04/27/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Women in trades: Veterans say changes needed to boost numbers

The B.C. government is encouraging young women to pursue blue collar careers, but has met with mixed success. The founders of Vancouver Women in Trades recently gathered to discuss the challenges they faced breaking into the trades over the past three decades, as well as some of the things that have changed and what still needs work.

"I got into construction when I was living on a small [west coast] island," says Kate Braid. "And one night at a party I was talking about having to leave, because I couldn’t get a job."

It was 1977 and she was in her twenties, daughter of a middle class family from Montreal. "One of the guys said why didn't I go down and apply for a job as a carpenter building the new school."

She looked round the little circle of men, and said: "But I can’t build anything, for starters. And one of the guys said 'Lie.' And they all nodded as if this was normal … and later I found out that among construction guys it is!"

Kate Braid got hired on at the school. The foreman told her later the guys had been slowing down on the job, "so he figured that even though I’d probably be useless – which I was - they’d speed up just to show off…. But within a week it turned out I was in love with construction."

She loved building forms and pouring cement, loved working 17 floors up, and ultimately loved perfecting her craft. She worked on the tools for 15 years, became a red seal carpenter and started teaching her trade to others.

Braid also took her day's work home with her and wrote it all down every night, two or three single-spaced pages about the frustrations and the triumphs. Her journal became the raw material for 10 books of poetry, memoir and prose, and was the way she coped with the solitary life of a woman in the trades.

There weren’t many other women who had forged a path in the trades at the time.

In the '70s when Braid researched the numbers on B.C. trade workers, only 3 per cent of the plumbers, carpenters, welders and other blue collar workers  were women.

Some of them found each other and formed Vancouver Women in Trades – a combination of advocacy and support group that existed from 1979 until 1987.  

When they reunited recently, some of them hadn’t seen each other in decades. Besides Braid, there was Marilyn Lanz, a high-pressure welder and the first woman at the Halifax shipyards; Heather Tomsic , Canada’s first woman boilermaker; Janet Lane, an avionics mechanic;  Judy Doll, a carpenter and teacher ; and plumber Tamara Pongrancz .

There was some laughing over old photographs, but there was nothing sentimental as they reflected on what Vancouver Women in Trades had meant to them 35 years ago.

"Going to work every day and being the only woman was like going to a foreign country," says Lane. She was the first mechanic hired at Vancouver Sky Train and wrote the manual on how to fix the trains.  "Without Women in Trades I wouldn’t have made it."

"The consensus on what we were doing and where we were going to go was really significant in terms of feeling like you were of one mind," adds Doll, the carpenter and senior member of the group.

"There weren’t many women in the same trade," says Tomsic. "The really amazing part was that we all shared the same joy of the work."  

Welder Marilyn Lanz is still on the tools, still carrying her rod-oven to jobs in northern B.C.

"What it meant for me was to come in from the isolation," she says. "It put some humour in this. If you didn’t have that group to show you how to laugh, you would lose your sanity."

"The bathrooms," says Braid. "The foreman told me when I came on, 'You know we don’t have bathrooms here.'" That’s OK, she answered, she'd just go in the bushes like the guys. "He had a bathroom there within two hours."

"People want to talk about the harassment," adds Braid, "what one friend called ‘the haters.’ I didn’t run into a lot of those guys."

She says it was more the passive criticism: "Who are you what are you doing here … As one guy said to me, nothing personal it’s just that you’re a woman."

Today there are more women taking trades courses. But when asked whether things are better now Marilyn Lanz simply said, "it’s different."

Braid pointed out that the young men in the trades today are not as uncomfortable with women on-site as they were in her day. "I can’t help but think that must be having some impact."

Pongrancz , the plumber, says schools have been trying to encourage a shift in the demographics, offering women-in-trades programs for years. She now teaches at British Columbia Institute of Technology.

The B.C. government has also mounted a renewed push to bring more young women into blue collar trades to meet the shortage of skilled workers. 

On International Women’s Day this year,  B.C. Labour Minister Shirley Bond  said the province was looking at more than a million job openings in trades and technical operations. "Connecting women with the skilled trades can help put them at the front of the line."

"But yet there’s not a really significant increase of woman in the trades is there?,"  says Doll.

She points to the years she spent teaching technical education to Grade 8 boys and girls. At a recent conference of tradeswomen in British Columbia, she says, "one of my students came up to me she said I was in your Grade 8 class."

The rest of the women smiled and said how wonderful that is. "Yes," Doll agrees, "but ONE, only ONE, and I must have taught 2,000."

Braid went back and checked the employment numbers again. In the past 40 years law schools and medical schools have seen the numbers of women go from 10 per cent to more than 50 per cent.

It is not the same in the trades.

"The authorities will tell you there are 10 per cent women in trades now," Braid says, "but when you take hairdressers and chefs out, it’s still 3 per cent. Something is stuck. We need a new approach."

[Listen to Karin Wells' full audio documentary, "Nothing Personal, It's Just that you're a Woman," on The Sunday Edition site or in the link at the top-left of this page.]