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Change Has To Come

Testing windows for water penetration and air leakage one day on a new Yonge St commercial build near Summerhill, the lead engineer on the project tore a strip out of me for not testing the right window. Luckily, the Project Manager took some of the heat, but nonetheless, I felt embarrassed and humiliated that a mistake was made, but there was something else. I sensed in her tone a raw anger that came from a different place.

It would be weeks until I met the same engineer on another test site and this time things went more smoothly. In time, we got a few contracts testing windows on schools and she happened to be the point person from the engineering team on a number of those projects. Over time, we broached the subject of what it’s like being the only woman in a predominantly male workplace.

Make no mistake, the construction site is filled with hot heads and hierarchies established by the age-old tradition of barking orders, nipping at heels for production with an equal measure of machismo and bravado. Construction sites can also be a hot bed from climate change denialism to supporting populist leaders where centrist government bashing is often served with a side of conspiracy theories on vaccines and a lecture on free speech. Sure you can find that on Bay Street too with an equally venerable history of bro-culture, but the construction place is predominantly male and rarely call each other out. And then there’s the job site porta-potties. Yes, it’s true that big guys managing bulky winter clothing in super tight spaces with muddy boots doesn’t leave room for finesse, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen acts of sabotage from No.2s or napkins clogging the urinal to not even trying to clean a mess. Forget the crude messages scrawled out in sharpie.

My experience of being on a job site last January and going from safety training, filling out Covid screening forms and giving proof of vaccination in the unvented site trailer to the jungle of the construction site where only 1 out of 5 workers was wearing a mask was compelling evidence that ignorance, verging on defiance, was the norm. Of course ignorance predates the pandemic as labourers or tradesmen rarely wear masks even when cutting concrete, forget using ear protection or water to keep the dust down!

This isn’t to say that women can’t be equally ignorant, but my gut tells me that construction sites would be a more diverse and healthier workspace if the gender balance wasn’t so skewed. In the end, the engineer in question felt that she had to overcompensate when establishing herself on the job site by being really aggressive. So it comes down to men on construction sites stepping up and being more woke. That means calling out bro-culture and having management actively supporting diversity. It comes down to parents trusting that their daughters could find fulfilling careers in the construction sector if high schools and colleges had a more inclusive message about the trades. The change is coming, but it won’t happen by itself and the Passive House crowd, which is about to jump from niche to mainstream could play a pivotal role in widening the discussion and being more inclusive.

Image: "women construction worker" by hnnbz is marked with CC BY 2.0.

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