“You make it or you break it. And I’m definitely making it”
The winter is a unique time for Electrician apprentice Solome Lwanga. That’s when, for at least a few minutes now and then, she doesn’t have to feel at all self-conscious about being a woman in the trades, thanks to the cover of a parka and tuque.
“As soon as I walk into work, people assume I'm a guy,” says Lwanga, who’s on track to earn her journeyperson ticket this year and complete her education at NAIT. “And then they hear my voice and see that I'm a girl and they underestimate me from there, you know?”
Lwanga doesn’t say this to elicit sympathy. In fact, she enjoys upending people’s perceptions, and proving that one’s gender does not affect an ability to do a job, and do it well. She knows her work will speak for itself – though she’s willing to add to that conversation for the sake of equality.
“I have a pretty strong voice. People who think that they know better will get put in their place by me, anyways. Either way, all the work can get done.”
For women, such confidence may still be necessary, not unlike warm clothes in the winter chill. Statistically speaking, the climate in the trades remains cool with respect to female representation, which accounts for just 7% of all workers across Canada.
That makes Lwanga a role model by default, leading the way for women apprentices to follow in her footsteps. And she won’t let anyone underestimate her ability to tackle that task either.
A job for mind and body
It seems like Lwanga was hard wired to become an electrician. She’s always been handy, taking things apart, learning how they work, putting them back together. But she’s also always liked using her head.
Running power requires physically pulling wire through pipes and walls, but it also demands an understanding of how electricity works, and how best to distribute it.
“There are just so many variations on how you can do things,” says Lwanga. “You have to know what’s going on to even be able to do the physical work. I think it’s interesting how power works and how it all comes together.”
“You can show up for work but, when it comes to electrical, do you have anything upstairs?”
Her approach may make her ideally suited to the job, which requires precision and attention to detail and safety – characteristics that aren’t relegated by nature to one gender or the other.
“You can show up for work but, when it comes to electrical, do you have anything upstairs?” asks Lwanga, unapologetically. “If you don’t, you’re useless. I don’t know how to say that nicely but I’ve seen it happen.”
From stigma to satisfaction
When Lwanga says, “If you’re signing up for the trade, you’re signing up for all of it,” it has a double meaning. Indeed, anyone interested in being an electrician needs to be prepared to exercise both body and mind.
But Lwanga is talking about how women in trades must navigate an environment of extreme gender imbalance. She knows that being part of the 7% means needing to prove herself beyond the ticket she’ll soon achieve.
Cecile Bukmeier, an Auto Body Technician instructor and graduate of the program (class of ’15), has advocated for women in all trades after years of experiencing rejection and doubt firsthand.
“There’s still that stigma of, ‘If you’re in this, you’d better be in this and don’t fail, or you’re going to get kicked out,’” says Bukmeier. “We all still have to learn things [on the job]. But there’s this deeper fear in women that if they screw up, they’re going to be out the door.”
"There’s this deeper fear in women that if they screw up, they’re going to be out the door.”
That fear, she believes, will only be alleviated as more women enter the trades and normalize their own presence in shops and on job sites. Bukmeier knows this can require courage and confidence, but it’s essential for change. “When women see women doing things, they think, ‘I can do it, too,’” she adds.
Now 24 years old, Lwanga never pauses to look back at the trail she has helped blaze, but she’s creating a path for others to follow just the same.
“You make it or you break it,” she says. “And I’m definitely making it. Working in an environment where I'm a minority and still be able to pull my weight is kind of self-congratulating. Not many people expect me to be able to work in the way that I can or be able to do what I do.”
Lwanga is happy with where her NAIT education has taken her, and likes being part of her current crew at an Edmonton-area property development company. Mostly, though, she likes the work itself. She enjoys seeing an aspect of herself in it, and this seems natural to her.
“I’m a very creative person,” says Lwanga. “I enjoy doing art. Once you bend a lot of pipe and you run a whole panel and you stand back and look at it, it’s a work of art, honestly. You take pride in your work – in that creative aspect. This allows me to do that.”
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