LEVEL BEST Summary of Level Best's Needs Assessment


In the fall of 2013, CAWIC received funding from Status of Women Canada to conduct the Level Best Women’s Advancement Project (Level Best) from January 1, 2014, to December 31, 2016. The ultimate goal of Level Best is to build and implement an Action Plan to engage the construction industry in employing solutions that address challenges women working in the construction industry.

This document is a summary of the Level Best Needs Assessment Report, which represents the first stage of CAWIC’s Level Best Project. The Needs Assessment Report is a comprehensive overview on the status of women working in the Canadian construction industry, which will inform the subsequent phase, Action Plan Development, which is currently underway.


Targeting three provinces ¾ Ontario, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador ¾ the assessment examined the general needs and challenges of women and employers working in the construction industry through detailed document review. However, the core focus of Level Best is the experiences of and generous input from two targeted stakeholders: Female Participants (women who currently work, or intend to work, in the industry) and Employer Partners (construction industry employers) who participated in Level Best through surveys and roundtable discussions.

The detailed document review, as well as surveys and roundtable discussions, were based on the following research objectives and questions:
  • What are the needs of women working (or intending to work) in construction?
  • What challenges do women face in entering, as well as remaining and advancing within, the industry?
  • What challenges do employers face in hiring, retaining and advancing women in the industry?
  • What can be done to respond to these needs and challenges?

Note that the use of the term “woman” or “female,” whether in the singular or plural form, is interchangeable throughout the Level Best Project documentation and is intended to mean any individual who self-identifies as female. This is consistent with CAWIC’s governing by-laws.

Document Review

The Level Best team targeted a variety of resources that would provide insight into women’s experiences in the construction industry such as media coverage, industry reports and other publications on the topics of (1) women in construction, (2) women in other male-dominated sectors, (3) the state of the construction industry and (4) women’s issues more generally. While Canadian content was the focus, supplementary international literature was also taken into consideration, with an appreciation that generalizability to a Canadian context is limited.

The literature reviewed focused on issues regarding hiring and retention, and to a lesser extent on the advancement of women towards leadership roles within the industry. Largely absent from the literature were materials covering the complex interplay between women’s professional and private lives, a topic that CAWIC has made efforts to address in their research.

Primary Needs and Challenges

Women and employers’ primary needs and challenges in the construction industry, which were discussed in the reviewed reference materials, involve the following issues:

  • Training
  • Support, feedback and confidence building
  • Flexible working environment
  • Welcoming working environment
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Harassment and discrimination
  • Pay equity
  • Impact of construction industry work schedules, work locations, travel, project length
  • Impact of women’s personal lives on their work
  • Relationships between hiring, retention and promotion

Strategies Discussed in the Reference Materials:

  • Developing an equity case (centres on including women for the sake of social justice) and business case (centres on including women because gender inclusion is ultimately lucrative) for women’s participation in the industry
  • Implementing procurement policies and affirmative action programs
  • Analysis of board composition and grooming for management
  • Solutions that benefit all employees rather than focusing exclusively on women
  • Collecting relevant data and measuring the impact of specific policy implementation
  • Collaborating with women’s organizations
  • Marketing and promotion of industry
  • Bursaries and awards exclusively available to women
  • Partnerships and collaboration within the industry
Ultimately, the literature review reveals the need for a more targeted systemic and collaborative approach to developing and implementing these strategies in the industry.


CAWIC conducted two surveys, which were distributed among two distinct samples: Female Participants and Employer Partners.

Female Participants

In July 2015, of the sixty Female Participants that completed the survey: 55.00% indicated they lived in Ontario, 25.00% in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 16.67% in Alberta, while 3.33% of respondents were living in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia (although these were not targeted provinces). The women ranged in age from 20-64 years. From an ethno-cultural perspective, this sample identified as White/Caucasian (81.36%), followed by Aboriginal (6.78%), Latin American (5.08%), Japanese (3.39%), Filipino (3.39%), South Asian (3.39%), Southeast Asian (1.69%) and Chinese (1.69%) (note: these categories were not mutually exclusive). Their annual income levels varied from less than $20,000 to over $100,000 (57.62% had an income of $60,000+).

Unpaid Work Responsibilities
Approximately one-third of respondents have children, and most perform the majority, if not all, of the childcare responsibilities. In terms of helpful support, many Female Participants expressed that affordable daycare services would be most useful, followed by access to on-site daycare.

Career: Plans, Sector and Title

Regarding a career in construction, just over half of respondents report that construction is a first career. Respondents’ number of years of experience in the construction industry ranged from 0 to 30+years, with slightly more than half of the sample having 5+ years of experience.

Areas of study or work were as follows:

  • 51.85% skilled trades
  • 12.96% management
  • 9.26% engineering
  • 9.26% architecture
  • 5.56% human resources
  • 3.70% labourer/helper
  • 1.85% senior management
  • 1.85% administrative support
  • 3.70% other

Respondents work or intend to work in all sectors of the construction industry, including non-residential (29.55%), residential (22.73%), heavy and civil engineering (22.73%), specialty trade contractors (11.36%) and 13.64% are not yet sure. Most respondents work full time (77.55%) while the rest work variable hours. Just over half travel 25 km or farther to work.

Experiences of Harassment or Discrimination
The most common forms of harassment or discrimination reported by the Female Participants were as follows:
  • Being the recipients of comments that suggest it is unusual for women to work in the industry
  • Being treated differently from male colleagues
  • Inappropriate comments and sexist jokes were reported
Other most commonly reported forms of discrimination experienced centred around issues of competency at work being questioned, on the basis of gender:
  • Important work being assigned to a male colleague
  • Being given work below competence level
  • Colleagues making them feel less competent than male colleagues
Lastly, women reported they received unwanted comments regarding their appearance, while approximately 8% of women reported they did not experience any such forms of harassment or discrimination.

Career Future: Aspirations and Challenges

The respondents were overwhelmingly optimistic about their future in construction, as 94.44% believed they have the potential to have a successful career in construction.

The majority of Female Participants (over 90.00%) are seeking good salary/benefits, opportunities to develop their skills/professional development and the opportunity to work with respectful colleagues.

What the women consulted found most troubling is being treated differently as a woman in the industry, and having no opportunity for advancement. That said, almost one quarter of the sample (23.26%) expressed they were not worried about these and other factors listed in the survey.

Related to these concerns, what is most challenging in their careers and studies, according to Female Participants, is being taken seriously as a woman with a strong technical ability, followed by challenges around advancing to a senior level.

At the same time the participants expressed that flexibility both in the workplace and at home would be a valuable form of support, and also reported that they themselves were flexible. This was particularly true when it came to their willingness to travel to a remote location (41.67%), move (40.91%) or to accepting a position that involved a lot of travelling (35.56%).

The issue of mentorship proved to be salient for Female Participants. Many rated mentorship as an important factor to their current levels of success. However almost half of respondents (44%) reported not having a mentor.

Finally, while 22.45% of the Female Participants were the sole woman at their workplace, 85.19% of respondents would recommend working in construction to other women. Again, this indicates that women are optimistic about their inclusion, and feel a sense of belonging in the construction industry.

The Employer Partners (n=18) conduct business across Canada in non-residential (63.64%), specialty trades (18.18%), residential (9.09%), and heavy and civil engineering (9.09%) construction. All Employer Partners have experienced labour shortages, and 50.00% experienced such shortages often or very often. Employer Partners range in number of employees from micro-sized (0-9 employees) (5.56%), small-sized (10-99 employees) (22.22%), medium-sized (100-499 employees) (38.89%), to large-sized (500+ employees) (33.33%). As of November 2015, Level Best Employer Partners reported employing a total workforce of approximately 10,000 workers.

The survey designed for Employer Partners differs in some respects compared to that designed for Female Participants. CAWIC sought to measure Employee Partners’ workforce, their perception of female employees’ experiences, and the types of diversity-related initiatives they implement or might be willing to implement.

Employer Partners’ Description of their Workforce:

The Level Best Employer Partners are quite supportive of gender inclusion in their shops and the industry in general. For example, close to 90% of Employer Partners would be prepared to pay for tools to increase hiring, retention and advancement of women at their organization, provided the cost was reasonable.

When it comes to employing diverse populations, most Employee Partners have visible minorities, immigrants and women on staff. Over 65% of partners employ 25% or fewer females, yet all employ women in administrative support positions, and the majority of the Employer Partners have women working in such positions as skilled trades and management.

With regard to issues of retention and advancement, the duration of female employees work terms span between 1 and 5 years (40.00%), 6 and 10 years (46.67%) and more than 10 years (6.67%) (6.67% of partners did not know). Furthermore, Employer Partners reported that some (60%), about half (20%), many (13.33%) or all (6.67%) of their female employees have been promoted to higher positions.

In terms of measures to improve women’s success in the industry, more than half of Employer Partners support an association of women in construction or other women’s group, have female employees who belong to industry associations or have a mentorship program. Close to half of the sample collect employment data on female hires, retention and promotion. None of the employee partners have on-site childcare.

Regarding harassment and discrimination, an important disjuncture emerged between Employer Partners’ perception of women’s employment experience and Female Participants’ reported experience: partners appeared to believe that harassment and discrimination was less frequent than what participants reported experiencing. However, most Employer Partners have a policy in place regarding workplace respect, unprofessional conduct, harassment and violence, with measures to ensure this policy is implemented.

Employer Partners’ perceptions of women’s career expectations were very consistent with those disclosed by the Female Participants. All Employer Partners stated that women were primarily looking for an opportunity to develop their skills/professional development and a welcoming and friendly environment. Further, like the Female Participants, Employer Partners underscored the importance of mentors, as 86.67% revealed to CAWIC that networking, associating with other like-minded women and access to mentors is key to career advancement.

Employer Partners stated that a lack of supply (not enough women to hire) accounts most for the small proportion of women working in construction. This variable also represents the Employer Partners’ greatest challenge in recruiting, retaining or promoting women.

Finally, the lion’s share of Employer Partners (71.43%) would support a mandatory reporting of statistical data on women they employ to a third party for statistical and government policy purposes, indicating a commitment to accountability, and supporting women and advancing their careers in construction.

Roundtable Discussions

In addition to conducting surveys, CAWIC hosted roundtable discussions (conducted face to face or by teleconference): four with Female Participants and three with Employer Partners. CAWIC also conducted one individual telephone interview with a partner who was not available for roundtable discussions.

Discussions revolved around five main themes: entry level, retention, advancement, initiatives to improve women’s experiences and strategies to encourage buy-in within the construction industry.

Entering the construction workforce

Some Female Participants reported having had positive experiences at the entry level, such as participating in “women in skilled trades’ programs” or benefiting from opportunities to learn provided by co-workers. However, others faced obstacles, such as employers who were reluctant to hire women, and co-workers who questioned their knowledge and experience. Participants mentioned having to prove themselves to a greater degree than their male colleagues.

Hiring was reported to be the most difficult phase for Employer Partners, mostly due to the lack of qualified female candidates. Other factors included the public’s negative perception of the construction industry, which reduced the pool of potential candidates, and employers’ perception that female employees require flexible schedules and reduced travel. Some partners successfully hired women; for example, through community, coop, government or union programs, or increased numbers of female role models within their organization. Architecture was the only field where a partner reported there were more female than male candidates.


Some participants mentioned that retention was successful in certain trades where managers and employers supported women. Many participants discussed issues related to working conditions, such as inadequate access to bathrooms or frequent travel. Other types of barriers to retention were also expressed, such as constant layoffs resulting in a lack of opportunities to learn from co-workers or gain experience.

Employer Partners tended to report more positive experiences with retention than with hiring. Consistent with the surveys was a consensus that access to mentorship was an important retention factor. Some also pointed out the need for more female mentors.

Both Female Participants and Employer Partners identified pregnancy and women taking a pause from paid work to take care of children as a significant obstacle to retention. Female Participants reported concerns about safety for pregnant women working with heavy machinery. Participants and partners also reported that the “boys club” workplace culture presented obstacles for retention.


Many Female Participants reported they lacked opportunities to gain the experience needed for career progression. Periods of layoff, as well as co-workers, supervisors and employers who were unwilling to offer them relevant work, were mentioned as obstacles to gaining the required experience. In addition, they reported that their employers consistently found reasons to prevent them from advancing, and that they failed to appreciate their experience.

Experiences with advancement varied among Employer Partners. Some noted that when they identified a woman with potential, they made sure to engage in career planning with her. However, for many partners, the advancement of women into leadership roles persists as a significant issue. Mobility requirements and lack of access to childcare were identified as major challenges. Employer Partners also mentioned there was not a large enough pool of women within their organization to find candidates with the potential to move into leadership roles.

Both Female Participants and Employer Partners believed that mentoring was an important component of women’s career advancement. Some participants had had positive mentorship opportunities and others experienced difficulties finding a mentor. Partners reported there was a lack of female role models in the industry, and that unlike men, women were rarely mentored informally.

Initiatives to Improve Women’s Experiences

When it came to solutions, Female Participants expressed the importance of practical fixes such as childcare and personal protective equipment (PPE). They also mentioned that mentorship programs and education campaigns about gender were required in the industry.

Employer Partners discussed the importance of working with colleges, universities, community-based organizations and unions to train and recruit women. They also mentioned that regular discussions with employees to explore career advancement were important. Some partners insisted on the importance of putting harassment and discrimination policies into practice in order to clearly communicate that such conduct is unacceptable in the workplace.

Like the Female Participants, partners believed in developing promotional and educational materials comparing “old” and “new” approaches to understanding gender dynamics in working relationships. Both groups also stated that access to childcare needed to be addressed within the industry and more broadly as a societal issue.

Strategies to Encourage Buy-in within the Construction Industry

Female Participants spoke to the importance of creating buy-in, inside and outside the construction industry. Some participants expressed frustration with the way they were perceived by family and friends outside the industry. Education was again mentioned as a possible strategy.

Other participants stated that government imperatives, such as the requirement that employers have diversity plans or keep track of equity groups to bid on projects, would produce positive results.

Both Female Participants and Employer Partners agreed that making the business case for increasing women’s participation in the industry was an effective strategy. This could involve highlighting women’s contributions to the industry, such as better equipment management resulting in fewer capital expenses, or demonstrating how addressing women’s needs would result in access to more workers and less turnover.


The Level Best needs assessment revealed the need to create a better working environment for women in the construction industry, starting with basic elements such as adequate bathrooms and suitable Personal Protective Equipment. More importantly, increased collegiality between male and female employees, union representatives and employers, additional opportunities for women to gain experience and to have this experience recognized by supervisors, as well as effective solutions regarding pregnancy leave, childcare and harassment and discrimination are all required.

As indicated above regarding issues of harassment and flexibility, Level Best Female Participants and Employer Partners share many views, but they also diverge in key ways.

One notable common experience between both parties was that participants had been retained, and partners had retained female employees for longer than industry averages, which were observed throughout the course of the document review and needs assessment. This could be the result of a selection effect, where participants who have chosen to become involved with Level Best have a pre-existing vested interest in advancing the careers of women in construction.

Level Best participants and partners have already acknowledged that hiring, retaining and advancing women is a positive step for the construction industry. The second phase of Level Best will endeavour to engage a wider range of stakeholders through the development of an action plan for the construction industry.

Ultimately, while Canadian women in the industry are optimistic, gender inclusivity continues to be a work in progress. CAWIC is committed to continuing its work on gender inclusivity through the next phase of the Level Best Project.

This project has been funded by Status of Women Canada

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