Advancing Women in the Skilled Trades – Perspectives from a Recently Enlightened Male

This piece was originally published by Electrical Business Magazine

Although I now operate out of an office, or more accurately a dining room that doubles as an office, I spent many of my younger years working with “my hands”. In my teens, I was a labourer and a forklift operator for a logistics company. Later, during graduate school, I received a truck driving license and served as a crew leader for a cross-border moving company in Windsor, Ontario. Some of the best memories I have from these times involve comradery with “the guys”, which often entailed cultural norms such as using colleagues for tape ball targets and other forms of horseplay.

Thinking back, as a crew leader, I never really worried much about details like uniforms, equipment, or culture. After all, the uniforms were the same for everyone, with the only difference being whether someone needed a men’s small, medium, or large. We generally had access to the right equipment, but the crew usually seemed more preoccupied with teasing the guy that always insisted on using it. In terms of culture, the norms governing inclusion were simple. One mustn’t drop the object they were carrying while being used for tape ball target practice. If any of this sounds unprofessional, the leadership didn’t seem to think so. We kept customers happy and we got the job done.

To be sure, social norms and values are constantly evolving. What was once common practice can quickly become antiquated or unacceptable. Conversely, sometimes things that should change, prove to be stubbornly resistant to progress. Women’s representation in the skilled trades is an example of the latter. While progress is being made in other areas, the most recent estimates from Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) place the percentage of women in trades throughout the electricity sector as being between 5-7%. In some specific trades, such as powerline technicians, it is as low as 1-2% nationally.

Recently, while leading the development of CEA’s guidance document on Advancing Women in Skilled Trades, I experienced an enlightenment relating to my time as a crew leader. I had never considered how I would feel in a workplace where I was only offered uniforms in women’s sizes, or if I were the only male on my crew or perhaps in my entire sector. Nor had I thought about less tangible but deeply engrained social factors such as males not seen as desirable candidates for the role. What if these roles were never presented to me as a viable career option?

I realized when working on this report that these examples were just a few of the many strands that together make up a virtual spider’s web of systemic, social, and physical barriers preventing women’s increased equity and inclusion in the trades.

With these obstacles in mind, CEA’s guidance document was developed to codify baseline practices and policies being implemented by members to assist in overcoming barriers to women’s inclusion in the trades. More importantly, the document outlines recommendations for further progress. One is for utilities to place more emphasis on engaging young women regarding trades opportunities before they enter high school. This is a critical missing link in terms of “priming the pump” for interest in apprenticeship opportunities later in life. Utilities also need to be more active in having unions and contractors prioritize female representation. Finally, all employers should set targets for female representation in trades positions and report on progress, which in turn will assist in driving action.