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March 07, 2016

Blazing a Trail for Women in Trades

We met Sandra about 2 years ago. In honour of International Women's Day, she and a small group of women - mostly electricians - lent their time, skills and expertise to give Surrey Women's Centre a much needed facelift. 

Which only seems fitting. 

Few know that International Women's Day has roots in the labour movement at the turn of the 20th century. 

As a high-voltage electrician, Sandra occupies a world most women do not - the construction industry is a male dominated field in which less than 2% are women. In spite of the shortage of skilled tradespeople - and the offer of good pay and benefits - women do not often choose a career in the trades. 

"15 years after entering the trade I'm often still the only woman on site. The construction industry is the last one to get with the times." 

At the age of 37, Sandra went back to school and trained as an electrician because working in the styrofoam factory was taking a toll on her health. 

Today, she is a foreman. 

And a Red Seal electrician - the Red Seal represents a standard of excellence in the industry. 

15 years after entering the electrical trade, Sandra has some pretty impressive accomplishments under her belt. 

"Since starting my apprenticeship, I've always worked for Western Pacific Enterprises." It is a family owned business and also one of the largest contracting firms in BC responsible for large scale projects, like the Vancouver Convention Centre and the Canada Line. The owners, Hal, Wayne, Dave and Ron provided opportunities at which she excelled. "From the beginning, if I wanted to do certain things, I would ask... until they provided. "I told them I wanted to build something and they gave me a choice between building a floor at the Convention Centre or an entire SkyTrain station." 

This led to one of Sandra's greatest achievements. 

"I built the Sea Island SkyTrain station!" Sea Island is the second to last station on the Canada Line serving Vancouver's International Airport - but it didn't always look like it does today. 

"When I first got there, blueprints under the arm, it was a pile of dirt... The first time walking on to site, I was scared, but excited - I knew it was a big deal! I worked with a small crew - usually just me and an apprentice. I was the supervisor. I oversaw the planning and scheduilng, layout and installation of electrical components and equipment: lighting, security, fire alarm, motors for the elevators. I was coordinating with all the other building trades, too: mechanical, structural engineers, carpenters. There were so many moving parts... The greatest feeling is when you're finished - and it works - lights, heat, elevators, fire alarms, security systems - The Sea Island SkyTrain station is my biggest accomplishment. I'm so proud of it." 

Listening to Sandra recount her own achievements might suggest that her path from being an apprentice to a foreman was an easy one. But that is far from the truth. 

"I knew I was in a man's world but I also knew that I could do the job and wanted to prove it." 

Like so many women in the construction industry, Sandra had to jump through extra hoops to get to where she is today simply because she is a woman. 

She recalls, "I drove on site in a company pick-up truck and went to introduce myself to the project manager. I went to shake his hand and he asked me, "Where is the foreman?" I told him he was looking at her, but he didn't believe me. He gave me a hard time. I eventually won him over... but why should I have to?"

Experiences like these only strengthened Sandra's resolve. But she knows that the obstacles she faced over the years still deter young women from entering the field today.

"Women make up 52% of the work force and we bring a lot to the table. We can do the work. It's a great career choice. It's good money, and the work is challenging. But the work environment is not always supportive. Women often feel excluded." 

A trailblazer, Sandra set out to improve the industry - not for herself, but for other women. 

She and a small group of equally determined women started the very first Women's Committee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 213. 

"For many years we tried to create a women's committee. At first we were included under the umbrella of the Electrical Worker Minority Caucus. We stayed under that umbrella, but wanted to branch out so that we could specifically deal with women's concerns and issues." 

After many years of trying, in January 2015 the women's committee was finally made official. 

Sandra explains some of the obstacles that are unique to women. 

"If a woman gets pregnant, she's concerned about being laid off of work. She worries she'll be flagged as being less reliable because her focus is on her child. Often daycare facilities don't open up early enough for construction hours. There's also the issue of providing women's washrooms and properly fitting safety gear." 

As co-chair of the Women's Committee, Sandra explains that "the committee encourages, supports, and mentors women in the industry. We want to show that women can do it." But in order for things to change, she says, "it's about creating a respectful workplace and having a system in place that guides the industry and trains and educates the crew leaders." 

In the true spirit of International Women's Day, Sandra uses her own success to advance the rights of other women in the trade. She also hopes to empower women in the community by supporting Surrey Women's Centre each month. 

Then she took it one step further. She went to her employers at Western Pacific with a big idea. 

"I knew there was great potential to raise a substantial amount of money for Surrey Women's Centre. They make it a tradition each year to pick a cause and do a company-wide fundraiser. I introduced Surrey Women's Centre to Ron and Hal as a potential recipient, and they said let's do it!

Together, Western Pacific and their employees raised over $13,000 for women and children fleeing violence. 



For more information on women in the trades, check out Build Together, for which Sandra is the provincial representative!