Prejudices persist against women working in construction

Inappropriate comments, intimidation, harassment and lack of recognition; women working in Quebec's construction industry are still facing many roadblocks, despite the fact that their numbers are slowly increasing in a traditionally male workforce.

This is why the first Women in Construction Week is being held this year.

"Girls have to work double because they don't know what to do," Jade Payer says she has heard comments like this many times over the past few years whenever she arrives at a new job site as a steelworker.

"From one job to the next, they always assume we're the new girl who doesn't know anything. Mentalities have not changed yet," said Payer, who now works as a project manager at Groupe Axiomatech.

Her boss, Josée Dufour, has been quietly observing the evolution.

"But there is still a somewhat paternalistic attitude," admits the president and co-founder of the company, which specializes in industrial, commercial and institutional kitchen and medical laboratory construction projects.

"A man is more likely to be delegated responsibility than a woman, to be given a level of autonomy," said Dufour, who entered the construction field after working in biomedicine. "Often decisions will be made for the woman, for example, that something is too heavy, that a certain task is not suitable for her, instead of giving her a choice, an opportunity to develop and learn."

Nevertheless, she and her colleague are noticing a new generation of workers bringing a more pleasant atmosphere to the job sites.

Women are gradually gaining ground in construction in Quebec.

Their representation has risen from 2.73 per cent of the active workforce in 2020 to 3.3 per cent in 2022.

More than 6,200 women work in nearly 4,000 companies, representing 14.7 per cent of companies in the industry.

"Many companies are very open to hiring women and integrating them into their teams," said Myriam St-Pierre, executive director of Elles de la construction.

This year, the organization is overseeing its first "Diversity and Inclusion Week for Women in Construction."

The initiative aims to highlight successes, "to show that it is possible to have a career in construction, to be fulfilled, even if there are still issues" for the female workforce, said St-Pierre.

However, some employers are still refusing to hire women for fear of having to "handle harassment cases,'' Payer said.

"They know their workers can't behave when there are women around, so they say, 'To avoid dealing with the situation, I'm just not going to hire them,'" she said.

This culture of psychological and sexual harassment can result in a high drop-out rate for women after only five years in the field.

Payer recalls a short-staffed subcontractor who turned away a female candidate because she was "too cute," which he said led to inappropriate behaviour by some of his employees.

"He would rather not meet his deadlines and suffer the labour shortage than have to deal with the sexual urges of his workers," she said.

In order for there to be a culture change, the message must first come from the top -- it's up to management to put their foot down when it comes to harassment or bullying, argue Dufour and Payer.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy. We don't let a situation escalate. Our employees are strongly encouraged to denounce, not to accept these situations," said Dufour. "As long as companies are very clear and strongly establish a culture of respect and safety, I think it's more difficult for an individual to try to get his way and maintain this toxic culture."

Better regulations are also needed to allow women to come forward without fear of losing their jobs.

"It is very difficult for them to know which door to knock on," noted Dufour.

She suggests setting up an anonymous and independent complaint line.

Payer has now developed a training program to fight against sexual and psychological harassment on construction sites and in the industry as a whole.

She hopes to start giving the course this summer.

According to stakeholders interviewed by The Canadian Press, improvements in working conditions are needed to attract and retain more women workers.

Better schedules and access to safety equipment made specifically for women's bodies are part of the "small changes" that should be implemented, as well as general education of the public, adds Dufour.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on May 20, 2022. 

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