You can tell me what it means to this story you are reading right now that even though women in trade apprenticeships get a hell of a lot more support in this province than in the rest of Canada, there’s still a lot of barriers nobody is paying attention to. Do I write a story that says “yay, you’re getting a lot of things right and you don’t suck as much as everyone else does?” Or do I step over all that good stuff and say “come on guys, you can do better?”
I haven’t decided yet, and I’m into the second paragraph, but whatever, right?
The lede I was going to write for this story goes something like this: New research suggests that women still face significant institutional barriers that keep them from completing apprenticeship trade programs. It’s a bit plain, maybe, but it’s the crux of what Dr. Nicole Power told me about what she’s learned after spending years studying the issue.
Power is a professor at Memorial University who studies work and mobility, and she’s recently focused her attention on women and access to apprenticeships. “The numbers of women completing apprenticeship programs have not changed much despite a really aggressive awareness campaign. My research tells me it hasn’t changed much because the work environment has to change,” Power said.
So that’s a pretty critical take on it, right? But there’s another story here too, the one journey electrician Joann Greeley wants to tell. “In Newfoundland, we’re leading the way in North America. Why? Because the government of Newfoundland put in quotas and targets and made sure people followed it,” she said.
In fact, Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province that puts targets and goals in place and makes companies accountable, Greeley says. Greeley really, really wants the province’s good work to be recognized.
Power wants the province to do even better. Current policies focus on how to help women fit themselves into a program or workplace, she said. A different approach is needed to bring significant numbers of women (or any minority groups) into an organization or workplace.
“We need to change how we think about work,” Power says, whose research is part of the On The Move Partnership at Memorial University. “That’s the argument I want to make. Nobody’s talking about that. The focus is on how do we get women into these workplaces. There’s very little attention paid to how the work environment itself impedes women’s access. It’s not sustainable.”
The people I talked to said it’s hard to tell exactly how many women are involved in the trades. Different organizations and sectors collect numbers in different ways, and sometimes not at all. Some key areas do show an increase, but whether these are large gains or small ones is a matter of interpretation.
Female membership in building trade union locals increased from 4.14 per cent to 5.49 per cent between fall 2013 and spring 2015, according to a new report by the Diversity Network called “Using Balance to Build: Supporting Gender Diversity in Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Trades 1990-2017.”
The document also reported that as of 2017, nearly 2000 have trained for and are working in the construction trades in the province, and that while only 1 per cent of tradespeople engaged in the construction phase of the 1990’s Hibernia offshore project, nine per cent of the tradespeople involved with 2016’s Hebron project were female.
Power wants the province to push to put more effective policies in place for women. “My feeling is that when the province negotiates benefits agreements with industry, they could be negotiating these workplace issues. They could negotiate work arrangements that would allow women access in greater numbers,” she said.
Power’s research shows that women’s role as family caregiver can be a big barrier to apprenticeship completion and transition to work. Power said simple changes would help a lot: a work culture that doesn’t insist on working long days and overtime, and affordable childcare that makes sense.
“Even though having daycare on a worksite sounds really great, if you have to work a twelve-hour day, then you have to drop kids off at daycare by five or five thirty in the morning to make it to the site by six. If you commute to your worksite, that could mean your kids have been pulled from their beds as early as four am. You leave work at 6 pm, pick up the kids and maybe arrive home by 7. That model doesn’t work,” she said.
Power says that the lengthy commutes are a critical factor because most workers choose to live in urban centres, while most of the big project work is located in rural and remote areas.
Greeley points to a lot of positive changes that have already happened. She’s rarely the only woman at a worksite. She says she knows lots of women whose husbands stay home to take care of the kids. The culture is getting better.
“Even in 2017, companies are still biased toward hiring women construction workers. But we don’t have half the problems other provinces and other states have. Do we have a ways to go? Yes. But within the province now, there are way more of us working in trades and that changes the culture. By numbers alone, we are changing the culture,” she said.