As anyone in the industry can tell you, there’s a real shortage of skilled labor in drywall, and in the trades generally. What most people don’t talk about, though, is how infrequently we see women in drywall — and what an untapped resource they represent for this industry.
The fact is, construction is not an industry that has historically been very friendly or welcoming to women, and if we want to get more women involved (and we should want that), we need to make it a place that appreciates, respects and welcomes them. One of the best ways to do that is look to the women who are already working the job and use them as role models to encourage the next generation of young women to get into the trades.
In this series, we're shining a spotlight on their stories.
Meg Robertson: ‘I’m a woman and I can do anything’
Speaking to Meg Robertson, you almost get the impression that she picked up finishing drywall nearly 20 years ago on a dare, the same way some people might talk about being goaded into eating a hot pepper. But you also get the impression that Meg Robertson never does anything in half measures — that, if it were eating hot peppers that she picked up instead of drywall, she’d be one of the top connoisseurs of artisanal spicy foods in Canada by now.
Thankfully for her customers in the Grey-Bruce counties of Ontario, it was the drywall trade that Meg got sucked into, and it all started after getting burnt out in her work at a restaurant.
“About 17 years ago, I was at a crossroads and I was frustrated with my job,” said Meg. “I went out for dinner with a group of people and one of them said, ‘I need some drywall laborers.’ I thought about it for a minute and I said, ‘I could do that. It's something new. It's something different.’ He actually told me that I was a girl and I couldn't do it.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘Actually, I'm a woman and I can do anything, so you should let me try.’ He said, ‘If you can go in the first day and carry a box of mud, you're hired.’ I went in the first day, and I carried 25 boxes of mud up to the second story of the house and that's it. [Laughs] I liked it ever since!”
Meg’s hustle & Meg’s Drywall
Flash forward to the present, and Meg’s hustle on that first day — and every day since then — has paid off. She eventually went from carrying the boxes of mud to becoming her own boss and founding her own business, Meg’s Drywall. That company is the premiere drywall business in the area, taking home the Owen Sound Sun Times’ “Best of the Best” Platinum award for Best Drywall Company for the last two years running.
“For me, the focus is just on being the go-to drywaller in my area,” says Meg. “I want to always make sure my work's getting better.”
Through the years, Meg has done it all, but these days, Meg’s Drywall is primarily focused on finishing residential renovations and repairs. It was important for her, on day one of her business, to put her own moniker in the company’s name — not so much to boost her own ego, but to show other women in the community (and on social media) that it’s possible: that drywalling and the trades are viable career paths for women to take.
“I wanted to name my business after myself so that people see a woman in drywall doing the work,” Meg said. “They can actually physically see that it's a woman's name and that I'm doing it. And then maybe more women will get involved in opening their own businesses. In my city alone, we have a lot of low-income people. Our median income is low. I actually look at it from a socio-economic standpoint, where, if we could get more of these women working in higher-paid jobs and trades, we could actually change the way our society is locally.
“We're losing tradespeople every day. There are less people wanting to work in trades. To me, if we market toward the other 50 percent of the population in women, maybe we could do something different. In my area, the men will tell you that I'm one of the best drywallers because I have a sharper eye. I pay more attention to details. I feel if more women knew those things and knew they could do it, we would change the world.”
Women in Drywall: ‘Women have more fun on the jobsite’
Meg’s focus on community and lifting up women’s voices shines through in just about everything she does. When she’s not finishing drywall, she’s getting involved in local organizing; Meg mentions that, a number of years ago, she served as campaign manager for the mayor of her hometown of Owen Sound, sparking an interest in community politics.
Meg has married her passions for politics and residential construction by serving on Owen Sound’s Heritage Housing Committee, which seeks to preserve the community’s historic, century-old houses. She even recently ran for elected office and shows no signs of slowing down — she’s committed to cultivating a bright future for her community and her two young children.
But, first and foremost, Meg’s work happens on the jobsite, where, of course, a woman will encounter her own unique set of challenges.
“There are things that have changed,” Meg says. “When I started, there was catcalling. Every guy would stare at me on the jobsite. There were all those things. Last year, I actually hired a woman and she came onsite and she said to one of the other women that was working for me at the time, ‘I'm really worried about what's going to happen.’ The woman said to her, ‘None of that stuff happens anymore because Meghan stopped it.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I haven't even noticed that those things have stopped because I just kept working.’ I worked hard to prove myself so that they would stop doing that.”
Still, there has always been emotional labor Meg has had to do as a female finisher, in addition to the physical labor. Too many times, her thoughts and opinions have gone ignored entirely. She memorably recounted to us a period when, for an entire year, a foreman wouldn’t let her tape, apparently out of fear that Meg would take his job. Meg spent that time paying close attention to everything he did, and practicing her finishing skills when he wasn’t looking — and, a few years later, she was his boss.
Being a woman in the trades isn’t all uphill battles, though. According to Meg, a female taping team can also be a blast to be around.
“I do think hiring women is so important,” Meg said. “I can tell you that women have more fun on a jobsite. I have had customers say, ‘I've never heard people laugh so much and still get so much work done.’ We have more fun on a jobsite, for sure, even though I see some of those men on Instagram looking like they're having fun. I don't believe they have fun all day.
“To be able to showcase that to other women has been huge for me. I really want to encourage more women. It's really one of the things that I'm passionate about. Social media has been big for that. A few years ago, I didn't know that there were other women that did drywall until I started doing some googling and I saw all the people on social media.”
It’s not hard to imagine a young woman somewhere out there — someone interested in the trades but afraid of entering into such a male-dominated field — seeing Meg or one of the women like her on Instagram, and finding out for the first time that the drywalling industry can be for her, too. And that’s why representation for women in drywall is so important.
‘Being your own cheerleader’
Meg, by combining her love for drywall with her roots in her community, is being proactive about securing a future for the trades, as well as a future for her children.
For local adults, she hosts a “Cocktails and Construction” night, where she teaches women how to do tasks like patch a hole in drywall.
For the young women in the area, she’s joined up with the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program, going into local high schools to talk about the trades. Here, she’s not just showing that the trades are a solid fallback option for them — she’s sharing from her life experience that they can thrive in the trades. She’s living proof for these young women that, as a single mom who can afford to own a home, make a great living and still pursue her passion for local politics on the side, the trades can be a place for women to shine.
“You have to be like a politician and be able to shake anything off, because you can't let [hardship] affect you,” Meg said. “You just have to make sure you're always being your own cheerleader, you're always working hard, and trying to just make everything better than the last time.
“The more women in the trades, the more it'll just be the norm. We're still not the norm. There's something like 4 percent of women in construction. Why? We can do it. We can do everything. We can do everything a man can do.”