Women in construction still fighting for equality, Manitoba business owner says

Thursday marks 100 years since most women won the right to vote in Manitoba, but in male-dominated industries like construction, sexual harassment and gender inequality are still commonplace.

Workplace harassment still common 100 years after most women won vote, heavy machine operator says

Jacquie McDonald, owner of Black Cat Contracting, talks with CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa in studio Tuesday. (Pat Kaniuga/CBC)

Thursday marks 100 years since most women won the right to vote in Manitoba, but in male-dominated industries such as construction, sexual harassment and gender inequality are still commonplace, Jacquie McDonald says.

"There even still is to this day, but it all depends on how you take it," McDonald, a heavy machine operator and owner of Black Cat Contracting, told CBC News on Tuesday. "[We] have to watch as to how we dress, we have to watch everything. We have to watch how we speak."

Women made up just 11 per cent of the construction industry in 2015. After almost two decades in the business, McDonald said conditions have improved for women, but there are still many things that need to be addressed to create a safer workplace.

McDonald got into the industry in 1999, when she had a young family and wanted a new challenge. She worked hard and had to make a lot of sacrifices to start her business, she added.

Today, McDonald runs a well-established business, but McDonald said she was discouraged from entering construction by a career counsellor.

"I was laughed at," she said.

With a background in advertising, 3D animation and teaching, McDonald was met with skepticism from all directions, she said.

McDonald said there were almost no women on the job site other than her in the late '90s.

"Lots of them were flaggers and truckers, but none of them [were] actually doing the heavy equipment," McDonald said.

"In that sense, it was kind of rare for me to be seen. I was like a little beacon, a  novelty item, when it came to me being on a site."

Workplace harassment

Sexual harassment was commonplace, she said.

She countered the verbal abuse by dishing out her own barbed comments, but sometimes the insults evolved into something more serious.

McDonald said over the years, she has been sexually assaulted, abused, intimidated and had her things vandalized.

"It takes its toll on you," she said. "You really have to learn how to pick your battles."

Despite the routine abuse, McDonald's passion for the work inspired her to stay on the job.

"I think what it was, was if they couldn't beat me out on the job site, they were going to try and take me out somewhere else and either belittle me or try and take away my strengths that I had," she said. "I'm not going to let them take that from me."

McDonald said women who endure and report routine harassment also fear being blacklisted from certain job sites.

Picking battles

Women thinking about getting into heavy construction must stay focused on the work and choose battles carefully, McDonald said.

"We're not out to change the world.… We're not out to make a big stand," she said. "In time it will go [away], because these guys have got to remember that us women out here, we're also mothers — I am a grandmother."

Women getting into the field still need to be prepared for systemic on-the-job harassment, she said.

"That's what infuriates me so often, that's kind of why I took this initiative to become a little bit more at the forefront for women in the industry, because enough is enough," she said. "Why do we have to put up with this, and yet if this was a guy in the situation, he'd be praised?"

McDonald said she endures the challenging conditions because she wants to normalize the presence of women in the heavy construction industry.

"I put up with it so that whatever generation after me doesn't have to," she said. "While I am out here, I am going to make [it] a point on whatever job site I go to, because every single job site is a different battle for us."