Time's up. #MeToo has come for the skilled trades

Is the sector safe and welcoming for women?

If Megan Shechosky was the type to give up easily, she never would have set foot inside a heavy equipment repair shop.

When she looked for training opportunities as an 18-year-old, no one would give her a shot – and it had nothing to do with her skills.

“It was a huge struggle to find anyone who was willing to take a chance on a girl,” says Shechosky (Heavy Equipment Technician ’18). “I was too small or they didn’t think I’d be able to handle the weight of the work.”

After knocking on dozens of doors, one shop owner finally agreed to give Shechosky a pre-apprenticeship. For someone who’d grown up practically within arm’s reach of a toolbox fixing up muscle cars with her dad, it was the realization of a childhood dream.

“I wanted to be like dad,” she says of her father, Alex, an electrician who encouraged her growth and education as a mechanic through junior and senior high school.

But compared to her father, Shechosky’s introduction to the skilled trades was markedly different as the only woman among about 20 male coworkers. Her earliest moments in the trades proved life-changing.

Megan Shechosky Heavy Equipment Technician

“Horrible. It was a horrible experience.”

Shechosky was groped in full view of coworkers in an incident that was denied by her alleged attacker and later swept under the rug by  her employer. But that’s the reality she faced even before becoming a full-fledged apprentice.

“Horrible,” Shechosky says of her introduction to the skilled trades. “It was a horrible experience.”

No industry is immune from workplace sexual harassment or sexual violence, but few have the reputation for pervasive and systemic sexism and gender bias like the skilled trades. It’s been ingrained over time, but a cultural reckoning is at hand.

More and more women like Shechosky are sharing their stories and saying: “Me too.” And more men are doing their part to change behaviour from the inside.

“Those kinds of attitudes and those kind of behaviors are becoming a thing of the past. I’m not saying they’re not still out there, but they’re being dealt with when they’re brought to people’s attention,” says Malcolm Haines (Sheet Metal Worker ’94), dean of the School of Skilled Trades at NAIT.

“It was happening already, but #MeToo has certainly brought it more to the forefront.”

The #MeToo movement went viral in 2017 on the heels of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Women from all walks of life came forward on social media with stories of survival, asking to be believed instead of ignored.

The rise of #MeToo happened too late to benefit Shechosky, now 26. She was assaulted years before the movement became a social phenomenon, at a time when women were less likely to find support. She remembers worrying about whether she should speak out and risk her training and the career she’d dreamed about since childhood. “It was so hard to find someone who will take on a girl, now am I going to say something about this?”

When she did muster the courage to tell her boss, she got a lecture. The owner felt put out and wondered what he was supposed to do about it and why she didn’t pop her attacker in the nose and be done with it.

“‘I told you something like this could happen, you being a girl in the shop,’” Shechosky recalls him saying. “‘Boys will be boys.’”

Men behaving badly

The skilled trades’ reputation for sexism and gender bias is well-earned historically, concedes Haines. When he started out more than 25 years ago, it was rare to see a woman in a sheet metal shop – or any trade outside what were then considered ‘traditional’ vocations such as hairstyling or culinary. Job sites were rife with sexist language and workplace practices entrenched barriers to female workers. With the exception of the two world wars when women were a convenient and cheap source of labour, these barriers have persisted for decades.

“The first shop that I worked in, my journeyman at the time said, outright to me, that he would never hire a woman,” Haines says.

Woman welding at NAITThose kinds of attitudes help explain why female representation in the trades lags behind other sectors and isn’t progressing as quickly as some would like. Women represent less than five per cent of the skilled trades workers in Canada, at a time when almost half the country’s workforce is composed of women.

Efforts to break down gender barriers have yielded only mixed results, statistically. Female apprenticeship registrations in Canada swelled from about 2,000 in 1991 to more than 15,000 in 2012, when numbers peaked (they’ve fallen steadily since, to about 10,000 in 2016). Meanwhile, just seven per cent of women had a trades certificate in 2015 – down three per cent from the early 1990s. Men with a trades certificate held relatively steady at 15 per cent, up one per cent over the same period.

“The culture’s got to change, I’m just waiting for it to change.”

For many women who’ve worked in the industry, it’s the culture that holds the trades back from being more inclusive to women.

“The culture’s got to change, I’m just waiting for it to change,” says Nicole Mahoney (Ironworker ’06), academic chair of NAIT’s Ironworker program.

During a 15-year career in industry, Mahoney has heard all kinds of horror stories from coworkers and apprentices about harassment and sexism. Though she’s seen major improvements in the culture over the years, some pockets of the trades still operate in the “Dark Ages,” she says.

Mahoney was among the first half-dozen woman ever to join Ironworkers’ Local 720, which had 1,500 union members when she started. She felt lucky to work with so many “brothers” who for the most part treated her with support and respect – like “their little sister, their wife, their cousin, their daughter.”

Mahoney can recall a few instances where that wasn’t the case and she was the target of sexual violence, including one of her first jobs, working on a bridge over the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton.

She was 18 at the time and the only woman on the job site. She normally carpooled with her dad, also an ironworker and the general foreman on the project. One evening, Mahoney’s dad had to work late so he asked a coworker to drive her home.

Ironworker chair Nicole Mahoney

“We were just talking casually and he told me I should take naked pictures of myself and hand them out to guys at work,” she remembers.

Another incident happened years later when Mahoney was a supervisor. A journeyman lewdly rubbed against her in front of her male apprentice. In this case, her male coworker was fired but that isn’t always the case, she says.

“You can get a stigma very easily on the job site if you complain as a woman,” Mahoney says. “They like to stick a little label on it: ‘Oh, don’t say jokes around her. She’s uptight.’”

If there is a conflict between a woman and man on a job site, “99 per cent of the time” it’s the woman who will get moved to another crew, says Delanee Daviau (Welder ’12), chair of the Build Together - Women of Alberta’s Building Trades, an advocacy group for tradeswomen. 

“If there is a situation of harassment, most women won’t talk about it. They won’t tell anybody.”

Daviau, who also sits on Alberta’s Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board, which oversees training for the skilled trades, says these types of decisions fuel assumptions that “she is the problem” and reduce the likelihood of future disclosures. It also points to larger issues with the trades, how job sites are managed and where training is needed. It’s the frontline supervisors, general foremen and contractors who dole out jobs, she says, and their decisions can reinforce gender bias.

“If there is a situation of harassment, most women won’t talk about it. They won’t tell anybody. Because even though we have all these rules about protection, it doesn’t happen like that because [often] the foreman is the best friend of the [general supervisor] and so on.”

Fitting into a bullying culture

A third-generation ironworker, Mahoney says her family name likely made a difference in how men treated her at work, especially among ironworkers who’ve worked with her dad. But she still felt she had to worker harder than most to belong.

Me Too and the trades“You don’t have to be the biggest, baddest, strongest ironworker. You just have to show up every day and try hard. People see that and appreciate it.”

When she put on coveralls, a hardhat and safety glasses, she blended in; few people at work knew the real Nicole. She told coworkers little about herself and to this day has few ironworker friends. Mahoney says she adopted a tomboy persona and even answered to “Charlie” (a nickname from her father) or “Nick.”

Acting like one of the guys was part of fitting into the “weird culture of bullying” in the trades, Mahoney says. If male coworkers told rude jokes and were sarcastic, she’d reciprocate, and could dish it with the best of them. Banter started out friendly but could devolve into passive-aggressive bullying. And  it could be merciless.

“I’ve seen men in their thirties made to cry sometimes.”

“I’ve seen men in their thirties made to cry sometimes,” she says.

Occasionally Mahoney caused the tears, like the time she put chalk dust in her apprentice’s hard hat. It’s the sort of lame joke that “everyone’s done to everybody,” she says, but it wasn’t funny and he ended up crying and quit  on the spot.

“I felt horrible for it. He had a lot going on at home too, apparently. And that’s it, you don’t know what someone’s dealing with outside of work.”

Eventually, Mahoney realized she was unhappy. Her behaviour needed to change. She didn’t like who she’d become. “It was the culture at the time. We thought we were being funny but we weren’t.”

Changing face of the trades

Making the trades more inclusive goes beyond equality and extending economic advantages to women. There are also economic opportunities due to Canada’s aging workforce and retirements that the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum predicts will lead to a shortage of 1.4 million skilled workers within 15 years.

When the Build Together program started five years ago, its attention – and that of other provincial and national organizations that support and mentor women in the trades – was focused on attracting workers to the sector, says Lindsay Amundsen, director of workforce development for Canada’s Building Trades Unions.

Now it’s refocusing on keeping women in the trades, and workplace culture is essential to those efforts. The program works with its chapters across Canada, employers, unions and contractors providing resource materials and template policies for creating respectful workplaces.

“If we’re going to do all this work to recruit women and create awareness around careers in the skilled trades, we should probably look at why women are not staying in the trades,” she says. The program has identified several barriers for women in trades and has shared potential solutions among its chapters and the employer groups it works with.

Cecile Bukmeier Auto Body Technician

A report on retention and advancing women in the trades prepared for the British Columbia government found that barriers are systemic and can range from discrimination and harassment at the interpersonal level to gender biased organizational practices, lack of role models, and sexism about gender roles and expectations in wider society.

But understanding the extent of the problem is difficult due to a lack of data. There are no national statistics on retention of tradeswomen and only Newfoundland and Labrador tracks women through apprenticeship and into their careers, though B.C. is also headed in that direction.

“Nobody does an exit interview when you leave the trades,” says Mahoney. “If someone quits, they never ask them why.”

Mahoney says she’s worked with men with a high degree of professionalism who went out of their way to ensure a safe workplace. Guys are open to talking through problems, language is changing and it’s not hard to see why, she says.

“More education,” both in the classroom and awareness in general, she says. “The whole movement and the way that society is going.”

If the industry is going to continue to progress, it’s by following the examples of post-secondary institutions, she says. Mahoney credits the leadership of Haines and others in the School of Skilled Trades for fostering an inclusive, supportive culture and introducing innovative programs like Tough Enough to Talk About It, which addresses workplace culture issues such as bullying, but also how to spot signs of depression and other mental health issues.

“We can’t affect every job site out there, but what we can do is instill that culture in them while they’re here.”

Haines says the industry isn’t going to change overnight, but NAIT does its part by ensuring a respectful learning environment in the school’s shops. The polytechnic has also taken steps to do the same on a wider scale, with respect training for staff and a sexual violence policy that emphasizes a safe learning and work environment.

“We can’t affect every job site out there, but what we can do is instill that culture in them while they’re here,” Haines says. As those graduates enter the workforce and more women join the trades, it’s going to reflect in the attitudes and behaviours on the job site. “People are more aware of things they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Having women in leadership roles also helps. Mahoney became the first female academic chair in the School of Skilled Trades when she took on the role three years ago and says when she meets with other chairs, she doesn’t think about gender even though she’s the only woman at the table.

But she knows that just being there makes a difference, for her and other women such as Laurel Tokuda (Electrician ’08), whom Mahoney congratulated about a year ago after she was appointed associate chair of the Electrician program.

“When I saw her, she’s like, ‘I applied because you did it.’ That’s the cornerstone of women in the trades right there.”

Ten years ago, Cecile Bukmeier (Auto Body Technician ’15) almost quit auto body because of indifferent journeymen who couldn’t be bothered to teach her anything and relegated her to sweeping floors and taking out the trash. Today, she’s doing the educating as the first female instructor in the history of the Auto Body Technician program at NAIT.

In some ways, Bukmeier has become the face for women in the trades – in TV and newspaper coverage, on billboards and at program open houses where she speaks to a lot of young women thinking about entering the profession. It’s a long way from her start in the industry, when, at age 15, she tried to apply for an apprenticeship and was told to consider the receptionist opening.

“Thinking back, I’m like, oh my gosh, look at how far I’ve come,” says Bukmeier, now 26.

Haters not welcome

Arden Callsen (Ironworker ’16) has heard the horror stories from women about how they’ve been treated at work, but says he’s never witnessed sexual harassment first hand. If anything, some guys go too far in the opposite direction and pander to women. One of his female coworkers grew frustrated because guys would go out their way to complete difficult tasks before she could.

“She found that she had to get her elbows right in there,” Callsen says. “I think there were good intentions, but everybody just felt frustrated. Like, why can’t you just let people be people?”

Ironworker Arden Callsen

That’s Callsen’s philosophy when teaching pre-apprenticeship programs through his union local. His students are often in high school and include women, visible minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. If he encounters someone who isn’t accepting of women in the trades, it’s usually because of sexist attitudes and the belief that women aren’t strong enough physically. (A notion he points out isn’t just sexist, it’s hypocritical because the trades don’t disqualify men for being smaller, shorter or less muscular than others.)

“Those guys that aren’t willing to adjust … should be afraid.”

“If I’m a foreman and I have 10 people on my crew, they’re not all going to be 10 of the exact same person,” he says. “They’re going to be 10 very, very different people and I play to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual – size, aptitude, experience, all of these things.”

The trades will always have a certain amount of “verbal horseplay” and “haters” who resist change, but the culture is improving, he says. Behaviours and language that once were normalized are being called out – but it requires buy-in from everyone on the job site.

“Those guys that aren’t willing to adjust … should be afraid,” he says. “There’s no place for them on the job site any more. There’s no reason that job sites have to be hostile.”

#MeToo changing the coversation

The effect of #MeToo extends beyond headlines and hashtags. It’s changed conversations and workplace interactions between men and women across professions, including the trades. Women are more willing than ever to speak out, and awareness from #MeToo is definitely a factor, says Amundsen.

“People are having more conversations, it’s less hidden. Women have more courage to speak out because there’s a larger movement. Now people are saying, ‘Okay, we need to do something about this.’”

When Shechosky spoke out eight years ago, she was just trying to ensure she was treated like everyone else, even though there were threats that she’d ruin her reputation in the industry, making her unemployable. A verbal apology from the man who groped her fell short, she says.

“I believe it went along the lines of, ‘I don’t really think I touched you, but you said I did, so I guess I’m sorry for that.’”

Not surprisingly, she identifies with #whyIdidntreport, which like #MeToo has sparked conversations about why women choose not to disclose sexual assault, usually out of fear of not being supported or believed. But for the most part, she doesn’t follow news about the latest sexual harassment scandal. “It’s still a bit of a trigger.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid to push hard for the feeling of safety in our workplace.” 

In the years since she was assaulted, Shechosky has suffered a series of injuries, including one to her hand that’s threatened her career as a heavy equipment mechanic. Despite everything, she remains an advocate for the trades and hopes to teach one day because, “I can’t imagine another job I’d be happy at.”

With the benefit of hindsight, she does wish things turned out differently eight years ago. She wishes she pressed her employer to formally document her assault and that he took her seriously.

Mostly, she wishes she was treated like everyone else.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to push hard for the feeling of safety in our workplace. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.” 

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