Why has the number of Alberta women in trades stagnated for a decade?

Jen Lesnik had little trouble getting into her trade as a heavy duty mechanic.

The little pushback she did receive was from her father.

“He was just like, ‘why do you want to be a heavy duty mechanic when you can be a plumber like me?’ ” Lesnik joked.

During more than 10 years as heavy duty mechanic, Lesnik said she has experienced a bit of resistance on the job, but nothing that made her want to turn back.

“I’ve never, ever encountered somebody who made me feel like I couldn’t do the job,” she told CBC’s Radio Active on Tuesday.

But Lesnik acknowledges her experience isn’t the same as other women in the trade.

“I’ve heard some horror stories,” she said, referring to the workplace culture in a predominantly male area.

Low enrolment

Even with programs and initiatives geared at directing more Alberta women into trades and technology, the number of women enrolled in trades in Edmonton has plateaued. 

Advocates say the path remains difficult, though some think things are improving.

At NAIT, female enrolment in the trades this fall is 268 out of 3,839 possible spots, which is just under seven per cent.

Stevie Fuhrer, the Women in Technology and Trades co-ordinator at NAIT, said that number has been the same for about a decade.

“It seems to be that we’re kind of stuck at seven per cent across the board,” Fuhrer said.

A lack of marketing trades towards young women is a factor in the number’s plateau, she said.

“Younger girls aren’t being exposed to those careers or aren’t being encouraged to look at them seriously.”

But even those who choose trades are sometimes discouraged by workplace culture.

“The reason they usually leave their trade is they’re tired of putting up with the culture on the job,” Fuhrer said. 

‘You don’t have to move mountains’

Taya Burke, the project director at Young Women in Trades and Technologies, said the program’s numbers are a bit more promising than what NAIT has. 

The program, in its final year of a three-year pilot project, is sponsored by a non-profit group called CAREERS: The Next Generation. 

Initiatives in Alberta are encouraging women to enroll in more non-traditional trades, like welding. (CBC)

The project helps young women in high school who are thinking about pursuing a trade in the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP). They establish the connections needed to continue apprenticeships in post-secondary and support women entering a male-dominated workforce.  

“We’re trying to get more women to choose non-traditional trades through the RAP program,” Burke told CBC’s Radio Active.

That means encouraging women to pursue trades that don’t involve cooking or hair styling.

Burke said 12 per cent of all the RAP interns they work with are young women going into non-traditional trades.

“Our numbers are a little bit higher than the Alberta rate [seven per cent] and significantly higher than the Canada rate, which is at four or five per cent,” Burke said.

The program also has female volunteers who mentor younger women to help remove some of the stigmas attached to the trades.

“It doesn’t have to be a big, burly biker dude as a heavy equipment technician,” she said. “A heavy equipment technician can be anybody.

‘The reason they usually leave their trade is they’re tired of putting up with the culture on the job.’ – Stevie Fuhrer, Women in Technology and Trades co-ordinator, NAIT

“You have to be physically fit, but you don’t have to move mountains.”

Lesnik said despite her relatively smooth experience as a woman in a trade, she still feels she has to establish herself as an equal. “I’m always proving myself. It doesn’t matter what role I’m in,” she said.

But she said those who do harp on the fact that she is a woman aren’t being productive. “Usually, the guys that are doing that are just bullies,” she said.

Confidence played a key role in the way she was treated, Lesnik said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the way you carry yourself and how you react to what people say to you,” she said.

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

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