Hanging steel and breaking glass ceilings

Women only account for just over four per cent of the province’s trades workforce, but one educator is paving the way for a more inclusive future.

Ironworker Kim Roche doesn’t exactly think about gender when it comes to her work. She’s been recognized for her trailblazing efforts and busting gender stereotypes. (Submitted by Kim Roche)

Madison Ryan

When she’s on a job site or in the classroom, Kim Roche says she forgets she’s a woman. Still, she’s the only female ironwork instructor in the province and one of the first in Canada. 

“I actually don’t look at it that way,” Roche said about her position. She’s just doing her job, she says, but putting her achievements into perspective sometimes takes her aback.

“Maybe that is a little bit of a big deal,” she said, laughing. 

When she was on the opposite side of the classroom in 2003 as she went through the province’s first ironworker apprenticeship course, Roche was the only woman there. She says her start in ironwork was overwhelming, but it lifted her out of a dark period in her life and propelled her down a path she never could have imagined. 

Over a decade later, in 2016, she started teaching part-time at the Ironworkers Education and Training Centre in Mount Pearl.

“When teaching students, and they see a female at the front of the class, it’s probably a good thing,” she said. “Because they get my side of how things are in the field. I feel and I hope that they have more respect for women on the job, and they (the women) understand that they can do it too…”

Like many skilled trade jobs, there are unique struggles for women in ironwork. Lori LeDrew is the executive director for the Office to Advance Women Apprentices. She says the organization regularly hears about the challenges women face in the trades, from trouble getting harnesses to fit on worksites to the intense work-life balance. 

“I know childcare is an issue for practically everybody right now,” said LeDrew. “But it’s particularly challenging for mothers who are working 12-15-hour days. So their day starts before childcare centres open and it ends after child care centres close.”

Some women have taken certain issues into their own hands and, for example, started their own personal protective equipment businesses, according to LeDrew. 

“When you put your hard hat on and your clothes on, you look no different next than the person next to you.”

– Kim Roche

“Another challenge would be proper fitting PPE (personal protective equipment),” LeDrew said. “We’ve heard of women that have had to duct tape their gloves on their hands because they’re so big (and) improper fitting coveralls.

“Men are obviously built differently. So they don’t take into account the shape of some women’s bodies,” LeDrew said of PPE suppliers. 

Roche has had her fair share of complications at work. Old-school ideas are still prevalent in the skilled trades industry, she says. 

“You got some guys that still think you should be home, barefoot and pregnant,” said Roche. “You shouldn’t be in our way, basically.” 

However, it hasn’t all been bad. Roche says she’s worked with some “stand up guys” that don’t tolerate such behaviour. 

“Being stubborn me, and wanting to prove myself, I kept going,” said Roche.

That stubbornness led her all the way to Washington, D.C., in December, where she was recognized at the Tradeswomen Build Nations conference. Out of the about 4,000 tradeswomen at the event, Roche was given the Meritorious Service Award by Ironworkers International. 

Only 4.1 per cent of people who work in trades in the province are women, according to Statistics Canada in 2022.

It’s a number LeDrew says is on the decline, but she’s hoping that will soon change. 

“There needs to be a collective effort to engage women and girls at a younger age, to allow them to be able to see themselves in these roles,” said LeDrew. “Having the support of teachers, guidance counsellors, to see the trades as a viable career option is important … there’s big money to be made there.” 

Anyone with a good work ethic is welcome to be an ironworker, says Roche, no matter their gender. It’s a sentiment she carries to the classroom from the high steel beams she’s climbed to get there. 

“When you put your hard hat on and your clothes on, you look no different next than the person next to you.”

About Madison Ryan 20 Articles
Madison Ryan is an award-winning fiction writer, a music reviewer and a student journalist. She loves escaping into fantasy stories, but she’s dedicated to telling the real-life stories that matter to our communities. Contact her at @madisonjryan on Twitter/X with news tips.

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