Rosie the Riveter was such a perfect symbol for their cause, the advocates of a new awareness campaign aimed at improving the lot of women in the trades couldn't believe it hadn't been used before.
Hamilton ironworker and welder Jamie McMillan is co-founder of the Workplace Equality (WE) awareness campaign. Its ribbons are red with white polka dots, just like the bandana worn by the iconic Rosie in the wartime poster recruiting women to work in factories.
Of course, those wartime women were quickly shooed out of the factories once the war was over, but the WE campaign is aimed at helping women find their way and stay in trades jobs.
McMillan says lack of affordable childcare will be the first issue tackled because tradespeople — men and women — struggle to find options.
The jobs are rarely nine to five and often involve being called in for emergencies after hours. For some, there is a lot of travel, too.
She says that's a barrier for some to enter the trades and forces others out when they can't find suitable care for their kids.
McMillan has learned first-hand the power of women in trades when they band together.
"Social media is changing the world for women. We have our own little world on social media. We are each other's mentors," said McMillan, who is almost always the only woman on a job site. When she yearns to commiserate with other women working trades, she picks up her phone on a break or lunch.
"Within minutes, people from around the world, all ages, all trades are offering their help. I call these girls my reinforcement troops."
Pat Williams, co-founder of the WE campaign, worked as an operating engineer for building maintenance for 32 years before retiring.
When she arrived at her first job site, her male co-workers bet on how long she'd last. The longest guess was two weeks.
She says much has changed and women in trades are better connected than ever before.
Peer support is critical, she said.
"The isolation in the trades is huge," said Williams, who lives in Los Angeles.
"A lot of families don't want us in these trades. They don't know how to support us."
McMillan and Williams are working on getting charitable status and trademarking their polka-dot ribbons. There are business plans to draw up and lobbying of government and industry to organize.
McMillan already actively promotes careers in the construction trades to girls with an organization she founded called Journeyman. She says it was a chance encounter with a high-school friend shortly after she moved to Hamilton in 2002 that changed the course of her career.
At 28, she was serving in bars and restaurants after deciding her job as a personal support worker was too emotionally draining.
On an impulse, she followed her friend's advice and looked at a trade. She has been a journeyman ironworker and welder for 12 years.
She's worked at both of Hamilton's steel mills and area power plants, along with the oilsands and potash mines.
She's worked on sites where there was no women's washroom and had to make do with coveralls and gloves that didn't fit well because they were made for men.
About four per cent of the 500,000 Canadians employed in construction trades in 2012 are women, according to Statistics Canada. McMillan doesn't expect to see 50 per cent but hopes 10 per cent is achievable.
She urges girls to have an open mind about what they want to do with their lives. If it's the trades, she offers advice: Have a thick skin and a sense of humour.
"I tell them they want to draw attention to themselves, not for being a woman, but by being a hell of a good worker."