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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

When Natasha Fritz became a carpenter 15 years ago, she found that her colleagues on job sites often wouldn’t refer to her by name, but instead as “sweetheart” or “princess.” Sometimes they’d say, “get the girl to do it.” Before a job interview, she was asked if she was planning on getting pregnant soon.

It took her longer to find a job than many of the male students she’d studied carpentry alongside at college, some of whom had positions lined up even before they left school. One prospective employer told her that there was no way she would be capable of the physical demands the job required.

“I got a lot of stupid and inappropriate comments,” Ms. Fritz said in an interview. It may not surprise you to learn that she decided to strike out on her own, and for the past seven years has run her own company, Natural Carpentry. She’s also become a critic of sexism in the construction industry, and an advocate for making the skilled trades a more welcoming place for women. Not just getting them into the trades, which is a relatively easy first step, but reforming workplaces so that women don’t end up leaving. That’s a much tougher proposition.

A couple of months ago, Ms. Fritz’s advocacy made headlines. She heard an episode of The Construction Life podcast in which the hosts and a guest talked about whistling at women, and laughed at a comment about trying to grab them. Ms. Fritz posted an excerpt of the podcast alongside statistics about sexual assault and harassment, which caused the hosts to launch a $15-million defamation lawsuit against her (the suit has since been dropped).

The very issue of silencing is a crucial one. If no one speaks up about sexism in the industry, how will anything change? The comments underneath Ms. Fritz’s Instagram post were full of other women in male-dominated industries discussing the ways they’d been harassed, marginalized and silenced. Many of the commenters applauded Ms. Fritz for calling out harmful behaviour in an industry that does not exactly welcome constructive criticism.

“Ten years ago I wouldn’t be speaking up because I wouldn’t be confident enough to do it or I’d worry that it would negatively impact my career,” Ms. Fritz says. “Whereas at this point I don’t really care. Who am I upsetting? A bunch of old white dudes in construction? Who cares.”

At the moment, women make up less than 4 per cent of skilled tradespeople in Canada. That’s a problem for a country facing a shortage in these areas in the near future, as an aging cohort of workers retires. In some lucrative areas, such as crane operation, apprenticeship programs are filled nearly 100 per cent by men. The most obvious solution would be to persuade half the population that this is a rewarding career path. But even while governments and postsecondary institutions are working hard to attract women into professional programs, there’s a lot less emphasis on keeping them in those jobs once they’ve graduated.

“Lots of people don’t stay in the industry because the atmosphere is pretty toxic,” Ms. Fritz says. She has some suggestions for making it more welcoming: Change the practice of hazing new apprentices with demeaning pranks; offer career guidance for women who want to change professions or rise to management roles; make it easier for women to have access to equipment that is designed for them. When Ms. Fritz started in carpentry, she couldn’t find steel-toed boots in her size, or work gloves. Even today, safety harnesses are designed for flat male chests.

Other suggestions include making industrial workplaces friendlier for people with small children, by providing access to child care or more flexible working hours.

The systemic barriers that prevent women’s full participation in workplaces are no surprise to the people who study them. At the Université du Québec à Montréal, Karen Messing has been researching women’s occupational health and disparities in the workplace for decades, and she’s gathered the findings in a fascinating new book, Bent Out of Shape: Shame, Solidarity, and Women’s Bodies at Work. “Sexism at work is a pretty big flame-spouting dragon,” she writes.

One key takeaway from Dr. Messing’s research, she told me in an interview, is the “deep resistance” to the idea that workplaces are experienced differently by men and women. The very idea is considered political, even though Dr. Messing and her colleagues have spent decades documenting the factual underpinnings of this discrepancy, and why it should change. If it doesn’t, women will continue to feel not only unwelcome, but threatened by some workplaces.

She offers the case of women working as communications technicians in Quebec, installing phone and internet lines. At first these workers were reluctant to voice complaints to Dr. Messing and her team, but then revealed the dangerous working conditions and harassment they faced on the job – and in one case, sexual assault. If they complained, they were told to “get on with the job.” It was easier to quit than wait for things to change.

“The attrition was tremendous, and that’s what I got so upset about,” Dr. Messing says. “Women were leaving in droves. The employer was totally uninterested.” Equally damaging was the fact that the government agency tasked with improving women’s participation in industry also didn’t seem to care about fixing the problem. “They didn’t want to hear anything because their message is, ‘Go for it! You can do it! Women can do anything!’ ”

And that’s true, of course. Women can do anything, and they should be encouraged to join – and remain – in workplaces that have traditionally been closed to them. But only if those workplaces have the courage to listen to criticism, and change with the times.

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