Tuesday, December 12, 2017

So why are women under-represented in construction?

Last week, CBC ran an article with the interesting headline, “Why has the number of Alberta women in trades stagnatedfor a decade?” This is an important question given the high salaries and extreme gender segregation in these occupations. This dynamic is a factor in Alberta’s large female wage-gap.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't deliver any answers. Instead, we get the usual “more awareness” spiel leavened with a bit of (soft-pedaled) “misogynist workplace culture”. The article then transitions into focusing on programs promoting women in trades. That these programs have made no impact on aggregated female participation rates is totally ignored.

My colleague Jason Foster and I recently published a study looking at the participation of traditionally under-represented groups in Alberta construction occupations from 2003 to 2014. Our interest was piqued by a 2007 joint government-industry strategy to address shortages of workers in Alberta’s construction industry. Two strategies jumped out at us:
  1. Encouraging traditionally under-represented groups (female, immigrant, Indigenous, and young workers) to join the industry, and
  2. Encouraging the federal government to increase employer access to temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

The absence of any meaningful evaluation of this strategy was also notable so we pulled StatCan data on construction occupation and CIC data on TFWs. What we found was:
  • Employment in construction occupations grew by 50% between 2003 and 2014 to 369,000, although there was significant year-to-year variation (the industry is cyclical).
  • Men held 93.6% of jobs in construction occupations on average (this varies +/-1%), mostly by non-immigrant, non-Indigenous men over age 25.
  • The overall share of employment by most traditionally under-represented groups maintained their share of employment during this period (absolute numbers rose). You can see this visually depicted in Figure 2 below.
  • The share of employment of TFWs grew significantly and most TFWs in construction occupations are men.

Figure 2 shows two other notable things. First, immigrants’ share of employment jumped during the boom of 2007 and 2012 while women’s share jumped during the 2007 boom. In both cases, these groups lost ground during the bust. Second, TFWs saw a similar pattern but increases and decreases are delayed.

Figure 3 looks at the experience of women more closely. The thick grey line shows overall year-over-year employment change (which is also basically the male line). The diamond-line shows that women experience more volatility than men: during booms their employment jumps more and, during busts, their employment declines more.

 Figure 5 looks at the experiences of TFWs. We had to re-scale the figures (note the scale on the left side of the figure) because the TFW changes are so extreme that, if we tried to plot women and TFWs on the same figure, the size of the TFW effect makes it hard to appreciate the experience of women.

Basically, employers hired lots of (male) TFWs during the booms. Looking back at Figure 2, note that proportion of TFWs rises over the period the period.

At the risk of over simplifying the conclusions, what this suggests to us is that:
  1. Employers continue to prefer to hire men and hire male TFWs when male Canadians are not available.
  2. The decision by the federal Harper government to relax the rules around TFWs (Jason Kenney was minister responsible) facilitated this employer behaviour.
  3. Had employers not been given access to more male workers by the feds, they might well have hired more traditionally under-represented groups (clearly there were such workers available).

This dynamic is not surprising: employers look to minimize costs. Changing workplace practices and cultures to make those workplaces more attractive to women is expensive. Instead, they naturally took the path of least resistance and hired more men. When the downturn came, the small gains women made were erased.

A knock-on effect is that (male) TFWs have now become a normal part of the construction labour force, taking positions that (absent TFWs) would likely be filled by Canadian women and other traditionally under-represented groups.

Coming back to the 2007 provincial labour force strategy, it mostly failed to attain its objectives. There are more workers from traditionally disadvantaged groups in the construction sector, but their share of employment is stagnant.

This failure likely reflects that goal of increasing participation was undermined by the goal of increasing access to TFWs. Faced with a choice between more male workers and increasing diversity (which increases cost), employers chose the cheapest option.

This, in turn, highlights that expecting employers to diversify their workforces because it is the right thing to do is unrealistic: employers are responsive to the profit imperative. If governments are seeking more equitable employment outcomes, then they will be forced to regulate industry as part of the solution--like they do in Newfoundland. This would be an appropriate task for the Status of Women Ministry which, so far, has advanced few changes that meaningfully impact Alberta women.

So, to answer the question posed by the CBC, women’s employment in construction is stagnant due to gender discrimination by employers, partly enabled by overly permissive federal immigration policy and partly enabled by the absence of provincial employment equity requirements.

-- Bob Barnetson

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