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Efforts to recruit more women to construction pay off – but there's more work to do

A woman uses a phone near a backhoe
Developing an open culture of communication between workers and managers is critical. Cooper Equipment Rentals

What if I told you there's a logical solution to construction's labour shortage – and it's right in front of us? A wide talent pool with the skills, work ethic, and determination to support the future of the industry.

The solution is women. 

And yes, compared to a decade ago things have changed, but women are still under-represented in the construction sector. Let's look at the stats. In Ontario, just 8 percent of trades, transport, and equipment operators are female according to Statistics Canada. The Commission de la Construction du Québec recently reported that just 3 percent of Quebec's construction workforce is female. Numbers are equally low in other provinces.

What happens when we get more women into the construction industry? To start, we increase profitability. According to McKinsey research, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform their national industry median on operating earnings margins. The same report shows that gender-diverse construction companies are 25 percent more likely to achieve above-average profitability compared to less diverse companies.

If that isn't enough, how about the unique perspectives women bring? Or the skill sets you access when you diversify your recruitment? This isn't going to happen on its own – it takes work. So it's time to ask the question: Are you willing to put in the effort needed to bring more women into your workforce? It means committing to an inclusive organization and helping build a diverse workforce that fosters innovation, better decision-making, and teams where everyone feels safe and supported. Who wouldn't want that?

Updated recruitment efforts can help pave the way for tapping into a new talent pool. Cooper Equipment Rentals

Time to set the record straight

Where would we be if schools were providing the resources and encouragement for young women to learn about opportunities in the construction and rental industry? Both have so much to offer: competitive salaries, flexible work hours, safety training, mental health benefits, and mentorship.

I joined the equipment rental industry in 2020 with no prior experience and I have never experienced more support in my career development. It can be intimidating entering a new industry where there's a lot of technical knowledge to acquire, but with a supportive learning environment and the right motivation, anyone can develop new skills and knowledge. Even if they have no prior industry experience, leadership teams should be fully invested in attracting, retaining, and developing more women in our industry – not just for business performance, but because it opens up a whole new pool of talent.

For Lana Frank, a mom of two and the only female outside sales rep in Cooper Equipment Rentals' Trench Safety division in Canada, a career in construction was never something she imagined. She says working in the industry has had a real impact on her career and her family life. The flexibility, support, and ability to spend time with her family has allowed her to flourish both professionally and personally. It's not all perfect of course; she faces some real challenges on site. Some male customers doubt her ability and knowledge, looking past her when she arrives. What's her advice to women wanting to join the industry? "Be the ‘calm in the storm' and focus on the unique attributes you can bring to the table," she says. For Lana that's empathy, understanding, and patience.

Are you walking the walk?

Updated recruitment efforts can help pave the way for tapping into a new talent pool and, as a result, increase retention too. To start, it might be time to have a long hard look at the language you use in your recruitment, like reviewing interviewing processes and removing biases from job descriptions. We recently went through all our job descriptions to identify underlying biases, words, and descriptions that weren't gender neutral. At one point, a role might have required an employee to be able to lift 50 pounds, but the requirement is now irrelevant. Updating language and requirements removes barriers for female applicants.

For organizations committed to measuring and improving diversity efforts, certifications can add credibility and rigour to your practices. We've pursued the parity certification by Women in Governance, and it's a point of pride that we've improved our level of certification over the last year. It's a lot of work but it's also a great opportunity to not only measure your diversity efforts but also see what other companies are doing to attract and retain more women. 

Driving a positive safety culture

Consider for a moment the potential outcomes when workers, especially women, do not feel safe to speak up. How many accidents could have been prevented? How many innovative solutions were never voiced? Developing an open culture of communication between workers and managers is critical.

Companies with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to foster more trust with workers. This is key for establishing a safe work environment both physically and psychologically, especially on construction sites. How likely is an employee to speak up about a potentially dangerous move if they don't feel safe to do so? In an industry that doesn't typically lend itself to open discussions about mental health, this can be a game changer.

When we are open to different perspectives we bring better solutions to the table when it comes to employees' wellbeing. So if your focus is not just on hiring women, but retaining them, your teams should feel comfortable reporting unsafe behaviours or concerns to their managers.

Even if they have no prior industry experience, leadership teams should be fully invested in attracting, retaining, and developing more women in our industry. Cooper Equipment Rentals

What do women really want? Representation

Young women want to see workers who look like them and have experiences they can relate to. But that's hard when there are still so few women on most job sites.

Emily Henderson is an apprentice mechanic based in Calgary and cannot recall learning about skilled trades opportunities in high school. After a family member told her about their experience as a heavy-duty equipment mechanic, she decided to go for it. Emily's now finishing her second year as an apprentice and isn't looking back. When she applied for her role she had no relevant experience and didn't know heavy equipment.

"They could tell I wanted to learn and that I was determined. They took a chance on me," she recalls. From there she earned her various safety certifications and started heading out on service calls. She gets a lot of double takes and sometimes feels uncomfortable as the only woman on site but stays focused on the job. And that's her advice to young women entering the industry. "I would say 100 percent go for it. You need to minimize the background noise of people saying you belong in the office and not in the field. Realize that these people aren't part of your career path, chase what you want to do."

So how do we improve culture on job sites when female representation is still so rare? There are a few organizations leading the charge on this – Canadian Women in Construction actively supports the training and development of young professionals entering or considering the construction industry. Their goal is to increase employment, awareness, and development for all women during various stages of their career journey. Providing hands-on experience and an engaging learning environment to young women as a way to introduce them to a possible career in the trades is key. I also encourage younger women to attend Jill of All Trades events to see first hand what employment opportunities are available.

Women in construction want to be leaders

Seeing a clear path to career advancement is the most important factor for women. While challenges still exist, diversity stands as a proven asset and plays a key role in addressing the industry's labour shortage.

There are incredibly accomplished women already working in the construction and rental industries who are challenging gender norms and inspiring younger generations to follow them. We just need to keep going!

Antonia Edwards is the director of marketing at Cooper Equipment Rentals Limited.

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255 Longside Dr.
Unit 103
Mississauga, ON
CA, L5W 0G7


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