18 July 2011

Where are my friends

Social Isolation

Now and again we run into an old friend and wonder why we ever lost touch. Sherry and I were so close when we were in our early twenties but for some reason, we drifted apart. Before running into her, I hadn’t given it much thought. But it all came flooding back to me – the social isolation that comes with having the courage to be different.

Separating From the Pack

Choosing to join the army and become a mechanic when I got out of high school was a great decision for a lot of reasons not the least of which was it gave me a steady income. There was a price to be paid for this decision to be different – one of the areas where we suffered some growing pains was in the relationship area. Not many of the women that I knew were doing anything that was not traditional. I had stepped outside the norm, I stepped way out. My choice to become a mechanic and the choice to join the military served to “separate me from the pack” so to speak and it was painful. The pain dulled but it was a tough go in the beginning.

Where Do I Belong?

Those early days were an emotional roller coaster on every front. We expected challenges in the workplace but we were not prepared for what might happen in our personal lives. Getting along with “the boys” became easier in time as we developed strategies for dealing with one another. For the most part, we developed a working relationship that often blossomed into friendship and mutual respect. I became “one of the guys” and sometimes even that was to my detriment.

The differences between me and my female friends who had chosen more traditional routes became more obvious over time. For example when we would get together over a meal or a night out, they mostly monopolized the conversation – there were more of them and only one me. They chatted about events that were happening in their lives around children, relationships and decorating new homes. I was still single, had no children and my days were filled with car parts and exciting excursions into the bush. There was never a right time to jump in on the conversation. I was pretty certain that they did not share my excitement around the trick I had developed to get the fuel pump in the car. Tying a string around my wrench to ensure that it didn’t fall into the flywheel opening paled in comparison to the smell of fresh washed linen. I often left those gatherings feeling disoriented. What was wrong with me? I also felt a little invisible as there was no place to share my experiences.

I enjoyed it when we planned a social outing with the co-workers and their spouses. But I’m not certain that I fit in any better there. The men were discouraged from chatting too much with me when the women were around and so that meant I had to sit with the ladies. Most of my stories were the ones that I shared with their spouses – they were already suspicious about that relationship and I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire by sharing a moment that I had shared with one of “the boys”. Talking about how we had covered one another’s ass at work would not have gone over well.
The guys avoided me at these times too – not only because their wives gave them the evil eye but also because I wore a skirt and heels on occasion – it didn’t go well with the oil that never seemed to come out from under my nails but I liked the feminine side of myself. They looked at me like I was strange whenever I wasn’t in coveralls. Where the heck did I fit?


One night I went out on a date with 3 other couples – we were travelling home from the bar in two cars when our car broke down. My date was driving and he pulled up to the other car to get a boost. They were having some discussion about where to hook up the cables. I told my friend Sharon to move over into the driver’s seat as I went to show them what to do. I kicked off my shoes, grabbed the cables and hooked them up. I gave the universal signal to turn the engine over and when the car started I reached under the air filter and cranked the valve that operated the accelerator on the carb. When I turned around there were 7 eyes looking at me as I slammed the hood shut. It was kind of quiet as we drove home – a chilly climate has descended on us – I wasn’t that sexy as the lady that rescued her boyfriend. He never asked me out again…..Oopsie.

Looking back, the pain went away, but those times were tough and I felt all alone with no one to share in a very important part of me. We had no role models to tell us what to expect and to share in their own journey. We needed people who shared in our experiences and we needed to embrace our uniqueness – I hope that ladies today have it easier.

11 July 2011

Challenging Socialization

Socialization - according to dictionary.com is

a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position.

I want to look a little closer at this definition in the context of women in trades. Let's start with the term "continuing process" - this could be an upbringing for example or the training that a soldier goes through to learn what is expected of them. Norms are the things that people normally do.

Let's look at this definition in terms of lived reality.....

My own upbringing (continuing process) in rural Newfoundland shaped who I was by the time I joined the army at age 17 to become a mechanic. By watching the adults around me, I learned that men worked outside the home, normally in construction and the women looked after the children, cleaned the house, did the homework, cared for the elderly and were never allowed to have the remote. OK, we didn't have a remote but you get the drift. That was my socialization process as a young child.

I experienced a new socialization process at age 17 when I joined the army to become a mechanic. In this new role (identity), I became a soldier and a non-traditional woman. Things were a whole lot different than they were back home. I don't think anyone ever said - she needs a new socialization but we were subjected to training that would see us adopt the identity of soldier.

I moved far away from home and stayed there for the next 10 years - it was a real eye opener for me to meet women whose upbringing had been totally different than mine. It was my first real notion that we were not all alike and our roles as women was different depending upon where we grew up and what your social status was. I met many women who were a lot more empowered than I was even though at the time I didn't have the language to understand what I was experiencing - that came later.

In the military, women fell into two camps - there were the people who came from the more rural areas who were known for their hard work and dedication. We rarely were outspoken or assertive. Then there were the women who were real outspoken - we referred to them as complainers and now that I'm an empowered woman - I respectfully correct that and call them great role models. They made a positive impact on me although at the time I didn't have the language to describe what I was experiencing.

Whenever there is a recruitment drive for non-traditional work or military service and unskilled labour, the target area is the poor. It makes sense to recruit from there because they need jobs and they're more than willing to put up with adverse work conditions. We see it replicated everywhere.

Labour shortage is a word that is heard often these days and that's a signal that more disadvantaged people will be mobilized into these positions. I have yet to see an equity program that includes women in a discussion about her socialization process. Those who design programs for women in trades often focus on nutrition, upper body strength and maybe exposure to the trades. But they fail to give women what they really need - a chance to reflect upon where they came from and where they are going.

I often tell people that if they were going to climb Mt. Everest, they would train and acclimtize for that environment - the same can be said for women entering the trades - there are norms here that we are not familiar with - learn what they are. Learn the norms that we've already bought into. Be courageous enough to challenge our own assumptions so that at the end of the day we can be tradeswomen and not just women in trades.

Back in my day we heard the men complain "Why do you get paid the same as I do but I have to tell you what to do?" This phrase speaks volumes about socialization. If a woman expects to get paid the same as a man gets paid, it's important that she be made aware of the expectation that she step up her game.

There's also another clear danger for women in trades brought on by lack of preparation - getting stuck in work that is traditionally women's work in the home. In the mechanic trade, that might mean doing service work - oil changes and preventive maintenance as opposed to the more choice work of diagnostics and percission rebuild. It happens all the time. It is done in a sneaky fashion also to make it look like they are doing you a favour by giving you the lighter work. Awareness goes a long way.

The remedy lies in new training - learning new ways of doing things.

Socialization is not a one time process - you can reinvent yourself at any point - it's a "continuing process" meaning that it is never completed - keep that in mind as you begin your new journey.

5 July 2011

Women's Worlds

You know that little voice in your head that pops up at the oddest times and decides to have a bit of a conversation with you. Well, mine dropped by today - while I was sitting on a panel at the Women's Worlds 2011 Conference listening to a fellow panelist. Out of the blue, this little voice said...

"Pssst, hey Debs....how the heck did we end up here?" Yes, the cheeky little chatterbox has the audacity to call me Debs. But we're kind of close so I allow it.

HOW DID I GET HERE????? Yikes!!!

I am part of a panel of three women.

Dr. Hei-Hui You from a university in Taiwan.
Gendered Learning in Departments of Physical Education

Dr. Maria Teresa M Rubio from Guam,
Five Women Leaders and Their Perceptions of Empowerment

The power of the narrative - I outlined my own journey in education as first an apprentice and then through university to finally land in a place where I am helping other women succeed in the non-traditional sector. I spoke about what I know - overcoming obstacles to get where we really want to be and I did it the only way I know how - with heart and Newfoundland humour. I have no desire to be all polished and proper as a speaker - I like to engage people to challenge their own assumptions and to get out of their own way to achieve what they want. In my experience, this type of work requires that you take off the gloves - the kid gloves I mean.

Work in the trades is very rewarding and in case you haven't heard, you can make a decent chunk of change there, but let's face it - we're not exactly always welcome. The gentle approach doesn't work all the time. Sometimes we have to spice it up. When I was at law school, I learned the term "The iron hand in the velvet glove" - I like this phrase a lot..that's what women are good at - delivering a powerful message with the gentleness of velvet - ok, so maybe you're not great at it yet, but you can be...right???? right??? Oh, ya...............

It was a great day - lots of knowledge, lots of fellowship and appreciation for one another's work. What a wonderful opportunity we have here - I'm honoured...yes, I am.

It's a moment in time that I'll cherish forever.