We’re always looking for collaborators! To contribute to the Building Good community, drop a note to hello@buildinggood.ca

Subscribe to stay up to date on our latest episodes and articles.

Thank you for subscribing.

You will be the first to know about our upcoming projects, company updates and social purpose initiatives.

We look forward to engaging with you!

Is 30% women really so hard? w/ Jeanette Southwood

Date Published: August 30, 2022

Only 17 per cent of construction jobs are going to women, and even those are mostly in office roles. Jeanette Southwood wants that to be at least 30 per cent. She’s vice president of corporate affairs and strategic partnerships at Engineers Canada, but right from the start of her career as an engineer, she noticed the barriers and hostility that women can face in this industry. When the stereotype is catcalls and bad jokes, how are we supposed to make construction appealing to all genders?

This is Building Good. And this season we’re tearing down barriers, to find out how to build a more inclusive construction industry.

I’m Jen Hancock.

If you live in the city, I’m sure you’ve walked by countless construction sites in the midst of new development projects filled with hardhat-clad workers. Or maybe you live in the suburbs and you’ve been stuck at a road closure in your car, waiting for the construction worker to finally flip that sign from “Stop” to “Slow.” But you probably only need one hand to count the number of women you’ve seen working there. Actually, you probably only need a couple fingers.

Spotting a woman in a crane or roadside with a jackhammer sometimes feels like spotting a unicorn. The construction industry is completely and utterly male-dominated. And if that’s how we’re seen from the outside, why would any woman want to join us?

Jen Hancock:

Right now only 17 percent of construction jobs are going to women. And that’s including office workers. This stat is really not surprising. The construction space has a bad rep when it comes to welcoming women. You only need to listen to our previous episode with Natasha Fritz to find examples of why.

But women are tired of it. And men are too. In an industry facing a critical labour shortage, it’s never been more crucial to make it an inclusive and welcoming one.

The AEC industry is falling behind other industries when it comes to gender diversity. And a lot of time even when there is an initiative to find out how to include women in the workforce, it’s a pretty sad attempt.

Jeanette Southwood (preview):

Quite often, a company would pull together the under-represented group and they would say, “Hey, let’s meet.” Essentially coffee and donuts or cookies would be provided. And the meeting would devolve to become essentially a coffeebreak, an opportunity to network, but not really with the solid foundation that would be needed to make change.

Jen Hancock:

Jeanette Southwood is one woman who’s dedicated her career in the AEC space to making meaningful change. Change that will bring more women to industry. She’s the Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnership at Engineers Canada.

And over the years, she’s kept a close eye on the moves the industry is making to create an inclusive environment.

Starting from her early career as an engineer, she’s noticed many barriers that women need to overcome to make it in the AEC space—all the way from high-school job fairs to the boardroom.

Jeanette Southwood [preview]:

When I started engineering, there were relatively few women in engineering. And I chose chemical engineering, which was the type that had the largest percentage—and that was 25 per cent at the time. But in mechanical and electrical engineering, and in some of the other disciplines, the percentage might’ve been two, three, less than five per cent. And so that was quite a shock.

Jen Hancock:

Today Jeanette is working on the “30 by 30” initiative with Engineers Canada. The goal is that women make up 30 per cent of new engineers by 2030. And 30 per cent still isn’t a huge number compared to where other industries sit today. But it’s said to be the tipping-point where change can really be sustained.

But: how do we get here, when it’s so hard to get more gender representation in this industry?


Jeanette Southwood:

One of the very frequent types of microaggressions are those that women encounter that are phrased as jokes. So for example, they may be in a meeting and someone makes a joke, but the joke very much is targeted at the fact that they are a woman, or the fact that they are a member of another under-represented group, and typically plays upon the kinds of stereotypes associated with being a woman, or being a member of another under-represented group.

And I can give an example. A joke might be something like, ah, asking a woman to help out and get the cookies or the coffee, or maybe do the clean-up—things that, from some people’s perspectives, may seem completely innocent or may seem, “Oh, it’s all in fun,” but in fact connect directly to the stereotypes associated with women’s roles, and in many cases can make women and other under-represented groups feel unwelcome, or feel as though their contributions are not valued in those meetings or in the workplace culture.

And in fact, it’s an unwelcoming workplace culture that our research, and the research of some of our partners, indicates is one of the biggest barriers to women and other under-represented groups going on and, ah, taking on engineering, or staying in engineering, as a profession.

Jen Hancock:

So culture, that has a huge impact on, you know, people’s ability to connect with their work. What do you see with cultures in our industry today? And maybe where do you see that going?

Jeanette Southwood:

Sure. So there’s always that part of the population that wants to see the evidence. There are typically some key aspects of what happens to make culture change successful. And one of the things that we’ve identified is that it comes from the executive and the board of an organization.

After that, there needs to be an identification of a champion. It’s one thing to have a board or an executive in general support change of this type, but it’s another thing to actually have the CEO be seen as the champion, be seen as someone that truly is taking this on and is moving that work forward.

What we’ve also seen is that it’s very important to have a plan, and to have a plan that outlines the actions of an organization, potentially metrics or milestones to monitor progress, and to put aside resources that would change the culture. And when we say “resources,” what we mean is people who are subject matter experts. Uh, dollars. Because typically change does require a financial commitment.

Quite often a company would pull together the under-represented group—let’s say women in a particular location in their organization. They would bring them in, and they would say, “Hey, let’s meet.” Essentially coffee and donuts or cookies would be provided. And the meeting would devolve to become essentially a coffeebreak, an opportunity to network, but not really with the solid foundation that would be needed to make change.

So that’s why we say right from the beginning there needs to be a plan and there need to be resources put aside.

We also talk about a subject matter expert. And that’s because sometimes what has happened in the past is that the job of education has been put on the shoulders of the under-represented group. Really, to make effective change there need to be subject matter experts that can truly move the dial forward without impacting the under-represented group, such as women in the workplace.

So with respect to attracting new women, we would propose that it’s important to look at hiring practices, and specifically job descriptions. Do the job descriptions include gender-neutral language? Are the interview panels gender-balanced? How is the onboarding done?

And then finally, ah, working with universities, working with engineering graduates, to strive towards recruiting 30 per cent women, if possible.


Jen Hancock:

You started to talk about hiring. But one the things that you sort of—I’ve heard, and I’ve heard across my time in the construction industry is, “Well, we always hire the best candidate. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of gender or where they come from, we hire the best candidate.” What’s the problem with that statement? What underlies that, that isn’t help us move the needle in industry in terms of diversity?

Jeanette Southwood:

One of the underlying challenges with using that expression, “We always hire the best candidate,” is that sometimes it’s very unclear exactly what the definition of “the best candidate” is.

And that definition can vary from place to place, from department to department within one organization, or from organization to organization. What sometimes happens is that people fall back on, “Oh, the best candidate is exactly the same kind of candidate that’s been successful in our organization previously,” which then results in that systemic cycle of repeating the same kinds of patterns around a hiring.

So I—I remember back when I was a young engineer and I would see articles in the paper. And some of the articles would very blatantly say, “Oh, has to be able to join our hockey team” or “Has to be able to,” ah… (laughing) That’s right.

Jen Hancock:


Jeanette Southwood:

Yeah. Or “Has to be able to do” some other types of things that some people would say were typically male.

I mean, I—I was on my engineering hockey team when I was in university. I know many other women who also played hockey, but there—there weren’t a whole lot of us.

So to be able to, in a job description, say that would mean that immediately, ah, a large proportion of the—the under-represented population would feel as though that’s not the job for them.

Jen Hancock:

Totally. I mean, I—if you look at a position in a silo, you can hire for that position but it actually doesn’t look at your entire, how your system and your team functions, and having different brains at the table and experiences, is it—it completely ignores that team piece.

It also ignores the unconscious bias that exists underneath—don’t you think?

Jeanette Southwood:

Oh, absolutely yes. And you’ve raised a great point about the importance—the research that’s been done about the importance of diversity on teams and the link between diversity and the success of solutions, and how diverse teams can result in more successful solutions.

One of the things that is sometimes not discussed is that just because a team is more diverse doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to reach the solution. But the evidence indicates that the solutions will be much more successful than a team that’s not diverse.

Some of that—and we often say this in engineering—is that a solution for our society, for society’s challenges, needs to be developed by a team that reflects society.


Jen Hancock:

One of the things, I think in many industries and I would guess similar in engineering and the AEC space: there’s another round of attrition that can happen in and around when women start having children. Do you see that same issue in the engineering world, in terms of re—retaining women? And also then the advancement—is that a challenge in the engineering space?

Jeanette Southwood:

Yes, it’s still a challenge in the engineering space. And one of the ways that Engineers Canada has tackled it is to be able to develop a guide called Managing Transitions: Before and After Leave. And it looks at different kinds of leave: maternity leave, parental leave. And it’s been one of our most popular resources—to the extent that we’re actually in the process of updating it right now. Because it’s definitely continuing to be a challenge for our engineers across Canada; and it’s definitely still a very, very relevant topic.

Jen Hancock:

Absolutely. The research definitely points to if you have the—the vision that diversity is going to mean that it’s kittens-and-rainbows all the time, that is not what is the case. You actually need to grind through work, because you are going to have opposing views. And that’s actually what’s important to avoid group-think and get us to that best conclusion, solution, idea at the end.

So barriers to entry. There’s barriers going into university, and then actual getting into industry. What’s the problem in terms of if we don’t have women in positions of leadership, what have you seen in that?

Jeanette Southwood:

So, one of the expressions that you’ve probably come across is: You have to see it to be it. And if young women, or even girls in high school or even younger that, if they are not seeing that there are women taking on non-traditional roles, they’re going to be very hesitant about whether that role is for them. Whether they’re going to find a welcoming place. Whether there is a path that could lead them to a successful educational career or a successful career overall.

So it’s essential that there be those role models. If there aren’t the role models, then there needs to be the encouragement, the indication that there is change and there’s a welcoming environment waiting.

And that is one of the—the key things that we’ve seen in those areas where there haven’t been very many women in the past and there still aren’t very many women. If there’s not a comfort about being a student in a particular environment, a student is going to decide, “Well, this career is obviously not for me. This educational path is obviously not for me. And I need to go somewhere else.” 

Jen Hancock:

So conntected to that, like Statistics Canada just came out with some research this year that would tell us we’re—we’ll have a number of baby boomers retiring and so there’s going to be a work shortage coming up. And thinking about needing to have better work cultures that would attract younger individuals, what are you noticing around millennials, Gen Zs who are interested in the industry, but what are their expectations going to be going forward as we start to want to, you know, have a younger workforce coming up through the industry? What do you see there?

Jeanette Southwood:

Well, one of the things that I see is just the natural evolution of society and of the world. But in addition to that we have social media. And social media has been a wonderful platform for students, for people at mid-career, for people senior in their career to be able to share their stories and experiences.

So those who are early in their career—millennials or even, ah, university or college students currently—they can take a look online and they can see, “Well, what is the world—what does the world hold for me? And what is acceptable? What is not acceptable? What industries are the ones that when I type their name, the—the name of their sector into my phone, what are the stories that are coming out of those?” 

A young person who is entering a career has so much more information available at their fingerprints and therefore has much higher expectations that there will be something better. And if they don’t see that “something better” online, they will be saying, “No. Like this is not for me.” And they will be—be taking a different direction. So that—that’s one piece that I see.

Another piece that I see is that there’s a generation of under-represented people that have not had the opportunities that they otherwise could have had. And so they are more senior in their career but, in fact, in their level within their organizations they aren’t at the level of seniority. They’re not being able to fulfill their value. And one of the things that we’re looking at is: are there opportunities, as there are these retirements, to be able to bring in the skills transfer to be able to take advantage of the skills transfer, to have those individuals be able to create value and also share their value in ways that they haven’t been before. But that’s only possible if the workplace is changing its culture.

Jen Hancock:

And are—so you’re—when you’re talking about that, you’re thinking like: we can bring someone who has a technical background but maybe from a totally different space and bring them in to our AEC space; and we should be thinking more creatively about how we might look outside of our industry for leaders. And that may help us bring in more under-represented groups—including women—into that space.


Jen Hancock:

Thinking about the millennial/GenZ space, that group is taking over the workforce. And young people are comin’ in and we need to make sure that our industry is one of the prime places that they want to land. Every company has to do that in order to be competitive.

Jeanette Southwood:

Yes. I would definitely agree with that. And one of the indicators for us is our very strong relationship with the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students. They represent leadership at higher-education institutions, by students, right across Canada. And from what we’ve seen, they’re on the cutting edge of what are the expectations of the next generation.

And what you described, Jen, is exactly what we are seeing. We’re seeing them articulate these expectations. We’re seeing them articulate: how do these expectations connect to global trends, to Canadian trends, to the economy, to society?

Jen Hancock:

Right. So, Jeanette, personally have you seen major change in industry from when you started to where you are now in your position and you get to see a variety of different companies? What have you seen, personally, as a change?

Jeanette Southwood:

One of the things that I have found is that is just the willingness to discuss challenges around, ah, an unwelcoming culture, or “What is a welcoming culture?”, the willingness to have a conversation about being someone who is under-represented in the workplace has advanced so far.

When I started as an engineer after I graduated, if I had wanted to raise the topic of microaggressions, for example, I actually would not even have known what a micro-aggression was, and nobody around me would have known it either. Because the—the language was not at that, ah, at that stage at that time.

So being able to have a common language, to be able to discuss challenges, to be able to have colleagues who understand, ah, what the challenges are, to be able to look at a  body of research that can be the evidence that some people would need to be able to have the desire to make the change—all of those things have advanced considerably.

Jen Hancock:

Why is it so important that we get more women into industry? And what would you recommend as a starting place?

Jeanette Southwood:

So, it’s very important to me. And I believe it’s very important for society. Because I always go back to that saying that to be able to have successful solutions for society, to be able to successfully respond to the pressing needs of society, we need to have professions, we need to have workplaces that reflect society. We’re not going to be successful if we don’t.

None of us journey alone. This challenge that we see—in terms of increasing the representation of under-represented groups in our workplaces, in our professions—is one that no organization, no one profession, no one higher-education institution can do alone. It’s something that we all need to work together on.


Jen Hancock:

Thanks for checking out this episode of Building Good. If this episode inspired or resonated with you in any way, please be sure to tell a friend about it. And make sure you’re subscribed on your favourite podcast app.

Building Good is a Vocal Fry Studios production, supported by Chandos Construction and Bird Construction. The executive producer is Jay Cockburn. And our producer is Kattie Laur, with production assistance from Jessica Loughlin. I’m Jen Hancock, thanks for listening.

Back to podcasts