Saluting Women in the Electrical Industry

IBEW  Salutes Women in the Electrical Industry

March 7, 2017

Kathy Choquette, female electrician ontario

Kathy Choquette, IBEW member and construction and maintenance electrician. OCOT photo.

As International Women’s Day is coming up on March 8, there’s no better time to look at how our sister electricians are doing in the industry today.

While we know there are women electricians out there, there seems to be a huge lack of information about them. It was very difficult to find general statistics that would help us form a picture of the state of women in the electrical industry in Ontario in 2017.

For example, who was the first woman to become a licensed electrician in Ontario? What about the first woman to become an IBEW member in our province? What percentage of IBEW members are women? No one seems to know.

To try and get a better picture, we asked several of the sisters if they could talk to us about life in the electrical trade, and with the IBEW.

We talked to:

  • Catherine Gorman from Local 586 in Ottawa. She is about to get her 20 year service pin in November, and has done all kinds of electrical work, mostly large industrial projects. She has her Master Electrician license, has worked as an inspector for the ESA.
  • Karen Pullen from Local 353 in Toronto. She joined the IBEW in 1989 and started her electrical apprenticeship. While Karen now works as a Business Representative at Local 353, she has over 24 years on the tools in construction and maintenance.
  • Martine Sevigny Lamont from Local 353 in Toronto, and originally 115 in Kingston. She joined IBEW the same year she became an apprentice: 1994. She’s worked on hospitals, colleges, and the 8.5 acre GoTrain East Rail Maintenance Facility. She has also been an apprentice skills competition judge for the past 6 years.
  • Anne Schmitz from Local 586 in Ottawa. Now retired, she started her apprenticeship in 1983 and joined the IBEW in 1985. She was a single mom and was able to earn a living and raise her son while doing her apprenticeship. She has worked in several different provinces and even a few different states in the US.

Women Have What it Takes

women electricians ontario

Left to right: Martine Sevigny Lamont, Leona Whalen, Kirsten Meyer and Joanne Ward.

Karen Pullen says that women are often very mechanically inclined by nature, but society still discourages them from taking up the trades, including the electrical trades. “It’s just this rhetoric we’ve been filled with about how gender affects what you’re good at. It starts when we’re babies, and people around us steer the girls towards the dollies and the boys towards the trucks. Why not let everyone play with both if the want to?”

Karen also feels that the education system needs to do more to encourage both genders to get into the trades. “We only need so many doctors and lawyers,” she says. “There are people out there with university degrees working at Ikea. The idea that construction is not presented as an option by guidance counsellors is bizarre to me. We need to change the idea that construction is for idiots – you need to be smart to do this.”

“Women make great electricians,” Catherine Gorman says. “You need attention to detail, and a meticulous nature, and most women already have that. You also need to be strong in math, and enjoy working as a team. There’s nothing in this trade that women can’t do, either physically or mentally.”

Karen agrees, and adds, “You have to have tenacity, and be willing to speak up for yourself. You also need good communication skills, and be willing to put in a hard day’s work and get your hands dirty. Being easy going really helps too, because things change on the fly and if you’re too rigid you’ll just get frustrated.”

Martine Sevigny Lamont cautions, “You do have to be strong, physically and mentally. It’s thinking, planning, and doing. I carry my own ladder, tools, and materials. I’ve never used the ‘I’m a woman’ card. In the end it’s up to you – if you think you can do it, you can do it.”

Anne Schmitz was originally concerned that she didn’t have the math skills to be an electrician. What made the difference for her was going back to her studies at a later age, and studying the real world math used in the electrical trade. “I found that when it wasn’t so abstract, I was really good at it, and even found it beautiful.”

Anne notes there are other qualities she had that made her a good electrician. “I spent a few years living in the back woods with no electricity, so I was able to handle the physical side of the trade very well. You need to be able to visualize the circuits, and be a good problem solver. Also, if you’re doing electrical work on homes, as I did when I first started out, it helps to be very creative in your use of fish tape!”

The Boy’s Club…and Beyond

woman electrician Martine Sevigny Lamont

Martine Sevigny Lamont enjoying the worksite.

Most of our women electricians commented that while there has been significant improvement, when they were just getting into the trade the big hurdle wasn’t the electrical work, it was the attitudes of some of the men.

“When I was an apprentice it was no myth that women had to work twice as hard to earn respect – and sometimes still do. All of my sisters in the union say the same thing,” says Catherine.

She continues, “I would get comments like, “Are you here because you’re looking for a husband?” and “What’s that little piece of fluff doing here?” It was intimidating, but the more I persevered, the more confidence I got. The more confidence I had, the better I was at handling those hurtful comments, whether they were intended that way or not. I was stubborn – the more they wanted to see me fail, the more determined I was to succeed.”

Karen has had similar experiences. “I’ve been on sites where I was the foreman, but people would only talk to my male apprentice. There was even one site where one foreign consultant refused to work with me because I was female. The project lead found out that was the reason. He later told me that he’d had to say, ‘If you don’t work with her and treat her with the respect she deserves, you can leave.’”

Martine didn’t have that kind of struggle. “I’ve never had any problem with the men. Maybe at the start, but once they saw that I’m a hard worker and that I don’t take s**t from anybody, it’s fine. It’s the same thing for a guy.”

While Anne found that she had some negative experiences like Karen and Catherine did, her sense of humour was often the solution. “They used to post girly pictures to try and offend me. Instead of complaining, I would draw a hard hat and work boots on the photos! It made them relax when I didn’t react the way they expected. The secret is to not let it get to you – if they see it won’t work they stop trying it.”

“In the later years,” Anne continues, “things changed a lot. I even had men coming up to me saying they were glad I was there because it would make everyone behave better.”

Are people today still surprised to meet a woman electrician on the job site? Catherine says, “Yes, but these days they’re more happy to see me, rather than just shocked. Most men these days grew up with a working mother and have wives who work. These men treat me as an equal, not just because I’ve earned it, but because they want the same opportunities for their daughters as for their sons.”

IBEW Membership Helped

Woman electrician Catherine Gorman

Catherine Gorman stands outside Local 586 headquarters in Ottawa.

Catherine says, “I have to say that being in the union has been a huge help to me. A lot of my success comes from the knowledge and training, and also they never let the bullying get too out of hand.”

“The great thing about the union,” agrees Karen, “is the vast education department with lots of courses to help you keep up to date.”

Anne felt things improved once she was accepted into the IBEW. “When I joined the union and started working on big projects, I found that my brothers would step in to defend me if some other trades were giving me a hard time. It really is like joining a family. Our Business Manager also introduced all the women to each other, so we could get together and support each other. And of course they didn’t hold back on any of the education programs.”

“You can take any classes you want,” enthuses Martine. “And if you pass, they pay. It’s up to you if you want to learn – some apprentices don’t. I love all the classes I took. The bigger the challenge you give me, the more I like it.”

“It’s still a men’s club,” Catherine continues, “But the mentality is changing. For example, we have less than 1% women in our local, but we’re trying to change that. Many locals don’t have a women’s committee in their bylaws, and next week we vote to make our “Standing Committee on Women’s Affairs” a formal part of ours. Then we’ll be able to ensure that women apprentices get the mentoring they need so we achieve the best possible retention level. Hopefully that sets a precedent across the province and across the country.”

In local 353, Karen notes that with 130 women out of over 11,000 members, that’s just 1.18% women. “I’d love to see more women in the trade. One thing that would help (besides more clean bathrooms) is to get some specific language in the contract about maternity leave. Because electricians are considered transient workers, the usual regulations don’t apply. At most sites, we’re laid off as soon as they find out we’re pregnant, due to ‘shortage of work’. But Pat Dillon is trying to get that changed.”

Advice for Aspiring Electricians

woman electrical apprentice Ashley Smith

Pictured in the middle is apprentice Ashley Smith of Local 115.

What advice do our female electricians have?

“Do it if you think you can do it,” says Martine. “The money is really good, and the pension is good. I worked in BC for a while, and there were tons of women trades.”

“Take lots of math and science,” says Karen, “and you can always start by taking on projects at home. Learn how to fix things – there are lots of resources on YouTube and elsewhere online that can show you how. You’ll find you’re able to keep a lot more money in your pocket, which is especially important if you’re a single mom. It’s very empowering when no one has to save you.”

If you’re a woman who’s ready to become an apprentice, Catherine advises, “Walk into the IBEW union hall in your area and find a female mentor to help you get through the process. I try to be the mentor I wish I had when I was an apprentice. That’s how I try and give back to the trade that has given me so much.”

Karen also mentioned the importance of mentoring during apprenticeship. “If you don’t get the mentoring, then you don’t always know about the full range of skills, and then you have trouble getting work. I’ve been fortunate, thanks to my personality, but some women need a little more help with that.”

“It’s a Great Career”

These women may come from different backgrounds, but they all share a passion for electrical work.

“I love seeing the lights come on once I’ve done my work,” says Anne. “It’s a good trade, and it’s good to know a trade. Our world is changing so fast, but so far we still need electricians. It’s a good way to earn a living and keep a family going.”

“I love my job!” says Martine. “My foreman knows I’m good, so he gives me the work.”

Catherine says, “I love this trade, and I definitely encourage people of any age and any gender to try out, if they have the math, the aptitude and the personal interest. In 586, our oldest apprentice is 52 years old.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Karen. “It’s been a battle, but anything worth doing isn’t easy.”