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Pink jobs vs. blue jobs: Sexism in the skilled trades

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In August 2017, the federal government launched a $73 million work-placement program for students through paid co-op opportunities in industries such as science, engineering and skilled trades. This is one of many examples of recent initiatives attempting to attract more people into the skilled trades. Both federal and provincial governments have acknowledged a shortage of workers in the trades and are working on ways to incentivize people – especially women – to enter fields like electrical work, construction and carpentry. Resources from the Ontario College of Trades, the Ontario government’s “Women in Skilled Trades” program and sites such as ontariocolleges.ca attempt to deliver gender sensitive training for women and dispel stereotypes around women in the industry.

The sad reality is that despite making up nearly half of the Canadian workforce, there continues to be a significant disparity in the number of women working in skilled trades. In a January 2016 Macleans article on women in the trades, the president of Women Building Futures, an Alberta-based organization that recruits women into the industry, provides the following somber statistic: “…Women represent four to six per cent of workers in the industry and that’s very generous.”

A recent case from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario demonstrates the stereotypical attitude that likely persists throughout the industry that women do not have a place as compared to their male counterparts. In Browning v. Northend Body Shop Ltd., 2017 HRTO 1001 (CanLII), a female high school student applied for a co-op position with an auto body shop. The student had an interest in auto mechanics. She had previously completed carpentry and electrical work courses at her high school. The auto body shop had arranged for two other co-op placements with male students in the past.

At her interview with the respondent owner of the shop, the applicant described the owner as “abrupt”. He asked the student “if she even liked cars.” The student noted that her interest in cars ought to have been obvious in light of her desire to obtain a co-op placement there.

The respondent also made the following comments to the applicant:

  • She was asked “if she really wanted to get her hands dirty because his shop was dirty.”
  • He offered the applicant clerical work at the shop, including filing, answering phones and cleaning the shop, contrasted with the other two co-op students who worked with cars during their placements.

The student did not get the co-op placement, and the allegation at the Tribunal was discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as discriminatory statements made by the owner of the body shop at the time of the interview.

There was a finding of discrimination contrary to sections 5 and 9 of the Human Rights Code. Monetary compensation was granted for injury to the student’s dignity, feelings and self-respect.

RT Takeaways for Employers:

  • Awareness of language in discussions with current and prospective employees

Employers must be mindful of discriminatory language and behaviour with employees. This also includes informal or conversational interviews. These conversations extend to all employees, including prospective employees, volunteers and co-op students.

  • Eliminate subtle sexist language and tasks in the workplace

The statements made by the respondent in this case clearly demonstrated his biased attitude toward women working at the auto body shop, noting that she would be more suited for a clerical role. The notion of women being expected to take on “office housework” or low-value tasks like taking notes or fetching coffee at meetings can become a subconscious act within a workplace. Employers must ensure that women are not disproportionately assigned these jobs.

  • Barriers continue to exist in male-dominated professions

Despite the governmental efforts to include more women in these types of industries, it is apparent that sexist attitudes continue to exist. Employers in these environments must demonstrate increased sensitivity to create more inclusive environments. One of the consequences of the respondent’s behaviour in the above case is that the applicant made the decision not to go into the trades. In the absence of supportive mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities for women in the skilled trades, this glaring gender gap will persist.

Natalie Jacyk

About the Author: Natalie Jacyk conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Natalie also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.