More and more women are breaking into non-traditional fields, but they still face barriers

Stories Amy Kenny
The Hamilton Spectator

In 1988, when Marla Robinson applied for a position as a repair technician at an aerospace company, the company told her it would love to hire her but for one thing.

“I was told ‘we don’t have a washroom on the plant floor for you to change,’” she says.

Robinson, who acts as program co-ordinator with the school of skilled trades and apprenticeship programs at Mohawk College, recently told the story at a Women in Trades dinner put on by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Afterward, the presenter next to Robinson told her she had ended up with that exact repair tech job the following year. After complaints, the company had made the concession to allow women to change in the human resources office.

Robinson says things have changed since the ’80s. There are still far fewer women in trades than there are men. In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that men accounted for 97 per cent of skilled tradespeople.

But programs including Mohawk’s women in skilled trades, and enhanced general carpentry for women through The Centre Skills Development and Training, get good uptake.

Robinson says students in the programs aren’t always your typical college-age crowd. Mohawk sees women who have lost their jobs and are there for second career training. Some have been at home with kids for a few years and want to work again. Others loved shop class in high school and have realized they want to work in a hands-on environment. Still others are lured by the salary.

Service jobs pay minimum wage, Robinson says. Trade jobs are living wage jobs.

“It’s almost like learning another language,” she says.

In some cases, it really is another language.

Ladies Learning Code is a non-profit aimed at teaching coding and digital literacy to women and youth.

IT is a field that’s notoriously unfriendly to them.

In 2014, a harassment campaign (dubbed Gamergate) sought to discourage women from working in video game development. The campaign consisted of everything from publishing personal information about female gamers to threats of a mass shooting at a university where a female video game critic was scheduled to speak.

Melissa Sariffodeen, one of the founders of LLC, says there’s a prevalent stereotype that technology is the domain of the solitary male, sitting in the basement, eating two-day-old pizza. Women are considered too social and creative for it.

“The big thing about tech is that the industry is inherently social and it’s so collaborative,” says Sariffodeen, who started learning code when she decided she wanted to get out of her accounting job and into app-building.

LLC has a goal to teach code to 200,000 women and girls by 2020 (the organization has currently taught 23,000). She wants to make them builders of technology as well as consumers of it.

“The key thing here is, as we grow as a society, technology isn’t going anywhere,” she says. “It’s important that the tools that we use each day are built by a representative of the population.”

Chapters across Canada, including one in Hamilton, arrange regular evening and weekend courses. Curious about how to use Python? Need an intro to HTML and CSS? LLC offers both.

Last summer, the YWCA Hamilton ran its own 10-week course in information technology.

Maisie Raymond-Brown, director of employment and training services at the Y, says the class was geared toward women with a degree of IT familiarity.

Some of those accepted into the program were single parents looking for better jobs. (The median wage for a web developer in Hamilton is $28.21 per hour.) Others were newcomers looking for Canadian experience and education, or women who just wanted to earn some extra money on the side.

Of the 23 women who participated in the 2014 class, Raymond-Brown says five are currently employed in the field. Another five are self-employed. Three more returned to school for further education.

One place to turn to for help with finding everything from school-to-work transition programs, to workplace tours, to mentorship opportunities is the Industry Education Council of Hamilton.

The non-profit facilitates a school-to-work transition program for youth interested in advanced manufacturing. It also connects mentors with aspiring workers, and develops partnerships between schools, business and industry.

IECH has been around since 1980, but project manager Susan Clarke says in the past 10 years, the focus has shifted to women in trades.

The organization was one of those behind the Women in Trades dinner in June. Clarke says it’s important to be open and honest about what it’s like for women working in trades. To discuss the ups (salary, the upcoming job openings, the joy of working with your hands) and downs (sexual harassment, having your skills second-guessed, feeling isolated as the only woman) so the fields don’t seem like the unknown.

Clarke says the industry isn’t quite where it should be, but things are changing.

In 2011 Women in Nuclear Canada and Skills Canada — Ontario published a report that found less than 3 per cent of all apprentices in construction, automotive and industry trades are women.

This even though Clarke says now is a great time to get into the trades. The current workforce is aging quickly.

With school starting in September, there are a handful of women who pursued careers in “non-traditional” fields. From electrical to automotive work, from IT to horticulture, where there’s a perception the physical labour too great for women, they’re changing the definition of “traditional” work