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Barrier-busting journey level carpenter takes up tools of change for women

Women's access to the well-paying skilled trades continues to be dismal, with about four per cent of women 'on the tools' in 2013.

Braundy (newspaper clipping at left, 1981, and with trades-sisters, second from
Braundy (newspaper clipping at left, 1981, and with trades-sisters, second from left, circa 1995) writes from a rich and unique perspective as one of the first unionized journeylevel carpenters in B.C., an activist and an academic.

Marcia Braundy’s Men & Women and Tools: Bridging the Divide did not receive a lot of attention when it was published in 2011. Her publisher, Fernwood, is a small Canadian press, and her topic, the resistance women face when they enter traditionally male workplaces like construction sites, is not one to which mainstream media pay much attention.

Together these factors resulted in an important and illuminating work that did not receive the attention it deserves, yet it remains as important and as relevant as the day it was published — unfortunately.

Braundy writes from a rich and unique perspective: as one of the first unionized journeylevel carpenters in B.C.; as an activist; and as an academic working to make skills training available to women and to reduce on the job barriers that limit women’s access to this relatively high-paying work.

Marcia Braundy. Pamela Harris photoPamela Harris photo

Access for women to skilled trades continues to be minimal, a shameful lack of progress reflected in the dismal numbers for women in various trades apprenticeship programs. Women made up only two per cent of carpentry apprentices in 2011, 1.9 per cent of plumbing apprentices and 1.5 per cent of heavy equipment operators. In the 1970s only three per cent of blue-collar tradespeople were women, and by 2013 that number was only up one percentage point, with about four per cent of women “on the tools.” 

In a related development, Canada’s international ranking in terms of gender equality has recently slipped. Canada has gone from 14th in 2006 to 20th in 2013 on the international scale that measures the gap between men and women, reports Empowering Women and Girls. This is because of decreases in “the wage equality and professional and technical workers indicators,” according to the 2013 Global Report on Gender Equality. This is similar to the situation in the U.S., where an equity group reported recently that:

“The share of women in the construction industry has remained shockingly low —under three per cent — for decades, due in large part to the discrimination that blocks women from entering and staying in the field. Sexual harassment and hostility, lack of mentors, and stereotyped assumptions about women’s capabilities all contribute to the problem."

Just as the numbers on women’s participation in the skilled trades are similar in the U.S. and Canada, the savage on-the-job harassment and hostility that meets the small minority of women who manage to train and work as skilled tradespeople is a profound problem in Canada as well. Braundy’s book is an intelligent and often eloquent reflection on male resistance to sharing the jobsite with women.

Based in the Slocan Valley, Braundy was one of the core organizers and hands-on builders in the Vallican Whole community centre project. She has researched and published widely on issues of equality in the workplace. She draws on this rich body of intellectual and practical experience in drafting Men & Women and Tools.

The text weaves together her review of relevant literature with vivid descriptions of her own experience of being harassed while training and working as a carpenter. She then adds her accounts of interviews with women and men in the trades. Those interviews, and the play she crafts from them, illuminate how deeply-rooted men's resistance to women on the job is seen in misogyny, relative privilege and insecurity. 

In an innovative feature of this book, Braundy has shaped transcripts of a long interview with skilled tradespeople into a script for a play (catch the video here), which serves as a centrepiece to the text. This is only one of the many ways that the author transcends the weaknesses so often found in academic writing. While she is fully conversant with the terms of art particular to her academic training, she deploys these terms as real tools, as ways to think deeply about difficult issues, not as the rattle of jargon and slogans too often found within the academic world. In this, as in many other ways, Braundy is an exemplary figure, a rigorous intellectual with sawdust in her hair and dirt on her hands. To paraphrase John Lennon, a working class heroine is something to be.

Braundy closes this remarkable text with this challenge: “Now is the time for men to come forward. Challenging years of patriarchal relations between men and women won’t be easy. But now is the time they need to engage the discussion with one another, use new tools and call it when they see it: stand up. Can they find the strength? Will they be willing?”

If we want to consider ourselves progressives and genuine allies to the women in our lives, we must rise to this challenge.

Tom Sandborn lives and works in Vancouver. He is notoriously inept with tools himself but holds those who are skilled in high regard. He welcomes feedback and story tips at [email protected]

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