Interview With Colleen Ryan, First Woman To Work At The Dockyard

Colleen is why I have my current job as a maintenance electrician. And not because I knew her, but because we were connected through the woman’s group at our union hall. When she saw her workplace was hiring, Colleen sent the job application to one of the women in the union’s women in trades group, who then sent the link out to everyone on the women’s list. The more that apply the better, they had both apparently agreed. I decided to apply at the last minute, and was texting Colleen asking for advice within hours of the deadline. I was having some self-doubt and was trying to make sure my resume was perfect. Colleen coached me. She told me if they say you have to have those qualifications, you better say you have those qualifications, or you won’t get an interview. This goes for all government jobs. Otherwise you get screened out right away.

I asked Colleen if I could interview her for my blog, because she’s had a successful career in the trades and just recently retired with a pension.

K: How would you introduce yourself Colleen?

C: Colleen Ryan, retired electrician, from DND. Not completely retired, I’d like to go work in Kitimat. I’ve been there before and it was fun, and good money.

K: That’s cool! Can you tell me when you decided to become an electrician?

C: I decided when I came to the realization that I could possibly be in the work force rather than a homemaker like my mother. I simply had assumed before this realization that I would do as my mother did.  Then I realized that might not happen. It was 1980. I had worked as a file clerk, a chart corrector and as a cashier at the Odeon Theatre, very low paying jobs, and not very interesting. I started thinking about getting a better paying job. A friend of mine was an electrical apprentice, and he told me what that was all about. You learn on the job, you get raises as you go along, and school room learning is only for a few months a year. 

Visiting my local EI office, I was informed (incorrectly) that I could not sign up for the pre apprenticeship course because I was a girl. I was told this by a woman! I was so taken aback and insisted that she add my name to the waitlist. This occasion was the pivotal point as I don’t think I would have pursued an apprenticeship if she had not told me that I couldn’t!  Frankly, I didn’t know which direction to turn a screw driver, until somebody told me to think of it like the lid of a peanut butter jar.

Even though I did well on the course, I still didn’t think I wanted to be an electrician. I thought a job at McLarens Lighting or at an electrical wholesaler would better suit my comfort level.  My fellow students and the tool crib attendant encouraged me to apply for apprenticeships. I applied at Yarrows, which is now Seaspan, and they were interviewing the top 5 students in the class. Even though I was in the top 5, I did not get an interview. So we all know what that was all about……Women need not apply!

One of my classmates suggested I apply at Dockyard. That’s where he was going to apply, because he felt it was the best apprenticeship. They pay your schooling, and they pay your salary while you’re going to school, and it is a very good well rounded marine wireman apprenticeship. I applied, interviewed and was offered an apprenticeship. I was the first woman apprentice at the dockyard along with another young woman machinist.

K: That’s interesting! Did you finish your apprenticeship at dockyard?

C: I did! From 1980 to 1984, I found it very comfortable working there. At first I was too timid walking across the gangway to get onto the ships, I was pretty pathetic, scared of heights and unaware of my level of strength. I was fortunate to be working under some very patient, kind and knowledgeable journeymen. Over time, I got over most of my fears and was soon working at the top of the mast. I learned to use leverage along with my strength.

There were a lot of apprentices there at the dockyard in the 1980s. We had an association, we socialized at work and away from work. I made friends and recall my four years apprenticing with happiness. The work was fun, challenging and interesting.

K: What was it like to be one of the only women in the dockyard?

C: I was very nervous my first day; so many men. They did make efforts to make me feel comfortable and welcomed but regardless, I was a bit scared. I didn’t know it at the time, but management was told you need to hire two women apprentices. It was myself and another woman in another trade. The employees at dockyard were predominantly white men.

Next door to Dockyard, Yarrows, a privately owned shipyard also consisted of a white male workforce. Times were changing and the Federal Government wanted to see a more diverse workforce in all industries. In order to be more successful in acquiring government contracts, Yarrows hired quite a few female labourers as a first step in diversifying their workforce. 

I suspect that the fact that the private shipyard was diversifying their workforce and the government shipyard was not was brought to the attention of administrators in Ottawa. I further suspect that I was offered my apprenticeship as a result.

K: So what did you do after 1984?

C: Every apprentice in the yard got laid off that year. We all got let go, which was unusual because they usually kept apprentices on, after all, we were trained specifically to work on the Canadian Navy Fleet. I got a job with the Ministry of Highways working as an electrical draftsman. Worked there for about two years thinking I would be able to transfer to the electrical shop. My supervisor told me that the shop manager was emphatic that he would not have a woman on the crew. I quit, disappointed and a bit angry.

I still had not worked as a journeyman, and thought, if I don’t get back into the trade and on the tools I’ll lose what little confidence I had as a new journeyman. I managed to get hired back on at Dockyard for a six month contract. Shortly afterwards I landed a job with Point Hope Shipyards. My new boss was not happy with my hiring; I was hired without his input while he was out of town. I felt that he would have preferred a strong young man, I felt that he perceived me as being weak due to my gender. It’s a very fine line between where I would have to ask somebody to give me a hand, and where a man would have to ask somebody to give him a hand. Truth be told, most men don’t ask for a hand soon enough and many suffer from back injuries.

My new boss did not do a good job of hiding the fact that he was pissed that his manager had hired a girl while he was away. The first task he assigned to me was to fix a welder down on the jetty, fully expecting me to fail at the task. I was nervous because I had never fixed a welder before. When I got down there, I could see the phasing was out. It was so obvious that the phasing had been changed a lot as you could see where the connections were worn down. I changed the leads which fixed the problem. My boss was quite surprised to see me return for another task so soon and I never let on that I knew he was trying to set me up for failure. LOL.  We ended up being the best of friends with one problem; he kept sending me to fix welding machines!

K: Did you find you were constantly having to prove your worth to each new person?

C: Until recently I did. I find that the younger guys are more accepting of a woman electrician on the job. It doesn’t seem to faze them, they don’t have the attitude of the men of the older generations, where they thought that I was taking a man’s wages away from him. A man actually said that to me. I also had a boss say to me, (I was pregnant and I wanted to take time off to raise my kids), that I could be an electrician, or I could be a mother, but I couldn’t be both.

K: Oh my god! Hahaha! You proved him wrong eh?

C: Yeah, pretty wild. Also, they were opposed to me supervising. After a few years of working on the tools I wanted a bit of variety, so I put my name on the list to be a supervisor. And that threw them for a loop! They just couldn’t handle having a girl telling a man what to do.

K: So what tactics can you pass on to other women about working with sometimes hostile men?

C: Good news is, most of them aren’t hostile. Ha-ha! Be yourself, and they will either like you or they won’t. And the ones that you can tell don’t like you, you just avoid. You don’t want to work with them anyways. Once I was working with an old well-mannered man, that I got along with well, and when we were working in a cramped area, he actually grabbed me and kissed me. I freaked out and ran all the way back to the shop in shock. When he came back to the shop, we both just pretended it didn’t happen.

K: Noo! Oh my god, did you make a complaint?

C: I didn’t feel that a complaint would be well received, probably not believed. Some would have spouted it as a reason not to hire women…….nothing but trouble! Nor did I complain about the amount of pornography in the workplace; it was rampant and distasteful. Once I threw away a guy’s pornographic picture that was intentionally displayed in my line of sight, even though he didn’t see me do it, he never talked to me again. Perfect outcome! Another time I was chatting with a co-worker at his bench. He had pictures of his family on his workbox along with an explicit piece of porn. Is this your wife I asked? He proudly replied ‘yes’ and these are your children, I continued with an even prouder response of ‘yes’. I then pointed to his porn. “Who’s this? Your sister?” I asked. He actually looked confused. I noticed the next day that the pornographic picture had been removed. 

That’s why some men didn’t want us girls in their workplace. They could behave badly without having to feel embarrassed. They could spit, swear, fart and make disparaging remarks without any complaints. Most of that misbehaving stopped while I was around. Gentlemen, I thank you.

Colleen and I then went on to gossip about our workplace and the people and happenings in it, which was nice to catch up on. Having her around the shop is missed for a variety of reasons, namely her good humour, skill and experience. I hope one day she comes out of retirement for a stint as a temp. Back at DND, so she can then be the first woman to come back from retirement at DND too! Also noteworthy to mention is that Colleen worked at dockyard during the time when the Employment Equity Act became Federal Legislation in 1986, and just after the Canadian Human Rights act was passed by parliament in 1977.  

From Wikipedia: 

The Canadian Human Rights Act[1] (French: Loi canadienne sur les droits de la personne) is a statute passed by the Parliament of Canada in 1977 with the express goal of extending the law to ensure equal opportunity to individuals who may be victims of discriminatory practices based on a set of prohibited grounds. The prohibited grounds currently are: race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability, and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.[2]

Employment Equity Act of 1986; The purpose of the act, as stated in the legislation itself, is: The purpose of this Act is to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and, in the fulfillment of that goal, to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities by giving effect to the principle that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences. The Employment Equity Act designates four groups as the beneficiaries of employment equity: women, people with disabilities, aboriginal people (status, none status, metis and inuit), and visible minorities.

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