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Can We Fix It? Yes We Can!

In HGTV Canada’s new show, Home to Win, there’s a memorable scene where contractors Scott McGillivray and Kate Campbell have scrambled high up onto the roof of the show’s two-story project home.

They’re securing a new cupola after wind brought the old one down. And as Campbell nimbly does her thing, tool belt clanking, a crane hovering nearby, trading quips with McGillivray, it suddenly hits you. This matter-of-fact presence of a female contractor—it’s just not something you see every day.

While the male contractor/female designer pairing has long been a staple of TV design shows, lately we’ve been seeing more non-traditional twists like this. For example, at the W Network, new show Love It or List It: Vacation Homes hired male designer Dan Vickery, and female real estate agent Elisa Goldhawke.

Back at Home to Win, which features 20 HGTV Canada stars renovating a country home, you can also see Danielle Bryk, a designer and licensed contractor, ably managing both sledgehammers and fabric swatches. Then there’s the two-woman team of Campbell, and designer Sarah Baeumler. Throughout their renovation, Campbell warmly encourages Baeumler to pick up new DIY skills.

What drives this new breed of onscreen female? Does her presence signal a larger shift in the industry? Does her rocking the steel-toe boots and roaring power tools, inspiring female fans towards DIY greatness?

Is there a shift going on?

The short answer is yes. Given a North American shortage of skilled labourers, many new programs are appearing to encourage women into construction and other trades. “In the past, you know, you went to school and you didn’t think of trades as an option if you were a girl,” says Nicola Macdonald, young women’s initiatives coordinator at Skills Ontario.

Interestingly, Campbell, who completed the Ontario government-funded Women In Skilled Trades (WIST) program years ago, is a direct product of government efforts to grow women’s participation.

While more initiatives are still appearing, let’s be clear. We’re not there yet. According to a 2010 report by the Construction Sector Council, “Women constituted 12.6 per cent of the Canadian construction industry workforce in 2006, but the rate of their employment (four per cent) in the construction trades was smaller.” Yet in 2015, Canadian Carpenter magazine reported women’s participation in construction at 14 per cent—a slight rise.

What’s it like for women in the industry?

Female contractors concede it’s still a male-dominated world—one where their mere presence causes double-takes. Sara Bendrick, landscape designer and host of DIY Network’s, I Hate My Yard, says she often fields questions when she’s in a big box store wearing construction gear. If she asks another tradesperson for advice, she says, “They answer and then they’ll be like, ‘What are you?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a contractor!’ And they don’t believe it. It’s hilarious.”

As for more negative feedback, Campbell says incidents happen occasionally. She recalls an older male worker angrily interrupting her while she was jackhammering concrete. “He pointed a finger at me and said, ‘Go home, you’re taking a man’s job.’” (She reported the incident to her supervisor and there were no further incidents.)

What motivates women?

You can sum it up in a word: passion. Campbell, who describes herself as active, creative and allergic to desk jobs, revels in her work and frequently speaks to high school groups about her career path. At her first job working for various Mike Holmes productions, she says, “We built a house in New Orleans, and toured across Canada, so I was really feeling like this is an awesome career choice!”

And Bryk, who grew up watching her mother doing DIY, is simply sold on the benefits of acquiring building skills.

To today’s growing ranks of female homebuyers, she says, “When simple things in the house go wrong and you’re able to investigate what it is, you’re not at the mercy of people as much, you know?” Mastering new skills also gives women confidence and control, adds Bryk, recalling her first attempt at tiling guided by a how-to book. “I just felt incredibly empowered when I finished it off and it looked great!”

Finally, Bryk, whose lifelong passion started in high school shop class, talks about psychological benefits. “I loved carpentry, and I found no matter what else was going on in the hallways or whatever teenage drama was happening, as soon as I started working on my project, it all kind of went away. And to this day, carpentry still does that for me. It’s like therapy.”