Women in the trades stuck wearing men's gear call for 'not pink' work clothes that actually fit

Driving a fuel truck between construction sites, Aslan Selby says she's sick and tired of tripping over her too-baggy mesh pants in the summer and fumbling with oversized gloves in the winter while her male colleagues have thousands of options.

A growing number of women working in the trades struggle to find gear that fits and keeps them safe

Fuel truck driver Aslan Selby tries on a high visibility one-piece suit in a men's size small. The gear was supposed to get her through the cold winter months, but she says it's far too big. (Submitted by Aslan Selby)

Driving a fuel truck between construction sites, Aslan Selby says she's sick and tired of tripping over her overly baggy mesh pants in the summer and fumbling with oversized gloves in the winter while her male colleagues have thousands of options.

She also can't believe six months on the job she's still searching for a pair of black, high visibility, rainproof coveralls not designed and sized for men, but rather to properly fit her five-foot-three-inch frame. It's a necessary part of her uniform as she sometimes is called to assist drivers stalled on the side of busy roads.

"We're here to stay and we can do [the job] damn well, too," Selby said. "So let's get us the proper gear because I'm tired of being in men's clothing." 

Selby has been driving a fuel truck for six months and before that, worked in carpentry. (Submitted by Aslan Selby)

The Orangeville, Ont. resident is among a growing number of women working in the trades struggling to find gear that fits properly and keeps them comfortable and safe. CBC News spoke to four women who say work wear brands continue to carry very few options, if any, for females.

Stores stock a small supply, and companies that provide their workers with uniforms oftentimes only have men's sizes on hand, Selby said. The products designed for women are often pink — a colour she refuses to wear on a job site.

"I've always worked in a male-dominated industry, so it's like a slap in the face," said Selby, 32. "We're not all pink and pretty. We're out there to do a job. Just give us some normal black."

CBC News reached out to major retailer Canadian Tire, which also owns Mark's Work Warehouse. The company didn't respond when asked if it's aware of the situation and what it's doing to improve it.

Women encouraged to enter trades

Women account for about four per cent of tradespeople in Canada, or over 34,000 workers, according to the most recent 2018 data from Statistics Canada. There's currently a push to encourage more women to pursue a career in trades, including in Ontario where the province announced in November it's spending $90 million to promote skilled trades to young people and address a growing labour shortage.

Women already face hurdles entering the male-dominated industries like construction, such as not being encouraged in high school or feeling uncomfortable on job sites, said welder Alanna Marklund, a youth, diversity and Indigenous relations national manager with the United Association of Canada union.

Welder Alanna Marklund says there is more gear available for women on the market as demand grows. (United Association)

While work gear designed specifically for women won't fix everything, it's an important step to making them feel like they belong, Marklund said.

Plus, clothing that's too large can also be unsafe, she added. For example, baggy coveralls can get tangled up in equipment, or oversized gloves make it challenging to use tools. 

"The frustrations and impacts of ill-fitting clothing and equipment does have an effect on retention and recruitment of women," said Marklund. "It's hard enough going into a class when you're one of few women. But if you have clothes that fit it makes that experience that much more comfortable and you're safer."

'Affordable, stylish and not pink' 

Natasha Ferguson, CEO of Toronto-based construction company Ethelfox Construct, is also fed up trying to find work pants that fit both herself and her employees, 70 per cent of whom are women. She often finds them dry walling and painting in ripped jeans instead.

Last year, Ferguson said she went to a popular work wear store where a sales representative directed her to a back "cubbyhole" where they carried women's construction clothes, and found not a single pair of pants that fit. They were also unavailable online.

That's when she decided to develop her own work clothing line for women that she describes as "affordable and stylish and not pink" and coming soon. 

Natasha Ferguson is the founder and CEO of Ethelfox Construct, a Toronto construction company that hires predominately women. (Submitted by Paul Clarke)

"We haven't been seen in the construction industry, so of course there's going to be a lack of things for us," Ferguson said. "The only reason why I would be going ahead and doing this is because I understand there will be a demand once myself and others do the work getting more women in the trades." 

Alicia Woods was inspired to start her own company Covergalls after working for years in the Canadian mining industry wearing men's coveralls. 

To go to the washroom, deep underground in the mining shaft, she had to take off most of her gear in order to open up and pull down her entire one-piece suit. 

To avoid the vulnerable situation, Woods said she wouldn't drink water before going to work in the mine.

Eventually, in 2014, she was fed up enough to start selling suits with a zippered "rear trap door" for bathroom breaks. Covergalls has since expanded to most other work clothing items and will be launching a maternity line in early 2022.

"If you're a young female and you enter the workforce and you're told you have to wear your father's clothing, how included do you feel?" Woods said from her Sudbury, Ont. home. "There is power in the right uniform."