Opinion: So why do we need International Women’s Day? Because in 2021, there continues to be persistent inequalities between men and women.

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International Women’s Day is upon us.

And with it, there will be all those awkward and inevitable conversations with our least favourite people about why we honour IWD, and why there isn’t an International Men’s Day accompanied by an equally compelling marketing campaign. We can answer both questions.

First, there is an International Men’s Day and it’s held annually on Nov. 19. It shares this date, unfortunately, with World Toilet Day, however, it has the laudable goal of celebrating the achievements and contributions of men and boys. This column isn’t about either International Men’s Day or World Toilet Day, so we’ll just leave this right here.

So why do we need International Women’s Day? Because in 2021, there continues to be persistent inequalities between men and women. For example, Statistics Canada reports that women earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. Unsurprisingly, women have a greater risk of living in poverty due to their overrepresentation in low-wage, precarious work. Women in middle management roles are 60 per cent less likely than men to be promoted to executive ranks.

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Women are also more likely to experience unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. StatsCan data in 2019 found that women are considerably more likely than men to have experienced unwanted sexual attention (15 per cent versus four per cent); unwanted physical contact (13 per cent vs. five per cent); or being insulted, mistreated, ignored or excluded because of their gender (10 per cent vs. three per cent).

The StatsCan research wasn’t specific to the construction industry. For that, we turn to the 2017 report Enhancing the Retention and Advancement of Women in the Trades in B.C., funded by the Canada-B.C. Labour Market Development Agreement. In many ways, it’s an indictment of the industry because it reveals a pattern of sexual assault, bullying, discrimination, exclusion and other incivilities experienced by women in the trades.

Page 39 of the report states: “In addition to the daily exposure to sexist behaviour and sexually explicit language, many women said they experienced unwanted physical contact by colleagues. In one group, almost half of the women reported being sexually assaulted by a colleague, with one commenting that this is ‘Probably one of the reasons a lot of women leave (the trades).’ ”

Too many women in the skilled trades face these extreme scenarios as well as the more subtle forms of bullying and exclusion, such as telling us we should smile more and maybe wear a little makeup, asking us if we can actually do the job we’ve been brought in to do, and writing anonymous and sexually explicit messages to us on the walls of the portable toilet.

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On this International Women’s Day we are responding with our collective voice that we aren’t going anywhere. We enjoy what we do, and we’re going to keep doing it. That is, building roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, houses and apartments, offices and industrial warehouses. We’ll ensure vital goods are delivered and crucial infrastructure is maintained.

Furthermore, we know that the construction industry needs women. According to BuildForce Canada, 254,800 people, or 21 per cent of the current construction workforce, is expected to retire by 2027. That’s 14,000 more people retiring than are expected to enter the construction industry over the same period.

The outlook for B.C. is especially grim. BuildForce data indicates that 40,800 construction workers will retire by 2027, and only 32,800 people will enter the industry. BuildForce warns that without an adequate supply of local workers, “the industry will, with increasing regularity, be required to recruit workers from outside the province’s construction sector or outside the industry.”

Women represent only about five per cent of the skilled construction trades, but that number will grow. Already, we’re seeing favourable data from the Industry Training Authority; the ITA’s last quarterly report ending Dec. 31, 2020, showed the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 993 and 230 with 23 per cent and 13 per cent female apprentices, respectively. And other union training schools and open-minded contractors are also seeing more than double the average proportion of women apprentices in their ranks.

To all the women out there, happy International Women’s Day. And if you’re a woman in the trades, celebrate that the future is quite literally yours.

Ashley Duncan is a Red Seal insulator and vice-president of the B.C. Insulators Local 118. Chelsea French is a fourth-year commercial transportation mechanic apprentice and executive board member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115. They co-chair Build TogetHER, the women’s committee of the B.C. Building Trades.

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