Electrician Joann Greeley says the Office to Advance Women Apprentices has helped her find work in a traditionally male-dominated industry that can be resistant to female electricians. — Submitted photo
When Joann Greeley moved back to Newfoundland from Ontario six years ago, she traded in her insurance-office career for the electrical trade. But the fourth-year electrician says she often had difficulty finding work — sometimes because of her gender.
“Private companies in Newfoundland still don’t consider female tradespeople to be employable,” she said, careful to qualify that by pointing out that it’s not all companies that do so, just some, and that the situation is improving. But she still needed help, so she turned to the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, established in January 2009 by the provincial government’s Department of Education — which turned out to be a good move for her.
“My last two jobs were pretty much through the office,” said Greeley, who is currently doing residential electrical work for Ted Chaulk’s Electric in Long Pond. “I was out of work and (the office) offered support and to help with resumés, companies to call. If I contacted a company and they sounded optimistic, I could also call the office and they would contact the employer as well.”
Karen Walsh, executive director of the program, said the office was created after government funding started being spent promoting the trades to girls in junior high and high schools. But there was no support once a woman tried to enter the workforce, where she found she would futilely knock on doors.
“I think it was good foresight of the provincial government Department of Education to bring in our office. What we basically do is work with female apprentices to try and connect them with employers.”
To do that, the office created a database of women apprentices in the province for mostly male-dominated trades, such as welding, plumbing, carpentry and electrical. The office also works with the women on their resumés, which are stored in the database as well.
Walsh said it’s difficult anyway for tradespeople to find work out of school — much more so for women — and while some companies might not yet be seriously considering female candidates for their trades jobs, more and more companies are actively trying to diversify their workforces.
“A lot of the bigger oil companies have brought in their own diversity co-ordinators to ensure that there is an equilibrium,” she said. “And a lot of the smaller companies are starting to follow through from that. Do we still get a scatter of, ‘Well, we tried a woman before. A woman is not going to work here for me because I have a male-dominated workforce and I don’t want the controversy?’ Yes. But it’s getting rarer and rarer.”
The office also offers gender-awareness training for companies looking to diversify, as well as support groups for tradeswomen who — like Greeley — have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
“Once they go to the job we have constant contact with them, so if they’re there and they’re feeling they’re not being treated right or they’re being harassed, or if they feel there’s safety issues, they can always contact us,” said Walsh. “We also do the same for the employers. If the employer feels there’s some employee issues there, or if the woman is uncomfortable in the position or is late coming to work or anything like (that), we have the constant contact with the employer as well. So it’s not just finding them a place to work and then they move on; we work with them constantly while they do their apprenticeship.”
But while the support group is necessary, Walsh said the women who get placed through the office are already made of tough stuff — simply by having made the decision to venture into traditionally male-dominated trades.
“A lot of these women that choose to go into these trades have the confidence already that they can do it,” she said. “There’s people cut out for everything, and there’s not somebody who’s very, very timid who’s going to say, ‘I can tackle this, I can be a carpenter. I can work out in the cold. I can do this with the best of the guys.’ So going in, there has to be some sense of confidence.”
That support is what has served Greeley well when her own confidence faltered when she was having trouble getting work. “They’ve said, ‘Look, you’re close to getting all your hours. Just stay with it, stick with it.’ So they’ve been excellent that way,” she said, adding she’s now working for an excellent company. She said she’s not surprised to see Newfoundland making strides towards gender balance in the workforce; the surprise for her was to find out how far behind the province is behind Ontario.
“Newfoundland, historically, the men went away on ships, the women did everything,” she said. “I would think they would be more advanced, not less.”
Catching up is what Walsh’s office is trying to do, and so far, the program has exceeded its goals, she said.
“Our first year in office in 2009, the mandate was to try and connect 20 apprentices with employers. Our office actually connected 35 apprentices with employers,” she said. “We just finished the end of our second year, and we’ve actually been successful in getting 92 jobs for female apprentices.”