Education & Training
Fighting to fit in: A teacher paves the way for women in skilled trades
By Mary Del
Marla Robinson has struggled to be a woman in a man’s world for most of her life. Robinson, who now teaches in the mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology programs at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont., says this struggle dates back to the early 1970s, when she was in Grade 6.
The public school curriculum in Hamilton in the early ’70s was such that girls took home economics in Grades 6, 7 and 8, while boys took industrial arts. As the only child of a single, working mother, Robinson already knew how to sew and cook, and found little value in the home economics course. Instead, she wanted to join the industrial arts program and work with tools to make things. Her mother contacted the school, only to be told that this was “not an option.”
A strong believer that you should fight for what you want, regardless of the hurdles, Robinson’s mother contacted the school trustee, June Deans, who challenged the board’s policy. An article in the local newspaper prompted others to question why girls were not allowed to take industrial arts, and boys home economics. All of the attention resulted in the board giving in. By the time Robinson was in Grade 7, she was allowed to join the shop class. That year, two girls joined the industrial arts program, while three boys took home economics.
“And from that point forward, until those programs were removed due to budget cuts, they were no longer gender biased,” she explains proudly.
Her mother always taught her to reach for the stars, and to pursue anything that she wanted. But it wasn’t until years later, when her car’s brakes needed to be replaced and she couldn’t afford the $300 to have them installed, that Robinson fully realized her passion.
“I got a Haynes repair manual for $12 and the parts for $60, and proceeded to replace the front and back brakes on the car in the middle of winter in a parking lot. I was fascinated to see that two little plates of metal stopped that car, and [I] started to understand hydraulic principles.”
Robinson then enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Technician – Fluid Power Automation program at Mohawk College. It was a two-year training program, and she graduated with honours – one of two women who graduated from the course in 1987.
“Even though I graduated with honours, I was one of the last ones hired as companies had no interest in a female,” she explains. “One company I interviewed with even told me that, although I was qualified, they did not have washroom facilities for a female on site.”
Robinson was eventually hired at a job that she stayed in for the next 10 years before becoming a teacher.
Today, she is heavily involved in programs at Mohawk College that encourage young people, particularly women, to join the skilled trades.
She’s working to make the transition to technical careers easier for women today, because it hasn’t been an easy road for her.
“I have battled being [a] woman in a man’s world for much of my career. Comments such as, ‘Let me speak to the man who knows what he’s talking about,’ were common when I moved into a technical design role,” she recalls.
How did she win them over? “I had to be good at what I did,” she says. “It sounds cliche, but I worked long and hard to make sure I could answer almost any question. Knowledge ultimately worked in being taken seriously, not only on the job but in the classroom as well.”
Even today, Robinson says that gender is still very much an issue in this industry.
“I still chuckle at the start of each semester when I walk into a first-year class during orientation and am often regarded as the departmental secretary. But it doesn’t take long to win over the respect and admiration of my students, and I like to think they all carry forth respect for females in the industry.”
In fact, Robinson says that gender biases are getting better. “I can tell they’re getting better by the students, my female students, who are going out and getting job offers with the top 10 students in the class. A few years ago, they were usually the last hired in the field.”
She says that she has also noticed an increase in the enrolment of women in Mohawk’s technology programs thanks to the efforts of the staff at the college who have implemented programs aimed at attracting students to careers in technology.
Robinson now spends a lot of time educating students in Grade 8 and in high schools that technology and trades are a great career option for everyone, especially for women.
“The whole face of manufacturing has changed,” she says. “You have to have superior problem-solving skills, analytical skills [and] communication skills.
“I often speak to groups of students, encouraging [them] to pursue a career that will provide them with a salary so they are capable of raising a family on their own should the need ever arise,” says Robinson. “When we do these tech fairs and these girls go out and try and drive screws into drywall or they’re doing these technical challenges, and you actually see them realize something about themselves that they didn’t know, that’s a really neat feeling.”
More young women are making trades and technology a career choice, she says. And just maybe Robinson can take a bit of credit for her part in that, starting with paving the way for young girls back in the 1970s.
What does Robinson’s mother, the woman who is responsible for her persistence in pursuing such a career, think of her profession?
“She’s thrilled,” says Robinson. “She’s absolutely thrilled.”