, I understand that some men have to have their pride, and that’s good, and we can work with that.”
And what advice would they have for young women interested in entering the crane industry who might be concerned about such issues?
“If you’re concerned about those issues, don’t enter the crane industry,” says Brennan, bluntly. “If you are willing to confront the issue and learn how to cope and improve it and educate, then you will succeed in this industry, because that is what these people are looking for. They’re looking for empowered individuals, male or female.”
“Go for it,” says Boreen. “Don’t let your own fears stop you from the dreams that you have to have to be in the profession of your choice. There’s people on the other side who will support you, mentor you and will make you a success. We are in an amazing, vibrant industry that you can learn, have lifelong learning, and an amazing career as a woman in the crane industry.”
“I really encourage women to try it,” says Baker. “We need to fix this gap in the labour shortage, right now, in trades. And women can help close that gap. Some people think that it’s just dirty and male dominated. It’s hard labour. It’s not for women. We really need to break down those barriers all across the board, but specifically in the crane industry. Take that risk and start to fill those gaps in our industry. We are capable of doing anything that a male can do.”