Conestoga news

May 24, 2024 10:12 AM

Photo-research exhibit in collaboration with Wilfrid Laurier highlights women in the trades

A unique collaboration between Conestoga and the Laurier Centre for Women in Science (WinS) created the first photo-research exhibit of its kind spotlighting women in the skilled trades.

Building Equitable Trades.jpg
A unique collaboration between Conestoga and the Laurier Centre for Women in Science (WinS) created the first photo-research exhibit of its kind spotlighting women in the skilled trades.

Titled Building Equitable Trades, the exhibit exploring identity, representation, and inclusion in the skilled trades was unveiled at an event at the Conestoga Skilled Trades Campus in Cambridge on May 16.

Portraits of women working in the skilled trades were incorporated into individual displays to match their trade that were specially built by Conestoga employees, and accompanied by an explanation weaving together personal experiences with research findings from WinS.

Less than five per cent of those in the licensed skilled trades are women, even though women make up nearly half the workforce.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing one day if we could just remove the gender from the job and we could push past all those unconscious biases and just hire the best human to do the job,” asked Brandi Ferenc, Conestoga graduate and Alumni of Distinction recipient.

One of the women featured in the exhibit, Ferenc told the audience she’s encountered many obstacles in her 20-year career as a licensed refrigeration mechanic/gas fitter. Ferenc kept waiting to be fully accepted in the industry, but that never seemed to happen, no matter all her training and qualifications.

“I thought I lived in this equitable world, so it was a harsh reality for me to discover that I didn’t.”

The exhibit shines a light on the challenges women face to entering and prospering in the skilled trades. However, with the looming worker shortage, Ferenc thinks now is finally the time for change and the photo-research project will help create awareness.

“This is our moment to evolve the culture of the skilled trades, and we can all play a part in that.” While it’s problematic to see gender imbalance in any field, 700,000 skilled tradespeople will retire by 2028, said Eden Hennessey, research and programs director at WinS.

“The full participation of all people in the trades is a matter of extreme importance to our educational institutions, our government and our society,” Hennessey said. “Use your voice to disrupt harmful assumptions about gender and abilities.”

Conestoga has a long history of encouraging and supporting underrepresented groups, especially women, to enter the skilled trades, said Joni Jean, chair of the School of Trades & Apprenticeship.

Several hands-on events are hosted for young women, including Jill of All Trades, which the college launched and expanded to schools across Canada and the United States. Women enrolled at Conestoga benefit from networking and professional development opportunities, as well as many scholarships and bursaries available for female students with industry support.

Jean applauded the Conestoga employees who created the visual displays for the portraits.

“I can’t think of a better way to present these amazing photographs of these amazing women. It takes my breath away to look at these incredible displays. They really are works of art,” Jean said.

Carpentry Technologist Kelsie Brown was happy to help with the exhibit, collaborating with the Laurier researchers on the individual displays and working with Conestoga employees to bring them to life.

“I had such a great support team willing and able to help with creating such amazing displays and I couldn't have done it without them,” Brown said. “Highlighting women in the trades is something I have been very passionate about as, for a long time, I only knew of a couple other women that worked in other trades. I knew that the trades were missing out on a huge opportunity of willing, eager and very talented women. With this exhibit, I feel like it is opening more eyes to the potential the trades have for women and the great potential that women have for the trades.”

The exhibit featuring portraits by photographer Hilary Gauld was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Grand Valley Construction Association (GVCA).

Olympian and Conestoga Alumni of Distinction recipient Mandy Bujold, who is now manager of industry and community partnerships for the construction association, remembers clearly the day when she showed up for training and spotted another woman sparring in the ring. Bujold had felt alone as a woman in the world of boxing, and suddenly seeing this other female boxer was a revelation - a moment she hopes the exhibit will spark to inspire the next generation to consider the skilled trades.

“This photo-research exhibit is a great way for us to continue the conversation around creating equitable trades and showcasing the incredible women who are living and breathing it every single day,” Bujold said.

Mike Morrice, MP for Kitchener Centre, hopes the exhibit showing the changing faces of the skilled trades will inspire people to see how things can be different by combatting the “deep discrimination” that has long limited participation.

“We need to do so much better at making sure that people of all backgrounds feel included and a sense of belonging in the skilled trades,” Morrice said.

Conestoga’s School of Trades & Apprenticeship is the centre of apprenticeship and skills training in Canada's Technology Triangle. A comprehensive array of programs are offered in the construction, motive power, industrial and service sectors in response to the needs of industry, and growth in the local economy. Conestoga has established partnerships with many successful local, national and international companies, resulting in program enhancements and significant career opportunities for students.