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Employment Counselling for Clients Facing Traditional Gender Issues

Gender issues in the workplace continue to present both clients and counsellors with challenges. Women’s issues remain a focus for career counsellors. Meanwhile, emerging issues for men related to changing roles provide an additional focus and a new challenge.

This article addresses employment strategies for clients facing traditional, binary gender issues experienced by women and men. For strategies that support the unique challenges faced by transgender and non-binary individuals, see Employment Counselling for Sexual and Gender Minorities.

The gendered workplace

The gendered workplace is an environment where traditional gender roles are upheld and expectations are rooted in assumptions that workers possess masculine qualities. This unconscious reinforcement of traditional gender divisions continues to support traditional roles.

The spinoffs of the gendered workplace include:

  • A gender wage gap, with males earning higher average salaries than females
  • Pooling of women in the lower ranks of the workforce
  • A glass ceiling, which means women are less likely to be promoted to upper management positions

Equal pay for similar work

Men have traditionally received higher average earnings than women. Even accounting for similar education, industry, years of experience, and other factors, women still lag behind men in salary progression.

Counsellors need to be aware that the Alberta Human Rights Act specifically states: “Where employees of both sexes perform the same or substantially similar work for an employer in an establishment the employer shall pay the employees at the same rate of pay.” Employers must base any pay differentials on factors other than gender, such as experience, education, or job performance.

If your clients face the issue of not receiving equal pay for similar work, you can help by being as informed as possible. Knowledge of community resources will also be important.


Sexism affects women in the job search and workplace in a number of ways. Such views are often expressed in people’s attitudes. Here are some examples:

“Certain jobs are more appropriate for men than for women, and vice versa.”

In Alberta, as in most Western societies, more women than men are employed in health care and social assistance, educational services, accommodation and food services, and retail. These industries include occupations such as teaching, nursing, administration, sales, and service—traditionally female-dominated fields of work. This employment trend continues to reinforce the beliefs of some employers and workers that certain jobs are more suitable for women or men.

“Women don’t want responsibility or promotion.”

Individual women and men differ in their desire to pursue higher levels of responsibility in organizations. However, women as a group are less likely than men to be promoted to high levels of responsibility.

“Women are more emotional than men, and this causes problems in the workplace.”

Emotions are viewed subjectively, and there can be a gender component to how they are seen. For example, a man’s anger may be seen as assertive while a woman’s anger may be viewed as not co-operative. Yet both people could be reacting identically to the same situation.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment involves unwanted or unwelcome behaviour that is sexual in nature and affects the harassed person negatively. Sexual harassment is illegal. Although most victims are women, some victims are men. Same-sex harassment also occurs.

Here are some examples of sexual harassment:

  • Unwelcome staring, comments, or teasing
  • Questions or discussions about sexual activities
  • Offensive humour or language related to gender
  • Displaying or showing suggestive material
  • Unwanted sexual requests or demands
  • Unwanted physical contact or closeness, such as patting, pinching, rubbing, leaning over, or standing too close
  • Physical assault

If your client reports the situation or does not play along, the harasser may try to get even in a variety of ways. Revenge may include threats or acts, such as:

  • Giving an unreasonable amount of work
  • Lowering wages
  • Reducing hours of work
  • Refusing to grant raises or promotions
  • Firing the harassed person

In all cases, it will be important to help clients anticipate the consequences of any actions they may choose to take and to identify and plan their responses. You might help clients brainstorm their own approaches. You may also encourage clients to weigh some or all of the following options:

  • If safety is at risk, report harassment to the police.
  • Document experiences of harassment. Include specifics such as date, time, and description.
  • Keep copies of performance evaluations as proof of job performance.
  • Tell the harasser to stop—in person or in writing or both.
  • Enlist the help of a trusted manager.
  • Use the formal complaint process at the place of employment.

If the harassment continues after being reported, you can help the client make a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The client must do this within 1 year of the event. It is against the law for the employer to take action against a person who makes a complaint in good faith.

Work-life balance

Work-life balance and gender equity—“Traditionally a women’s issue, gender equality is gaining currency as both a men’s issue and a business issue, as work-life integration becomes increasingly important to both the people within the institution and the institution itself. Its attainment will be made possible by rethinking, reconceptualizing, and re-inventing organizations in line with gender equity.”

Counsellors can help clients investigate work opportunities to help them find satisfying work that supports all their life roles. This research may be especially important for clients who are likely to experience work-life conflict.

When exploring employment that offers better work-life balance, clients need to consider:

  • Work environments, such as the relationships between employees and management
  • Workplace communication styles, such as the use of inclusive language
  • Overtime work arrangements, such as a requirement for advance notice and the opportunity to refuse overtime without penalties
  • Child care availability, either onsite or nearby
  • Work arrangements that are flexible, such as home offices and flexible arrival and departure times

Child care

Child care is an issue for all working parents, but it continues to be thought of primarily as a women’s issue. When quality child care is not available, problems may surface at work, such as:

  • Arriving later or leaving earlier than other workers
  • Having scheduling difficulties
  • Missing work
  • Experiencing concentration problems
  • Turning down a promotion

Parents with lower income may have fewer resources and more problems with child care. For single parents, particularly single mothers, the effects of these issues are compounded.


Since women are most often responsible for family child care arrangements, many employers fear that women may use their own sick leave to care for their sick children.

However, research suggests that patterns of sick leave are similar for men and women in the same occupations. In other words, in routine jobs, sick leave is higher for both men and women. In more challenging jobs, the leave is still comparable for men and women, though less for both. The conclusion is that patterns of leave are tied more closely to the type of job than to the gender of the worker.

Alternatives to full-time employment

Some clients may seek the flexibility of part-time work and the greater work-life balance it can offer. However, you should help clients understand that part-time work may be less attractive because it offers:

  • Lower wages than full-time jobs
  • Fewer benefits such as paid holidays, pensions, and job security
  • Little or no union protection
  • Few opportunities for training or promotion

You may have clients with part-time jobs who would prefer to work full time if they could. You might help them consider:

  • Combining 2 or more part-time jobs
  • Funding or training opportunities that may enhance their skills and make them more competitive for full-time work
  • Entrepreneurial opportunities, including home-based businesses, to supplement their part-time work
  • Expanding their part-time work
  • Developing proposals for these options and presenting the proposals to their employers

Non-traditional occupations

If more than 2 out of 3 workers in an occupation are of a specific gender, it is officially considered a non-traditional occupation for the other gender.

Men in non-traditional occupations

For men, entering a female-dominated occupation is often seen as a path toward lower status and lower financial rewards. As a result, they may face negative scrutiny and assumptions about their abilities, masculinity, and sexual orientation.

Men choosing non-traditional occupations give some of the following reasons for their choice:

  • Opportunities for less stressful occupations
  • Increased options for other life choices
  • Personal fulfilment
  • Greater economic stability of non-traditional jobs chosen
  • More opportunities for advancement to authority positions that are perceived as not available in male-dominated occupations

Men who choose non-traditional occupations tend to place less value on achieving status through a prestigious job than men in traditional occupations. In general, they are less tied to traditional masculine gender roles.

Women in non-traditional occupations

For women, choosing to enter a male-dominated occupation is increasingly viewed as a positive career move. Often it offers more opportunities for status, pay, and advancement. As a result, a growing number of women are choosing non-traditional occupations.

Many non-traditional occupations for women in Alberta fall into categories such as:

  • Engineering
  • Science
  • Technology
  • University-level academics
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Logistics
  • Aviation
  • Construction
  • Trades

Women in the trades

A major hurdle for those who want to enter the trades is that the industry is not really interested in hiring starters. The industry wants more journeypersons, not more apprentices. This hurdle is a challenge for both women and men trying to enter the industry.

Women are still significantly under-represented in the trades. The rate of retention for women in trades is low, and the most common reason for leaving is the work environment. For women who stay, work in the trades offers a sense of pride and confidence.

Women considering the trades need to be aware that apprenticeship is a hierarchical system. The journeyperson supervises the work and training of the apprentices. The workplace is a traditional, male-dominated environment with related communication styles. For example, communication tends to be blunt, with no chit-chat or signs of weakness shown. The trades are also physically challenging.

Hard work—“It got better once I showed them I was willing to work hard and do the same things they were doing—and not say 'Oh, I'm a girl, can you come help me?' It was hard for me because I wasn't that strong. But you develop that upper body strength. It doesn't take long when you work at it.”

Women interested in the trades may want to look into programs offered by Women Building Futures. This organization offers support and training for women who want to apprentice in the trades. They suggest these strategies:

  • Read about the trades. Check industry newsletters—most trades have them.
  • Connect with workers in the industry.
  • Go onsite, check out the environment, and talk directly with workers and managers.
  • Be aware that safety training is critical and very costly to provide. Employers are more likely to hire candidates who have completed safety training.
  • Have a solid background in mathematics and science. Seek tutoring help, if necessary.
  • Consider enrolling in a credible trades preparation course.
  • Be aware of what you are facing in the trades and be prepared to handle it.
  • Explore alternatives if work in the trades is not realistic at this particular time of life.

For women accepted into apprenticeship, consider these approaches:

  • Find a strong support system.
  • Find a mentor. Woman-to-woman mentoring is particularly helpful.
  • Ensure safety courses are included, such as St. John’s First Aid, CPR, Construction Safety Training Practice (CSTP), Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), fall protection/fall arrest, and safe forklift operation.

Finally, keep in mind that the trades are not for everyone. No matter how strong a woman is, it is not always possible to gain entry into the trades. But for women who embrace the rigours of training and can work in a compatible workplace, a career in the trades can be rewarding.

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