Canadian Contractor

By Anna Somogyi, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Advisor, Cooper Equipment Rentals   

DE&I: are you talking the talk or are you walking the walk?

Canadian Contractor Women in Construction

It’s easy to talk about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the construction industry. But the reality is many female workers still earn less than their male counterparts; transgender employees still have to choose between male and female bathrooms; job descriptions continue to cater to male-focused abilities, unconsciously discouraging women from applying for certain roles; and the “suck it up, Sally” mentality from management still exists.

If you’re at a large company, you may have started tackling DE&I – developing a strategy or hiring a DE&I manager as a first step. But are you really driving change in your company? For smaller contractors who don’t have access to these types of resources, thinking about DE&I can be even harder, just one more thing to add to your to-do list.

But those hiring challenges you’ve experienced in the last few years are only going to get worse. A more diverse workforce means you can focus on innovation rather than stagnation, tapping a wider pool of talent to address future skills/labour shortages while keeping the employees you have. When job seekers consider a company, the ultimate question they ask is, “do I fit in there?” It’s hard to answer “yes” to this question when they don’t see anyone like themselves on your team.

Addressing these issues is a big commitment, but it can pave the way for a better future for your company. If you find yourself on the DE&I path but you’re unsure which direction to take, you’re not alone. We went from a company of 50 employees a decade ago to now more than 1,000 and our diversity messaging looks a lot different today. Here are a few ways you can start to move the needle in your own company.


The first step is talking to your people

Offering employees a few DE&I training courses just isn’t enough anymore. You need to develop, educate, and train your talent in a cycle that encourages growth, change and commitment. The first step is talking to your people. Ask them what they feel. Do employees, especially those who identify with minority communities, feel safe with their leaders and teammates? Can they go to work and feel comfortable and free to be themselves? Having a place to work that nurtures respect, inclusivity and openness is the best thing you can do to ensure the wellbeing and mental health of your employees. This psychological safety is especially crucial in male-dominated industries like construction.

Come to understand different perspectives and solutions and ensure your employees understand their wellbeing is important. A mentally unhealthy worker isn’t good for anyone. You can also make a range of resources available – mental health programs, suicide intervention training, short-term disability, mentorships – and encourage active listening from management.

Continued training in all areas of the company is key to success. Pre-boarding, on-boarding and ongoing employee education all matter. And as your company grows and changes you may need to revisit these efforts. In the early days of your journey, you can also start to look at your relationships with customers, your community and education institutions.

Be accountable and take actionable steps for change

It’s easy to find examples of how big companies are changing their hiring strategies and putting more effort towards bringing in diverse talent. While these stories are great to hear, they usually don’t involve tactics that small businesses can use – most simply don’t have the resources, consultants, budget, and staff that the big guys have.

Starting with one or two initiatives that promote diversity and awareness is the best approach; implementing too many programs at once can be overwhelming. It could be as simple as reviewing your interviewing processes and removing biases from job descriptions. We recently went through all our job descriptions to identify underlying biases, words and descriptions that weren’t gender neutral. A role might say “you have to lift 50 lbs”, but the reality is we have machines to support this, so you don’t have to lift 50 lbs under your own steam. When we change this wording, we start to see more women apply for these types of roles. Remember to look at your social media accounts too and ensure you promote an inclusive environment in your posts.

Having appropriate bathrooms and change areas can be another focus. Many women have horror stories about the state of bathrooms on construction jobsites. Ontario recently proposed amending rules about bathrooms on construction sites to make them cleaner, safer and provide for women. We would go a step further and encourage workplaces to consider gender neutral bathrooms and change rooms for those who identify as transgender or non-binary.

Make sure leadership is on board

If you’re really serious about DE&I, it has to be backed by leadership. Do the values of your company, driven by your CEO, reflect what you’re showing the world? If your CEO isn’t practicing what they preach, you’ll never reach your goals. True change can take both time and a financial commitment.

If your leadership wants to take DE&I initiatives to the next level, the parity certification from Women in Governance looks at your organization’s position on the gender parity spectrum, your current culture and commitments, and the actions that can yield the best results.

It’s important your employees understand what you stand for, what you expect from them, and WHY you are going down this path. In addition to being the right thing to do, your DE&I efforts can attract new customers, increase recruitment and retention by making all employees feel more welcome, or reflect the community you serve. There are countless ways diversity can benefit your company, but being specific can help keep workers engaged and minimize scepticism. Most importantly, ensure your guidelines are clear and that only employees who follow them can be part of the team.

You’ll never get your entire organization to take part in, or even believe in, what you’re trying to achieve. Companies that “force” DE&I on their people often fail, because they’re telling people what to do without the context, tools or education to understand why it matters and why it makes things better. If you’re following your guidelines, you will have some hard lines on what’s unacceptable. For those who are simply unsure about some aspect of your policy, it’s important you approach them out of curiosity rather than judgement. Pushback can be tricky to navigate. Try tailoring your approach, showing transparency about why a specific program or initiative is happening. An example of this could be a Pride Month program – you may have an employee who is open to sharing their experiences as part of the LGTBQIA+ community, creating an opportunity for others to listen without asking anything from them. To handle attempts of denial or derailment, consider the different perspectives workers may have, anticipate the threats they may perceive as a result of your initiatives and address these proactively.

Remember: opportunities don’t grow from a culture of “sameness”

Take a look at your employee base and see whether it reflects the communities you serve, or wish to serve, as a business. If it doesn’t, it’s time to ask yourself why. Remember, diversity is not just about gender or race – it’s about different ideas and opinions from backgrounds and life experiences that don’t look like yours. These perspectives matter and can often benefit you as a business.


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