The best "man" for the job?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Windsor Star/Karen Paton-Evans

‘Significant amount of opportunity’ for women

Protected by thick gloves, welding helmet and coveralls, the welder focuses on making one more perfect seam before the shift ends.

The day’s production has been solid. Nodding in satisfaction, the welder removes her helmet and looks forward to quality time with her family.

Throughout Windsor-Essex County, in plants, laboratories, construction sites and tool and die shops, an increasing number of women are taking their rightful places in less traditional careers.

Currently, women hold less than six per cent of Canada’s skilled trades jobs and are vastly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Shelley Fellows feels a lack of role models has contributed to holding women back from entering more male-dominated fields. “Society’s preconceptions, the stereotype that a woman is not strong enough to do a millwright’s job, could hold them back from applying for a program” that would provide them with the necessary training, she says.

As co-owner and vice president of operations of Radix Inc. and a member of the board of directors with Workforce Windsor/Essex and the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, Fellows feels like cheering whenever women walk onto a job site with their toolboxes and knowhow.

She maintains that providing opportunities to women to see if STEM or skilled trades occupations are right for them is beneficial for workers and employers.

“Not everybody is meant to be an electrician – I would be a terrible electrician,” says Fellows.

But by giving girls and women opportunities – and encouragement – “to get their hands on tools and try it out, they will know if they have an aptitude for it and whether they want to pursue it as a career — taking the gender barriers out of it.”

Fellows is impressed by initiatives like the Women in Skilled Trades’ 42-week CNC Industrial Mechanic Millwright Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Program. It’s delivered by Women’s Enterprise Skills Training of Windsor (WEST) in partnership with St. Clair College and UNIFOR. The program prepares unemployed or under-employed women for jobs in the trade.

Some Women in Skilled Trades program participants interned at Fellows’ own company and were subsequently hired. Working in engineering, management and on the shop floor, “they’ve become valued parts of the workforce team,” Fellows says.

“As a female, that makes me feel wonderful. I love seeing people find the right jobs for them.”

A healthy representation of women in the workplace can positively impact the dynamic of the organization.

“Gender diversity is important in improving outcomes in situations or projects when you need to bring a balance in a range of skill sets, aptitudes, perspectives, experience and filters,” Fellows observes. “By applying different ways of solving problems, different ways of interpreting information, the expectation is you’re going to get more rapidly to a better outcome.”

Recognizing that the time for gender diversity was long due, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simply stated “because it’s 2015” when asked about the 50-50 balance of his new cabinet last November. Building on the strength of that message, a video was made by Windsorites Dan Brown, female electrician Terry Weymouth and Nour Hachem, a project manager for the pre-apprenticeship program at St. Clair College.

Entitled #BecauseIts2016 and launched last January, the video shows a plumber, roofer, firefighter, police officer, scientist and other workers doing their jobs. The conclusion reveals that all are women. A question pops up on the screen: “Do you see yourself in this video?”

The “passionate activists” created the video “hoping it would send a positive message not only across Canada but globally,” Hachem says.

The message got a boost from the prime minister when he sent the video’s YouTube link to his 1.3 million Twitter followers and informed them, “This is fantastic.”

As the video indicates, more women are stepping into trades and STEM careers. However, “I do think the numbers are low in spite of our efforts,” Fellows notes. “But I guess it’s like how you eat an elephant: It’s one bite at a time.”

That first bite can be a nibble.

Play is the work of the child, helping her learn and practise skills. The more competent the girl becomes, the more her development – and confidence – advance. Through imagination, she can try on different personas: Veterinarian, firefighter, teacher, scientist. The possibilities are limitless.

Helping elementary schoolgirls experiment with STEM skills through play, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board hosted its Summer Learning Program again this past July.

Presented with simple LEGO bricks, LEGO’s WeDo 2.0 robot kits and Dash Robots, the girls worked in pairs and teams to problem solve, build and program the machines. Then they used iPads to operate their robots.
The girls also learned how to use computer coding to build vocabularies and produce their own animated videos.

“I didn’t think I could do these things,” says eight-year-old Carmella Binyamin. “Now, if someone doesn’t know how to do something, I can help them.”

“Just give them the tools they need, present the problem and let them go. Don’t over-teach it,” says Dana Capaldi, a teacher at Assumption College Catholic Middle School. “It’s amazing how creative they are and how quickly they figure it out. We’re learning right alongside them.”

St. Gabriel’s kindergarten teacher Stephanie Hage observes of the young girls: “By working, playing and figuring out things, they feel a sense of accomplishment and success.”

She sees that by increasing the use and availability of robotics and technology in the primary grades, girls can become engaged in studying science, technology, engineering and math.

“We’re encouraged we can build on that and hope we can get more girls interested in STEM subjects,” Hage says.

Girls in grades 7 and 8 got a chance to try on the trades at a unique camp this year. The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board teamed up with St. Clair College and received support from WorkForce Windsor Essex and the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corp to host a one-week camp in July.

After gaining carpentry skills, the students built wooden boxes, then programmed CNC machines to decorate them. They also fired up welding torches.

“I never thought I could do any of this, but now I know I can. It’s given me more confidence about what I can do,” says Samantha Clements, a 13-year-old attending St. Christopher Elementary School. “Having this exposure to it, hearing the female mentors talk and changing their workplace for the better, I want to be part of something like that.”

One of the Build a Dream mentors was Jamie Campbell, a CNC machinist at A.V. Gauge. Learning about the trades and choosing them for her livelihood has made a difference in her life.

“It’s really important women understand you can make a future for yourself. There are so many opportunities now,” Campbell says.

Just a few years ago, girls simply didn’t show an interest in the robotics and trades camps. The camps are now so popular that all available spots are quickly filled.

At the high school level, when teenagers start seriously considering how they will support themselves as adults, STEM-related organizations are eager to be part of career days and tours. Highlighting the importance of positive role models, Fellows says of her own company, “We make sure that we’ve got women from the trades, women from engineering who are there to speak to the high school students.”

Parents and their daughters are encouraged to attend the Build a Dream Event, hosted by St. Clair College. Hachem, the event’s chairwoman, says a survey taken locally several years ago revealed “a significant amount of young women did not know about apprenticeships, did not know about the opportunities within the trades – and parents were the number one influence. That is where Build a Dream started.”

During the event, girls are able to talk with women in the trades and hear about their various career paths. The 4th Annual Build a Dream Event will occur sometime in November 2016.

“Exposure is key. You don’t know what you don’t know and you can’t become what you don’t see,” Hachem says.

“There are a lot more doors being opened and a lot more companies are being receptive to hiring women. And, too, it’s important to diversify the workplace,” Hachem says. “Secondly, there is significant demand out there.”

She emphasizes, “We want to educate young women that there is a significant amount of opportunity here in our very own community.”

Trailblazing women are instrumental in opening the door wider. Fellows observes that female role models, mentors and team members in the workplace can help other women, particularly younger and newly hired workers feel more comfortable on the job. A bit of encouragement from one woman to another goes a long way.

Fellows finds, “At the end of the day, if the women are confident and they enjoy what they are doing, they are going to be successful.”

Life and work lessons, advice

When a woman is enjoying success in her chosen career, onlookers may assume the path is easy or at least a straight trajectory. The reality is that hard work and hard lessons are constants on the journey. Mentors, cheerleaders and friends – along with doubters and detractors – appear along the way.

For Kay Douglas, founder and president of Douglas Marketing Group, valuable encouragement was first provided by her art teacher at a Windsor high school. “He gave me my creative license to see the world differently,” she recalls.

“I guess the trick is not to quit until the miracle happens, a day at a time,” Douglas says. “Biggest challenge: Staying in the moment and present to the people and issues in front of me while tuning my radar for intuition of what may be next.”

One thing she did not see coming was a happy surprise. At the Windsor-Essex Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards in 2014, Douglas received the ATHENA Leadership Award in recognition of her professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills.

“It was an honour that became life-changing for me with the support and encouragement I received from my friends, colleagues and children. We don’t set out to win awards but it is clear to me that this one was only possible through the support of my team at DMG, their amazing perspective and talent and for always getting behind me where it counts,” Douglas says.

“My goal from here is to pass on the torch to my up-and-coming leadership to become key supporters of the people they work with and our region.”