In the last decade, there has been a push by the federal and provincial governments to get more young people into the trades or to take a professional training program over an academic program. This push has been driven by the trade shortage that the country is facing, the often-superior income of those working in the trades to those who graduate university with a bachelor’s degree, and the need to replace an ageing and retiring workforce. While this push has led to more young people entering the trade industry, the push has often neglected the gendered history that involves women in trades and their representation in the workforce. This under-representation of women in the trades is shown not just in the workforce but in the institutions and programs that provide the accreditation and training for trades work. While BCIT has serious efforts to include more women in the trades, more can be done.
It is essential to look at the history of our institution to see where there have been struggles. In 1965, in BCIT’s second year, women were kept out of many leadership positions. This was most prominently felt in our student government. At the time, the President of the Student Council was a man named Ken Maclean. President Maclean was the head of an institution that barred women from running for one of its most important roles, Treasurer, which oversees the Student Associations’ budget.
Further, many program representative roles were also reserved for men, even when women made a larger portion or even most of the program. The women in the Medical X-Ray program rightfully saw this as a wrong and sought to rectify it. The women approached President Maclean and asked for him to bring forward bylaw changes to allow women and men (who were barred from running for the position of secretary of the student council and some clubs) to be allowed to run for all positions. President Maclean refused. This challenge did not deter the women in medical x-ray, and they decided to stage a protest. However, the women of medical x-rays protest was a unique one. Instead of traditional sit-ins or marches, they abducted President Maclean and duct-taped him to a wheelchair, which they covered in placards stating the women’s case. They also placed a blonde wig on the president’s head and then proceeded to wheel him into the cafeteria.
At the sight of their President tied up, the men in the medical program at BCIT rushed to rescue him. After the President was freed, the ringleader of the women was herself abducted by the men and placed in a pit known on campus as the bear pit. When other female protestors attempted to free the ringleader, they themselves were placed into the pit. This turned into a water fight, with the women in the pit splashing water onto the onlookers in protest and spectators pouring water onto the women. When female members of the campus heard what was happening, they banded together to rescue the women. A mob of women then attempted to recapture President Maclean, one of his co-conspirators, and the representative of the mechanical school. The men were able to escape. However, a peace offering was made, in which a male student and the ringleader were both thrown in the campus pool. The male student was stripped of his clothes.
Representation was not the only thing that used to be out of date at BCIT. Men were given clear guidelines about how to dress. Women were reduced to “should be attired appropriately in accordance with the regulations for men. Slacks or shorts are not appropriate attire for women students.”
Despite some outdated views, BCIT was also an institution ahead of its time in many respects. This is particularly true concerning the pay scale. At the time of BCIT’s founding, it immediately started with a joint pay scale for men and women, which paid them the same amount. Other universities in Vancouver, such as UBC, would not adopt an equal pay scale for decades. This fairer pay scale attracted talents to BCIT, such as C. Margaret Briscall. Briscall was one of the first female instructors at BCIT, who developed many of BCIT’s second-year business courses at the time of the program’s founding. Briscall became head of the BCIT Staff Society and later Associate Dean of the Department of Financial Management.
While this historical instance is a unique one, it shows that women at BCIT have decided that they will not become invisible or neglected in professions traditionally dominated by men. One of the programs seeking to combat men’s historical dominance in the trades is the Women’s Trade Discovery program at BCIT. This program gives women the opportunity to work in various trades to find the best fit for them. Even other programs at BCIT which have a lower percentage of women enrolled seek to boost their opportunities. I spoke to Joanna Wallace, a graduate of BCIT. Joanna describes her time at BCIT as fulfilling, but certainly with gaps. In her program (engineering) she estimated that only two or three percent of her student peers were women. However, the faculty was very balanced in terms of representation, and all her professors gave her equitable opportunities and sought to give her an equal say in the classroom, even when her male peers talked over her. However, she conceded that despite being an equal opportunity program, her teachers did not properly prepare her for some of the gender-specific challenges of the professional world. She pointed to being fired for her gender and disrespect from superiors as a serious and discouraging barrier, but one that can be overcome with determination and a willingness for change.
The question becomes, what is the best way for BCIT to move forward? The answer is simple, expand what is working now and promote it. The only way to get more women into these trades is to promote the opportunities in these trades directly to women. However, it must come with a two-fold societal change. Just as women should be promoted in the workforce, the role of a man as a primary caregiver and an equal or larger partner in caring for a home is also essential. Many men do not see the responsibility they have to their partners to be equal partners at home. This is because of the historical role of men as the “breadwinner” of the family. A change in society must be twofold, with women being afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve in the trades and men realizing they need to take on a bigger role at home and maybe even stepping aside so more women can have an opportunity they would have been denied
Jonah van Driesum is the senior editor of Link, and co-host of our the MicroLink podcast!