Can we call a woman plumber? (Editorial)

There was a time when a woman doctor was a rarity. When women routinely endured unwanted comments in the office. When promotions and pay raises consistently overlooked women. And while equity and harassment problems still exist, women have advanced greatly in the workplace over the last two decades, and so too have the attitudes and behaviour of men. But this change has yet to take hold in the trades sector — much to the detriment of employers faced with severe labour shortages.

Uyen Vu’s cover story on apprenticeships looks at the need to improve the image of trades — mistakenly viewed by some as a default career for academic underachievers. Young people, parents and society in general have to be sold on a new image of trades as an attractive vocation if apprenticeship programs are to attract the people needed to avert a looming shortage of skilled workers.

But the trades’ image problem goes deeper than the need to pitch the availability of well-paying jobs for intelligent people. As long as the trades are viewed as bastions of male chauvinism, women won’t join the ranks of blue-collar workers, and perhaps the best hope for solving labour force shortages will go unrealized. Women account for about one-tenth of apprenticeship positions, according to the government of Ontario, and unless discrimination and harassment in the sector are dealt with, those numbers are unlikely to change.

A 2002 report by the National Women’s Reference Group on Labour Market Issues (made up of representatives from 17 national women’s organizations) notes women who pursue trades jobs often face discrimination and harassment in the workplace because of deeply rooted social values and views of work, which emphasize traditional gender-based attitudes., a government-funded project set up to promote trades careers, has this warning for women on its website: “A word of caution: this isn’t a ‘cutesy’ career choice. If you want to make it in non-traditional skilled trades, many of these are made up of men at this point.” The same site notes “the female labour pool represents Canada’s most significant resource for meeting the growing skills shortage in trades, technology and operations occupations.” Here we have both a cry for more women and a warning about what to expect.

What can be done? Schools can get the ball rolling by encouraging girls to succeed in subjects that lead to trades, namely math and science. Canada’s education system hasn’t done a particularly good job of doing this.

Employers also need to enforce equity on shop floors and worksites. No more blind-eyes to posters of naked women. Rude and suggestive comments have to be dealt with harshly, and the “male-bonding” that exists in some workplaces must be replaced with professionalism.

The choice is clear. Employers can clean up the problem or they can bemoan lost profits when there aren’t enough workers to do the job. Yes, societal change of this nature takes time, but take heart. The success of women in the white-collar world can be repeated in the trades. Let’s just hope it won’t be another two decades.

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