Meet the women building the East Coast
When it comes to careers with a hammer, voltmeter, and other tools of the construction industry, women are woefully underrepresented.
But their success and mentorship is key as Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country face a looming labour shortage, with tens of thousands of Baby Boomers in the skilled trades ready to retire.
Programs have been popping up around the region to entice more women, a largely untapped market. They represent only around 4% of the skilled trades, a level that’s been largely unchanged over the past 25 years.
Newfoundland and Labrador showed how incentives can work as the province geared up for a building boom. Wage subsidies, diversity quotas and the creation of provincially backed Office to Advance Women Apprentices 12 years ago boosted the percentage of women working in the skilled trades to 14% from 3%. The group has since expanded with outposts in each of the Atlantic provinces and beyond.
Beyond filling a labour gap, women gain the opportunity to work in what are typically solid, steady jobs with good wages and benefits.
Karen Walsh, executive director of the Newfoundland branch of the Office to Advance Women, says her group provides a support system not only to help women find careers in the skilled trades, but stay in them. “That’s the missing link,” she says. “Some contractors have never had a female onsite and have 30, 40, 50 guys. We help to ensure the contractor is going to have a comfort level, washrooms, all of these things.”
We caught up with some of the busiest builders on the East Coast who really know what it means to climb the ladder to success in the construction business.
The two owners of Charlottetown, P.E.I.’s Nine Yards Studio have never felt boxed in by their gender in their architectural careers, but they know the doors aren’t always open for other women.
While women represent half of all architecture students, less than 20% end up working in the field.
What Silva Stojak and Shallyn Murray show is a way to build a career in the profession.
“We’re trying to encourage a whole new generation of women,” says Stojak.
Murray says the majority of the 14 workers at their architecture and design studio are women. “It wasn’t by design. It just evolved naturally over the last four years since we started Nine Yards,” she says. “Maybe as women leaders we attract females.”
Stojak grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where it wasn’t unusual for women to pursue careers considered non-traditional in the West.
She knew she wanted to be an architect from the age of 10 after going to a library, opening a glossy magazine and seeing an image of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house perched over a Pennsylvania waterfall.
Her gender wasn’t an issue finding work when she graduated with an architecture degree from the University of Sarajevo in 1987. The problem was a shortage of jobs. She moved to Canada with her husband and ended up in a program for new immigrants that included a work placement. “I was very lucky to get with a firm that was very patient and very open to my bad language skills,” she says. “Without that support, I would have quit. It seemed like such a big hill to climb.”
Murray studied engineering like her dad, but switched to architecture. “I was missing that creative piece,” she says.
She did a co-op work term at the architecture firm where Stojak worked and joined fulltime after she graduated from Dalhousie University and returned home to the island.
The duo decided to go out on their own after an after-hours gig creating the Urban Beehive Project, a community educational project in Charlottetown’s largest urban garden that’s designed to highlight the importance of pollinators.
“That bonded us a little bit more and excited us in ways that we hadn’t really experienced,” says Murray. “It’s something that instigated this new branch into what we are today, something that looks more at community design and things that are outside the box for architects.”
Stojak adds, “Deep down, as Shallyn says, we are very different than engineers. We have these artistic urges to do something that will change our surroundings and make it better.”
The name for the new business was inspired by the expression “the whole nine yards” and represents their commitment to explore all facets of design.
Stojak and Murray see networking as an important way to help women and other underrepresented people.
Murray launched the P.E.I. chapter of Building Equality in Architecture Atlantic, an independent organization supporting equality and diversity in the profession.
At the chapter’s first meeting, a young architect from Russia approached them. “It was an example of how these connections work,” says Stojak. “She said she’d like to see how an architectural office works in Canada. Since then, she’s been working with us and is working towards her education and being a full-fledged architect in Canada.”
Murray says opportunities for women in architecture and construction seem to be improving. “There are 50 men and one woman on the site of my current project,” she says. “Before that I saw none.”
Taylor Gould always liked hands-on learning growing up in Nova Scotia’s Membertou First Nation, but felt pressure to go to university.
She graduated with a bachelor of arts with a major in sociology from Cape Breton University.
“I was looking into those careers and realized I didn’t really want to do any of that,” she says. “I just didn’t want to stay in an office all day.”
Inspired by a few friends, she started looking into the trades.
She stumbled into bricklaying. It was partly a process of elimination after going on the Nova Scotia Community College’s website a few times and ticking the boxes on the various trades. Some had waitlists of three years. Some required certain high school classes that Gould hadn’t taken. Others had aspects that didn’t appeal to her.
“At the end, every time I did it, bricklayer was the only one left,” she says. “I took a chance and ended up loving it and being pretty good at it.”
She says many people were shocked when she told them her plan.
“I worked as a cashier before attending school and a lot of my repeat customers were older men. When I told them I would be leaving the store to pursue bricklaying I was met with a lot of funny faces,” she says. “They said things like ‘You know you need muscle for that?’ I was roughly 112 pounds at the time. Or people said things like, ‘You have a university degree, you’re too smart for that,’ which unfortunately is a very close-minded way of thinking.”
Gould was the only woman among the seven students in the pre-apprenticeship program she started in September 2019 and is now the only woman in her new job with Darim Masonry Ltd.
“They never made me feel like being a girl is a problem,” she says. “They’re really supportive. They don’t say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ They give me the same jobs as they give the guys.”
She says the crew members are eager to help and make sure she gets plenty of time on the tools to learn brick-laying skills.
“Even the older guys that they say are kind of set in their ways, they’ve been wonderful to me the whole time.”
There’s no such thing as a typical day, she says. “We do such a wide variety of stuff.”
It could be laying brick or stone. Other days it’s waterproofing a building or acid washing the brick to get the excess mortar off. She also does demolition, erecting and dismantling staging and chipping stones with a hammer and chisel.
“It can be very, very strenuous on your body,” she says. “It’s really tough getting used to in the first little bit.”
Then there’s the weather.
“There are some days when you’re in the boiling hot sun or the cold winter wind,” she says. “Some days we don’t have work because of rain. You got up and got ready to go to work and then you get a phone call and you got out of bed for nothing.”
Gould says one of her favourite things about the job is that she’s always learning something new.
“Some days I show up to a job site and get to do things that I’ve never done before or sometimes never even heard of,” she says. “Also, it’s very rewarding if you build a wall and you get to look at the finished product and know that you had a part in it.”
When Donna Ferguson graduated from community college 32 years ago, she knew of five women working in the construction industry in New Brunswick.
“It was a couple of inspectors, an engineer, and a survey technician in Miramichi,” says the Moncton, N.B.-based general contractor. “Fast forward to now and we still get picked out really easily on the site.”
To try to change that, she launched SheBuilds Communities for Life and partnered with the local community college for a 14-week carpentry boot camp for women.
The first class, a group of seven women ranging in age from 20 to mid-40s, were hired by Ferguson the day they graduated, and put to work on a renovation.
“There was no easing into this. It was two weeks of reroofing during the hottest weeks we could find,” she says. “It was the worst job possible to start, the hardest one. But they did it.”
Ferguson started putting together the framework for SheBuilds a few years ago. “I’m getting long in the tooth,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to retire. I love construction.”
A self-described “community builder at heart,” she saw two needs: more tradespeople and more affordable housing. Women, who account for less than 4% of the trades, are a huge untapped market.
Ferguson enlisted her younger sister Chrissy Guitard to help find out what went wrong with previous programs aimed at wooing women.
“Ten years ago, you might have gone from a cashier situation into a plumbing man’s world. It was a big jump. A lot of them quit within the first week.” says Guitard, who’s program coordinator at SheBuilds. “One thing we’re really focused on changing this time around is, you go to the course, get comfortable with skills and then, from day one, be sent out to a variety of job sites.”
The women learn the basics—tools, safety, first aid, math—but also essential workplace skills such as self-esteem, self-confidence, and how to combat negative comments, she says. “Whatever it may be, it’s how to build yourself up to know that you belong there.”
The confidence boost makes the women more likely to stick with it, she says.
The first SheBuild crew had ten women and one man. “We completely flipped the dynamic so much so that the guy was nervous to come in the room,” says Guitard. “For the first time, he’s been outnumbered.”
Ferguson and Guitard say they haven’t experienced obstacles on worksites common to many other women working in construction, most likely because they started out in management roles.
Ferguson was an inspector in the early years of her career. “It was different than graduating with a toolbelt and hammer and trying to fit in,” she says.
Guitard started out in design 19 years ago and switched to site supervisor. “It was always modelled through my older sister that construction was an option,” says Guitard. “You’re always going to be noticed on site. It’s how you react to the reaction. The best way to put it is, ‘Yeah, we’re females in construction. Yeah, I know, it’s cool.’”
The inaugural boot camp generated 150 inquiries, 50 applications and lots of comments like, ‘Where was this when I was young?’
A new class is coming in January.
Ferguson says the program can be replicated at any community college with a workshop. She’d like to see it catch on.
“These are good paying jobs,” she says. “Construction is one of the best ways to get pay equity because a lot of it is piecemeal. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. Can you do the job? Then do the job and you get paid accordingly.”
When Joann (Jojo) Greeley decided to go back to school 16 years ago to become an electrician, she remembers getting a lot of, “Oh honey, you don’t want to do this.”
The 16 guys in her class had no trouble getting work. She couldn’t even get an interview—until she changed her resume to the gender-neutral Jo Greeley.
She had to scrounge to rack up the thousands of hours of apprentice time needed to become a journey electrician. The reluctance to hire a woman meant it took her six years, two more than the typical four years for her male classmates.
At one point, while working at a building supply store to make ends meet, she spotted a man with an electricity company logo emblazoned on the back of his jacket. “I called him by the name on his jacket and he turned around. I said, ‘I need a job.’”
He ended up hiring her.
“When we have a more critical mass of 18% or 20% of women working on sites, that completely changes the culture”
“With my tenacity, I just never give up,” she says. “I had notebooks full of the companies I contacted. I was working hard to get my hours. I wasn’t sitting home hoping someone would call me.”
Greeley decided to become an electrician at the age of 35 after moving back home to St. John’s after several years in Ontario, where she worked in an office in sales.
Newfoundland and Labrador was putting a push on for women to get into the trades as the province geared up for a series of megaprojects. A quota was established for women hires on government-funded projects.
The effort ended up with women accounting for around 14% of jobs in the skilled trades, compared to less than 4% for the rest of Canada and the other Atlantic provinces.
Greeley says the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, a then newly created agency backed by the province to help support women in the skilled trades, was a big help.
She’s started working with the group as a mentor to advocate for women working in the trades. She’d like to see hiring quotas for women on all federally funded construction projects across Canada.
“When we have a more critical mass of 18% or 20% of women working on sites, that completely changes the culture,” she says. “Guys don’t get hired on merit. They get hired because of who they know. So it should make no difference to get hired because you’re a woman.”
Designer-turned-custom home builder Emily Rendell never gets questioned about her design skills, despite having no formal training. Construction, which she studied after high school, is another matter.
“It has taken years of me being onsite in Nova Scotia earning the respect of the trades and the people around me for me to get where I am now,” she says.
Rendell’s mix of modern and traditional East Coast styles caught the attention of Atlantic Canadians in 2015 when she was asked to do the interior design for a cottage for a hospital home lottery.
She started out in the business in 2001, using her computer design skills to produce drawings for industrial designs. She taught herself 3D software and got a gig as head designer on a new line for cast iron stoves for Napoleon Fireplaces.
Designing homes for clients was a side gig. Somewhere along the line, she developed a flair for interior design.
The job with the Nova Scotia’s QEII Hospital lottery showed Rendell was bringing more to the table than a typical interior designer. She designed the interior from scratch and ended up running the trades. “There was encouragement from QEII people, saying, ‘Emily, you might as well be doing this on your own,’” she recalls. “And there were people in the industry supporting me going off on my own because they knew that I was doing it anyway.”
She launched her boutique home-building business in Hammonds Plains, N.S. a year and a half ago. Combined with her design business, Eye for Style Design, she’s now able to provide complete custom homes from initial concept through to the final build.
Rendell is the first woman to be enlisted as a builder for the QEII’s home lottery. They asked her to do a house and cottage and two more this summer. She’s flat out with other projects around the province as the pandemic inspires a building boom.
Rendell still gets pegged as the designer when she’s on the job.
“If there’s a new trade on site to do a quote, I’ll usually have my project manager with me,” she says. “They’ll always talk to him. I’ve had him turn to them and say, ‘You have to talk to my boss. She’s right here.’”
She rarely runs into women in construction. But she gets lots of calls from women thinking about going into the trades. “One friend told me her daughter sees what I’m doing and wants to do the same when she grows up,” she says.
Rendell’s guidance counsellor was aghast when she opted to forgo university. “It was an impulsive decision. I was supposed to be a doctor or engineer,” she says. “I was a little rebellious.”
She graduated with a diploma in architectural technology.
Thinking back now, Rendell says her father, a businessman and handy DIYer, was an important influence. “I was always with my dad building something or rearranging my room or creating things out of boxes. It’s funny how this was the direction I was supposed to take, even though I didn’t know it at the time.”