Six years after graduating from F.J. Brennan High School, Shelby McPhee has found her niche in what has always been a male-dominated field.
McPhee, now 25, is the only female out of 75 students in the heating, refrigeration and air-conditioning technician program at St. Clair College.
“My parents are both in skilled trades and I knew that’s what I wanted,” said McPhee, a one-time auto mechanics student. “After working for a tool and die shop for five years out of high school, I knew I wanted something different.”
Two years ago, McPhee attended an open house at St. Clair College where she ran into a woman who had similar interests.
“Her story totally resonated with me and I jumped at the chance to enroll,” added McPhee. “The course brings together different skills – electrical, sheet metal, refrigeration and heating – and I love it.”
“I feel like I’ve made the right decision for my future and it’s not hanging heavy over my head anymore,” she added.
McPhee has also joined a Women in STEM Club at St. Clair organized by Susan Taylor, Supervisor of the school’s Genesis Entrepreneurship Centre.
The new club already has 30 members, all who are enrolled in male-dominated programs including electrical engineering, biomedical engineering technology, data analytics, protection, security and investigation, construction engineering management, power-line technician and manufacturing.
Susan Taylor, Supervisor of the Genesis Entrepreneurship Centre, is shown during a Women in STEM club meeting. | Image: stclaircollege.ca
“The club provides support for women taking these courses and an opportunity to talk to other women about the challenges they face in overcoming systemic biases,” explained Taylor. “In addition to meeting online every other week, we also host a guest speaker series showcasing female industry leaders. Once we’re able to meet in person again, we plan seminars and networking events.”
“Many of our members are the only women in their chosen field of study and that can be difficult,” said Taylor. “Their fellow students are mostly teenagers and they can be difficult on a good day.”
“But by speaking with fellow club members, they learn they are not the only ones facing these challenges and they are encouraged to be what they want to be,” she added.
“If we exclude women from these programs, we’re excluding half the population and we can’t afford that luxury.”
Jim Marsh, dean of the Zekelman School of Business and Information Technology, Media Arts and Design, said the casualty rate for females in many of the skilled trades and technical programs is something the school is looking to reverse.
“You might have 12 women in a 70-student class in year one, it drops to six by year two and by third year, there are none left,” said Marsh.
“If we exclude women from these programs, we’re excluding half the population and we can’t afford that luxury,” he added. “We have 120 programs at St. Clair for a reason – we need all the skill sets in our community if we are to compete with other jurisdictions.”
But it won’t come without sacrifices along the way.
During her time spent in a tool and die shop between graduating from high school and enrolling in college, McPhee also held down jobs as a waitress and at a fast-food restaurant on weekends. Now, her only role is as a fulltime student.
“Sometimes you can feel isolated and unable to share opinions,” said McPhee. “There have been times when I feel I haven’t been taken seriously and you have to push back against those challenges.”
By meeting with many women in a variety of different tech and skilled trades courses, McPhee is even more convinced she has made the right decision and that her future is on a solid footing.
“I remember in high school that guidance counselors tended to steer us (women) towards university and away from college where most of the tech courses are,” she said. “But with two parents in skilled trades, I knew there were other options out there for me.”
Overwhelmed by the response to the club
Since the downturn in the economy and its resultant impact on the automotive industry 10 years ago, there has been a steadily increasing demand for skilled trades workers.
“There’s no question there’s a shortage in all the trades not just automotive and programs such as the ones offered at St. Clair can help bridge that gap,” said Taylor.
Taylor, meanwhile, is in the process of accessing some funds to help pay for club members to attend events, workshops and seminars once COVID-related restrictions are lifted.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response to the club and we are still fielding inquiries from other students and welcome them at any time.” said Taylor.
Marsh added that the shortage of women in some programs “is an issue and it’s one we are trying to address by also providing access to mentoring advice and role models.”
Students interested in the club can email Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking to get involved in the Women in STEM Community?
Join us for a casual holiday themed virtual networking event that will bring female professionals, current students and campus student groups together to celebrate 2020 achievements (and maybe even failures) and inspire success and support for women in STEM beyond 2020.
Students, Professionals and Founders from all STEM fields are invited to the Holiday Edition of Driving Diversity: Women in STEM Networking Event.
The event is co-hosted by WEtech Alliance, St. Clair College’s Women in STEM Club powered the Genesis Entrepreneurship Centre and RISE Windsor-Essex powered by Windsor-Essex Small Business Centre and WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation.