9 June 2011

An Aptitude for Diversity

An Aptitude for Diversity

Depending on where we are located in the country, attitudes toward women in trades may vary. Exposure shapes attitudes and I believe that we develop an “aptitude for diversity” by being exposed to diversity. As I write this, I am reminded of the struggles that women have with aptitude testing and how exposure is tied to aptitude but I digress. The time has come when developing an aptitude for diversity in the construction industry is not so much an option as it is a necessity.

From grade P-3, my daughter went to school in Ontario where there were 11 languages spoken in her classroom - I believe that this early exposure gave her an aptitude for diversity. The statement is not a judgement but rather an acknowledgement that this early exposure prepared her to be accepting of diversity. When we moved to Nova Scotia, she came home and told me that there were no other languages spoken in her class but English - it was very obvious - not right or wrong, just obvious. I believe that we develop an aptitude for diversity by being exposed to diversity.

Let's think of this in terms of tradeswomen. In my experience, growing up in rural NL for example, I did not meet many women who were working in non-traditional work for pay. There were a lot of hard working women who were doing non-traditional work around the home as a result of circumstances. Construction workers in NL were largely migratory and that meant women were often left at home to do the repairs around the house while their spouses went away to make a living. These women worked very hard and were quite capable of doing "men's" work. But working outside the home in non-traditional work for pay was unheard of.

There were also many women doing very hard work in the fishery but that work was traditionally work that the women did. So in spite of the fact that it was heavy work, it was not considered non-traditional work. As women, we did not have exposure to women in trades and the men in trades were not exposed to women in the industry either.

Exposure develops the aptitude for diversity. Without the exposure there is a little bit of stereotyping, room for discrimination and a certain amount of fear by all parties. I like to say that if they're not loving, they're fearing. Exposure takes the mystery out of difference and highlights our similarities.
I can remember when I was growing up that there was a woman who lived in our area and she was a sheep breeder. My father would often mention her and how she was "like a man" and "different" and "not a normal woman". None of these descriptors were meant in harm, he was speaking his truth. The women that he had been exposed to played supporting roles in life, not leading roles. The notion that a woman would want to take a leading role was a foreign concept. It was the way of the world.

Outmigration, low birth rates, an aging population have all combined to present us with an opportunity for diversification in the industry. The Construction industry must diversify. Women will be recruited to fill those roles. But here’s the challenge.

The industry was designed by men for men and it does not suit the needs of women. The culture is harsh on women and retention has always been a challenge. We all know that doing things the way they were always done and expecting different results is a great way to throw good money after bad. We're entering a new era - things have to change.

People focus on recruiting and training women and that's great; recruiting and training are good but how much energy goes into making the environment more welcoming? Absolutely none - there is no real acknowledgement that the environment is challenging. That’s the first step toward real inclusion. Organizational change requires at least a 2 pronged approach – women have to prepare for the industry and the industry needs to prepare for the women. It's the only way that women will be able to go into this profession and make it their own. It is the only way that the profession can attract and retain talent. The reality on the ground speaks a different story and only time will tell the tale.

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