Three women light up the stage as they share their stories of trial and triumph in the construction industry.
Nina Widmer, Red Seal Journeyperson Bricklayer with 13 years of experience and Manitoba’s only female mason. An employee of Alpha Masonry, Nina’s passion lies in restoring historical masonry on Manitoba landmarks.
Bonnie Leon, a 24-year vet of the construction industry who has held a variety of roles, including apprentice carpenter, finishing carpenter, shop foreman, business owner, estimator, instructor and current Project Manager at Security Decorating.
Teri Urban, former MWC Chairperson (2015-2017), Health and Safety Manager, Gold Seal Safety Coordinator, Certified Risk Manager and Part-Owner of Parkwest Projects Ltd.
The estrogen was electric inside Winnipeg’s Park Theatre on February 21, 2019, for Manitoba Women in Construction’s third annual Building HER Story. A sold-out crowd joined a panel of three exemplary women — Nina Widmer, Bonnie Leon and Teri Urban – who shared their inspiring stories on their careers in construction.
MWC Vice-Chair and Red River College Instructor in the Department of Civil Engineering Technology, Ellowyn Nadeau acted as emcee and set the stage for the honest and enlightening conversation.
Despite their varied backgrounds and stories, the panel shared several similarities — in character, in aspirations and in experiences: They all are mothers to girls, they all wanted to be financially independent, they all wanted to work in construction from a young age and they all overcame obstacles as women in a male-dominated industry.
For Widmer, as the first female apprentice in the history of Red River College’s Bricklayer Apprenticeship program, the expectations were high.
“For me, since everyone was watching, I had to do really, really well. So, I did really, really well,” explained Widmer. “It took a lot of hard work — staying after class, analyzing my work, asking millions of questions, but I graduated at the top of my class in every single level. I had the highest (Interprovincial Red Seal Exam) score ever in the history.”
A few years before, the environment wasn’t as accepting for Leon, who went to school as an apprentice carpenter. Her attendance was met with skepticism and disapproval. “My first day of school, my instructor said that ‘women don’t belong here’,” Leon said.
But Leon was resilient, stuck with it and has much insight when it comes to coaching other women in overcoming the challenges faced in this industry. “You need to have tenacity, vision, a really good sense of who you are and know your values,” she said.
Urban’s path was different, having grown up in and around the construction industry. “I loved it and I wanted to be part of it,” she said. “My career in construction started very young. When I was 12 my dad would bring home shop drawings — and that was back in the day before we had a digital stamp and signature – and I would take the rubber stamp out and stamp all the drawings.”
While passionate about the field, Urban struggled to find her place. After performing a number of positions, including construction camp cook, onsite field coordinator and dabbling in safety, she went back to Red River College, earned her diploma in Business Administration and found her fit.
“I took on the position as safety manager full-time at Parkwest Projects,” Urban detailed. “I worked my butt off to get whatever designation I could — an education to make sure that I had the credentials to do my job right, but also to ensure that my family business was well protected and serving our employees well, too.”
And even though she had plenty of opportunities and encouragement to enter and remain in the construction industry, the part-owner of Parkwest Projects says that she still felt like she had to prove herself.
“As a woman in construction, I had to find my own credibility and my own path.”
One topic that the panelists all identified with was the struggle for work life balance.
When Leon’s daughters became teenagers, they needed her at home, so she decided to develop and negotiate a work proposal that would work best for her lifestyle. “I’ve been fortunate to work for employers who were really understanding and family-forward,” Leon explained. “They can get a new project manager tomorrow, but my girls can’t get a new mom.”
Leon’s advice to other women in the industry who need to find their own balance? “Be honest. Be honest with your employer about what you can do and be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do.”
“I balance hats all the time,” acknowledged Urban. “My career is very important to me and so is my family. Sometimes one is a higher priority than the other, but my family knows that I love them very much and my work knows that I’m very committed, and personally I’m very satisfied with what I do.”
Widmer, the newest mother on the panel is back to work and navigating the challenges of work and motherhood. “I’m trying to figure out the balance.”
Over the course of the evening, the women reacted to how the #metoo movement has impacted in the industry. Julia Ryckman, lawyer at Pidblado LLP sat alongside the panel as a legal advisor and brought a unique perspective to the event, providing advice when encountering certain challenges.
Since she’s been practicing, Ryckman has noticed a shift in workplace culture that is now oriented toward strong workplace policies.
“The thing that employers need to know is that the Human Rights Code is interpreted very broadly and very much to try to find a remedy for an individual if it’s found that that individual was wronged,” Ryckman detailed.
“Yes, the #metoo movement has changed stuff, but as employers, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are handling stuff in the right way, whether we have policies in place or not. It’s a human issue and we just have to make sure that we’re treating our employees well,” said Urban.
“It works both ways,” added Nadeau. “The human rights legislation is there to support both males and females.”
Following the formal part of the presentation, attendees were welcome to ask the panelists questions and socialize with other guests.
Thank you to our admirable panel of women, to all who attended and to our generous event sponsors!
Westland Construction Ltd.
Bird Construction Ltd.
Bockstael Construction Limited
McCaine Electric Ltd.
PCL Construction Ltd.
Gardon Construction Ltd.
Parkwest Projects Ltd.
Master Roofing Ltd.