Building a foundation of respect - Part 77 | BuildForce Canada

Building a foundation of respect - Part 77

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The Canadian construction industry is building respectful and inclusive workplaces for a strong future.

Men as catalysts for change

Did you know there are four organizational factors that can prevent men from directly interrupting sexism in the workplace?

Does your organization understand the role that leaders have in supporting men as catalysts for change? 

Most business leaders understand that gender equality is important. 

In a 2022 Canadian survey of female and male leaders’ awareness and general views on women working as construction tradespeople, three quarters of respondents said they are very comfortable with women joining and working in the trades; two thirds already had women working for them or as part of their union.  

Despite this positive endorsement for women’s equality in the construction industry, women represent only 4.8% of construction tradespeople. 

While research refers to many factors (e.g., high levels of harassment, bias, stereotypes and the natural tendency to choose more welcoming industries) there is a growing awareness of the important role that male colleagues play in supporting gender equality.  

A study with male tradespeople in Nova Scotia found that more women in the workplace can be a difficult adjustment for men. They reported that it was difficult to be a catalyst for change and for an individual to stand out amongst their peers to support the change.  

What prevents men from interrupting sexism? 

Sexism is the result of assumptions, misconceptions and stereotypes that rationalize discrimination, mistreatment, and objectification of people based on their sex, gender, or sexual orientation. 

Sexism can take many forms. Overt sexism is intentional, visible, and unambiguous, for example, bullying and harassment. While overt sexism is less prevalent than it has been in the past, covert sexism is still common. With covert sexism, incidents are subtle, hidden, or invisible. They are built into social and cultural norms.  

In a study of 1,500 Canadian men, the global consulting organization Catalyst found that there are four general organizational factors that play a role in men’s willingness to interrupt sexism.  

1. A climate of silence where fear dominates.  

The study found that 44% of men reported high levels of silence in their workplaces. Workers believe that speaking up will bring negative repercussions or fear that their voice won’t be heard. They are afraid to take actions that will likely backfire. In these workplaces, 39% of men report doing nothing, compared to 5% of men in organizations with lower climates of silence.  

2. Combative workplace culture. 

The study also found that 46% of men reported working in organizations with a highly “combative culture.” A combative culture includes four defining dimensions: 

  • Show no weakness: this is the perception that showing emotion, raising doubts, or asking for advice is a sign of weakness and will not be respected. 
  • Strength and stamina: this is the notion that characteristics of physical size, athleticism, or the ability to work long hours are tied to admiration and respect. 
  • Put work first: this is the belief that work must always come first, resulting in aggressive and intense work conditions. 
  • Dog eat dog: this is a “survival of the fittest” mindset in which individuals should advocate only for themselves and not trust others. 

In this workplace culture, workers are encouraged to not only engage in stereotypically masculine practices and behaviours but also to outdo others as a pathway to professional success. 

3. A climate of futility. 

The study also found that 45% of men said that high levels of futility affected their ability to speak up against sexism. In workplaces with high levels of futility, 36% of men said that they would do nothing; in workplaces with lower levels of futility, only 7% of men would do nothing.    

Men may feel that speaking up is futile for any number of reasons, including workplace hierarchies that lead them to doubt that managers will even be receptive to the information they have to share; that people in positions of power don’t want to hear complaints or opinions; and that they cannot effectively change the status quo. 

What can leaders do to help men to support men as catalysts for change? 

There are three actions that leaders can take to support men as catalysts for change. 

1. Be a role model. 

Change starts at the top. The power of active and visible leadership cannot be overestimated. In a study to enhance the retention and advancement of female tradespeople, tradeswomen described the impact that company owners or bosses had on the work culture by being vocal and in many cases, being visibly present and “setting the tone” for foremen and journeymen. This has a particularly profound impact on reducing instances of bullying and harassment. 

2. Use your power to amplify inclusion. 

In the same study, tradeswomen described the powerful effect that one person speaking up and taking direct action, particularly someone in a position of leadership, can have on the behaviour of colleagues and crews.  

Leaders can amplify inclusion by showing workers that their voices lead to change; listening to their challenges, ideas and views without becoming defensive; and making an effort to respond to the insights they have shared with you. This includes creating an environment where women are given agency and that they too feel heard. 

3. Create structures that support the culture you want. 

Don’t assume that your workplace is not combative. Look deeply into your workplace culture to determine if your organization normalizes “ruthless competition” or “winner takes all” behaviours. 

Strategies that reward team-based performance and outcomes can promote a culture of cooperation and trust. In addition, creating and sustaining policies such as paternity leave and flexible working arrangements that encourage work-life effectiveness among all workers regardless of gender can reduce the belief that career success must come at the expense of personal and family life, one of the hallmarks of a combative culture. 

Research shows that men can play an important role in welcoming tradeswomen. However, men are more likely to be catalysts for change when leaders act as role models and provide a supportive workplace culture. 


  • Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization. New Jersey, U.S.A., John Wiley & Sons, 2019. 
  • Gyarmaty, D., Pakula, B., Nguyen, C. & Leonard, D. Enhancing the retention and advancement of women in trades in British Columbia: Final Report. Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. 2017.  
  • Negin Sattari, Emily Shaffer, Sarah Di Muccio and Dnika J. Travis. Interrupting Sexism at Work: What Drives Men to Respond Directly or Do Nothing? (Catalyst, June 25, 2020).  
  • Pollara. Survey of Industry Leaders. Ontario Building & Construction Tradeswomen. March 2022.  
  • YWCA Halifax. Shift change gender-based needs assessment: Scoping the landscape and exploring interventions. March 2019. 

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