Being a woman in the skilled trades can be a rewarding experience chock-full of great opportunities. However, it also comes with some challenges.
Just ask Mohawk College alumnus and professor of Industrial and Motive Power, Marla Robinson.
Robinson’s path to the skilled trades was a long one, but one that seemed destined for her. As a child, Robinson and her mother took on the Hamilton public school board over the requirement that she take home economics while the boys took industrial arts. In the end, Robinson came out victorious, with shop and home economics becoming co-ed offerings within the year.
As an adult, Robinson continued to challenge the norm when she decided to attend Mohawk College’s Mechanical Engineering Technician – Fluid Power Automation program in 1987.
“I was one of two girls in a class of 40 men,” Robinson remembered. “I graduated at the top of my class, but I was the last one hired.”
Numbers like that are far from unusual in the trades, but some people are working to change that. Rebecca Isowa is the continuing education program manager at Mohawk College and oversees many of the school’s trades programs. Isowa says there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the number of women pursuing a career in trades.
“The percentage of women in trades is between three and five per cent,” Isowa said. “So, there’s a lot of work to be done.” Some of that work involves changing the attitudes of the people doing the hiring.
Robinson said some employers were simply not ready to hire women tradesman. She recalled one interview for a technician job at a large aerospace company in Oakville coming to an abrupt end when they said there was no washroom for her.
‘You don’t give up, you can’t give up.”
– Marla Robinson
Robinson said it took a lot of determination, connections in the industry and the kindness of others for her to get her first job.
“You don’t give up, you can’t give up,” Robinson said. “The funny thing is, when you’re capable, 99 per cent of your barriers vanish.”
Mohawk College is currently conducting research in an effort to uncover reasons why there are so few women in trades. Isowa said the project will look at a wide range of factors that might be at the root of the issue.
“There have been a number of research projects done on women in trades that look at why is the situation the way it is,” Isowa said. “Are there barriers? Is there a lack of mentorship? Or is it a lack of marketing?”
According to Robinson, it’s a combination of all three. Robinson said she believes the most effective way to address the issue is by educating young girls about the opportunities available in the trades.
Once she got her foot in the door, Robinson’s career took off in no time. Before long, she was offered her first teaching job with Mohawk College in 1996 where she taught a seven-week pneumatics course. In 1999, Robinson was officially brought on as a professor of Industrial and Motive Power.
Robinson says things have gotten better for women in trades, but there are still opportunities for improvement.
“We need to be vigilant in our outreach,” Robinson said. “We need to support high schools in terms of career nights and make sure high schools are consistently informed of the opportunities available through trades and technology.”
Robinson said there are countless opportunities for women in trades and technology, all they have to do is go for it.
“You’re set for life. You have a marketable skill that opens up a whole new world for you,” she said. “There are very good opportunities for women across the board, the biggest challenge now is getting them to come to the table.”