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Women build a future for others in B.C.’s construction sector

As International Women's Day arrives, women cement leadership roles in B.C.'s construction industry

March 8 is International Women's Day and a chance for women to celebrate their growing representation in construction industry management roles. 

Growing up, Zoe Graham-Radford would sketch out house plans. Designing and building things were an early passion of hers, one that eventually led her to the architectural and building technology program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

But during her studies, she found herself drawn more to the hands-on work of construction in the field rather than to design. She eventually graduated in 2010 with a certificate in construction operations and construction supervision.

Today, she’s assistant site superintendent for Wesgroup Properties at The Nelson, a 34-storey residential tower under development at the Brewery District in New Westminster.

She’s the only woman on site.

“It’s breaking the mould,” she said. “Women in the construction industry, in field management, are definitely in the minority.”

The work brings her in contact with an older cohort of largely male supervisors, and while confident in her work, she feels constant pressure to prove herself.

“I am always trying to show that I belong and that I can actually be here,” she said. “That’s a constant battle in my role and my position.”

While the milieu is changing, Graham-Radford says her experience has given her a keen interest in being a role model to others. She knows herself how important support is.

“There are so many job positions and descriptions which can be filled, but women aren’t aware of that in high school and their early childhood years. So it’s not really thought of as an option when you’re younger,” she said.

It was only by talking with others and receiving support that she established a career path for herself.

“I wasn’t aware of what options there were in the construction industry to do. I learned that through school, meeting people in the industry, talking to them about their work,” she said.

Women currently make up 14.6 per cent of the BC construction industry, according to Statistics Canada. This is the second highest in Western Canada after Alberta, at 15.9 per cent. Several efforts have helped boost total female employment in the sector to 31,500, with younger women better represented. The employment prospects are also good. With the tight labour market, unemployment among female construction workers is lower than among their male counterparts.

Celebrating the successes is important, said Reisa Schwartzman, CEO of the Cape Group, a Vancouver construction company with several women in leadership roles.

Schwartzman was a presence in the family-owned company long before her employment officially began. She remembers being in the office at the age of 8 in the 1960s, when the workforce was 100 per cent male.

“I was eight years old. I’d be on the job site on the weekends with my dad picking up nails,” she said.

But when she joined the family business as an adult in the mid-1980s, it was a different story. She wasn’t the cute kid any longer, and had to prove herself in order to be accepted.

“When I first started in the business, if there was a golf tournament, I never got asked,” she said. “The respect of my staff, and the community – it’s been earned.”

Women still face barriers, both in North America and abroad, which is why celebrating the successes is important, especially if the construction sectors hope to draw in new immigrants. It signals that good workers are welcome, regardless of who they are.

“We’re so fortunate in North America to have the ability to have equality. But I think we have to be aware that not everybody has the same right,” she said “There’s a shortage of qualified men in the business, so to have women join the [workforce] would just be a huge asset.”

Having more women active in the sector helps younger women see opportunities for themselves in the sector, Graham-Radford said.

“Having a growing minority of women coming in, it’s changing this whole culture and fostering a new culture in the industry, for sure,” she said. “Having great mentors and leadership from older professionals that want to show the younger generation and pass their knowledge down, that’s also what helps to encourage even myself to stay here and want to learn something new every single day.”