Typically, the solution to the stagnant number of women in construction – it’s been stuck at roughly 3 percent for decades – is to recruit more women. The BC Centre for Women in the Trades is taking a different approach: retention.

The BC Centre for Women in the Trades, headquartered at Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 and coordinated by IBEW sisters Sandra Brynjolfson, left, and Emelia Colman-Shepherd, right, is focusing on keeping women in the trades.

“There’s no point in recruiting women if you’re not doing anything to keep them,” said Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 Assistant Business Manager Lisa Langevin.

In 2016, Langevin, who has long supported efforts to diversify the trades, helped secure funding for a study on women in the construction industry, then worked with researchers on the project, which included focus groups and looking at the role of mentoring.

“Nothing in the focus groups was really a surprise,” Langevin said. “It was mostly stuff we already knew.”

What they already knew – but now had the research to back up – was that on a lot of worksites there’s only one woman, and all too often that woman would be the first to get laid off. And getting work itself was hard.

“There’s still a ‘good old boy’ network,” Langevin said. “There’s still discrimination and it’s hard to combat that alone.”

Those findings informed the groundwork for what became the BC Centre for Women in the Trades, headquartered at Local 213 and coordinated by two IBEW sisters: Local 213 members Sandra Brynjolfson, mentorship coordinator, and Emelia Colman-Shepherd, advocacy coordinator.

“The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” Colman-Shepherd said.

Brynjolfson and Colman-Shepherd’s titles reflect the Centre’s two focus areas: networking/mentoring and culture change.

A main component of the culture change pillar is the Centre’s collaboration with the Ending Violence Association, an organization that works to end violence against women. EVA’s “Be More Than a Bystander” initiative, a program that works with provincial football team the B.C. Lions to train men on how to be allies for women, has been tailored to address issues in the building trades.

“I’m a Lions season ticket holder. I’ve seen ads about the program and have wanted something like that for the trades for years,” Brynjolfson said. “It’s great to see it finally coming together.”

The program is set to launch at the end of January along with a diversity and inclusion training, the coordinators said.

Brynjolfson and Colman-Shepherd say the program is the only one they know of that’s run by tradeswomen, and the only one focused on keeping women in the trades.

“It’s a wasted investment when a woman, a skilled craftsperson, leaves the trade because she doesn’t feel safe, or has to work nonunion because that’s the only place she can get a job,” Brynjolfson said. “Safety and discrimination aren’t women’s issues, they’re workers’ issues. Everybody benefits from a more respectful workplace.”

British Columbia Premier John Horgan, left, stopped by the BC Centre for Women in the Trades booth in September, where he met with Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 Assistant Business Manager Lisa Langevin.
One of the Centre’s networking efforts is a database they’re creating of tradeswomen throughout the province. In addition to helping connect women with employers, it will also collect data that isn’t being collected anywhere else, the coordinators said.

“We’re constantly inputting information,” Colman-Shepherd said. “We’re finding out how many women are out there and it’s informing our research to help us better connect – and keep – women in the trades.”

They also want it to be a place where women can feel safe about sharing their experiences, sharing things like which jobs were horrible to work at – and which were great.

“When you go from job to job, it’s really helpful to have someone vouch for it, to tell you about the culture, how safe it is. That’s really important for women,” Brynjolfson said.

To an extent, women are already doing this on places like Facebook. One group has about 800 members, Brynjolfson said, and everyone is supportive. They want the database to be something that takes that camaraderie to the next level.

“Networking like that is invaluable,” Brynjolfson said. “It’s great to see women helping other women, whether it’s moral support, technical advice, or just comic relief.”

The Centre launched on June 28, with Melanie Mark, minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, in attendance.

“I was in a room full of firsts tonight. First in their trade, first in their community. Not only are the trades in demand but there is a huge opportunity for women to lead the way by building a Better B.C.” Mark said on Twitter. “These women are lighting things up and paving the way to a bright future!”

Brynjolfson and Colman-Shepherd say Local 213’s support has been vital in making the Centre a reality.

“The IBEW has been very supportive,” they said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”

For more information on the Centre, visit www.bccwitt.ca or email  info@bctradeswomen.org.