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Breaking Gender Barriers – Women in Construction

By: Arina Kharmlamova | Photo: Courtesy of CH2M Hill

Women are still underrepresented in the construction industry, and that’s not because we don’t want in — from the Bobcat to the scaffold, as engineers and executives, many of us are taking a place in an industry that once had no room for us — but before we can fully realize the potential of this growing business, there’s going to have to be an attitude adjustment.

Why don’t you go get us some coffee?”

barked a man from a backhoe loader. He was staring down from the driver’s seat of the truck (bright yellow and with its signature shovels at both ends, this heavy equipment is common to both construction sites and toy boxes alike). The man was talking to a young Jacque Hinman who was only a few years out of university and already the supervisor of this big-city construction site.

Jacque Hinman: President, International Division, CH2M Hill.

“People talk about defining moments in their career as the times they were tested most,” remembers Hinman, now president of the International Division of CH2M Hill, the first engineering and construction company to win the Catalyst award for supporting the recruitment, development, and advancement of women. “I was the only woman on the site,” she remembers. “He wasn’t argumentative or mean, but I had to decide at that point that I wasn’t going to let him do that, or I’d never be credible on that job site again.” In the 29 years since her exchange with the barking man, Hinman has worked on scores of construction projects with CH2M Hill, including the London 2012 Olympic Games and the expansion of the Panama Canal. At the start of her career as a civil engineer, she wore a hazmat suit while working with clean-up teams to make sure that buildings and surrounding areas were environmentally sound. Now, she manages CH2M Hill’s international projects, a division with about $2 billion in annual revenue, and oversees nearly 10,000 employees; her decisions directly influence what gets built and what doesn’t. And she didn’t earn this power by staying quiet, as she feels women often do in her male-dominated industry.


According to the Canadian Construction Association, the construction industry employs close to one million Canadians and is responsible for about $123 billion in economic activity annually. “There’s never been a better time for women to get into construction in the history of our country,” says JudyLynn Archer, President and Chief Executive Officer of Women Building Futures. “All the factors that are contributing to this perfect storm, including the growing population, aging workforce, labour shortage, and economic growth in many areas of Canada, are showing that Canada wants more women in the construction workforce.” No wonder: it’s estimated that Canada will face a shortfall of over one million skilled workers by 2020, according to the Construction Sector Council.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Women Building Futures (WBF) and the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC), however, many employers are looking at women to fill this gap. “Anybody that’s ignoring half of the workforce is doing themselves a disservice,” says Ron Genereux, Vice President of Project Services at Suncor Energy.

Despite advances, Canadian women are severely underrepresented (less than 30%) in non-traditional careers such as agriculture, technology, and trades, according to Statistics Canada. The trades offer fast-paced, well-paid careers as carpenters, civil engineers, project managers and more; some women who go through the WBF training program see a 169% increase in their salaries. The number of women in registered apprenticeships more than tripled between 1996 and 2007, but in 2012, women still represented only 4% of those working in construction trades. Given the financial opportunity and advancement potential, you’ve got to wonder why.


“The industry is very direct in language and approach,” says Janine Szczepanowski, Vice President of Leadership and Entrepreneurial Development at EllisDon. Many of the women interviewed for this story say that being yelled at while at work, and dealing with loud and intimidating co-workers, isn’t uncommon.

I have found that leaders don’t say, ‘Hey, you’re a woman, I need to soften my approach.’ On one hand that’s good because everyone is treated equally. On the other hand, it demonstrates that leaders don’t flex their leadership style when needed.

Canadian colleges, universities, and organizations like WBF offer programs designed to get people trained as trades workers or superintendents, quality control engineers or managers. Those programs not only add to the pool of candidates to fill job openings, they also will help bring about a cultural change within the industry, by addressing those leadership issues.

Kami Wilson: Assistant Project Manager, EllisDon Corp.
Kami Wilson: Assistant Project Manager, EllisDon Corp.

For now, those programs tend to mirror the gender imbalance in the workforce fairly closely, but that’s good for female students. “I’d say the [gender] split was 10/90 when I first started on site, which was great because it was the same in my classes so I had already learned how to work in a mostly-male environment,” says Kami Wilson, Assistant Project Manager at EllisDon Corporation.

“Ten years ago there were not as many women in the industry. There was only one woman working for the company as a project manager at the time and I remember that being great incentive to become a PM myself,” says Wilson, who is currently the assistant project manager on the Pan Am athlete’s village under construction in Toronto. Now, women are on construction sites, in boardrooms and on boards, although even executive women say they would like to see a more balanced representation of women at midmanagement and senior levels. “Upward mobility for women in construction is still difficult and there’s still some resistance to it from the other employees and union leaders,” says Tammy Evans, President of Canadian Association of Women in Construction.


Women have clearly made some inroads so, “you’re not going to be the pioneer here anymore,” according to Edwina Lui, a structural engineer at CH2M Hill. But you may still feel like an outsider.

“Careers in trades are still quite a bit of a mystery for most women,” says WBF’s Archer. “Your average, everyday woman doesn’t know a whole lot about how to become a professional tradesperson and what the job entails. I think a challenge for all of us is fear of the unknown. We tend to gravitate towards things we know more about. A girl doesn’t wake up and think about being a millwright.” Now it’s society’s turn to encourage schools and parents to encourage young girls to pursue the field — and to break the stereotype that trades are for low academic achievers or men.

“Stereotypes like women can’t be on job sites because it’s not safe, they’re not strong enough, or they shouldn’t be there at all — you have to dispel those immediately,” says Evans. “You don’t have to be 6’5 to move steel anymore, because the technology moves it.” Now, foremen carry laptops, architects use graphic design programs, and workers use backhoe loaders to carry lumber, drywall or bricks — no one is carrying this material on their backs.

Male or female, you can do the job safely with your brains alongside your brawn.

Fear of judgement and the need to gain respect fast are common challenges for anyone starting in construction, but “being a women throws an extra challenge into the mix,” admits Wilson. “You have to prove yourself a little more than others.”

That was the case when Hinman was asked to get coffee by her direct report. To establish her authority, she took a breath, and calmly explained: “I’m not here to be your secretary. I’m here to oversee the work you’re doing.” And while many of us might have stopped there, leaving to hang in the air the implications of that script delivered from boss to employee, Hinman took the higher ground — and a more strategic approach. She added these lines: “You’ve got more experience, but this was the job assigned to me. Maybe you can show me what you do and I can see how we can work together.” The result: “The man immediately changed his stance,” Hinman remembers. In fact, he apologized. “After that first moment, he taught me more than anybody I’ve encountered since then.”