Monday, March 7, 2011

Exposing high school students to new career choices

SSEP 2010 participants, with program staff.
Informed choice is critical when choosing a career. And young women need to know the full range of opportunities that exist, including non-traditional occupations, before making a career decision.

That is the one of the objectives of the Student Summer Employment Program (SSEP), which is presented by Women In Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISE-NL).

SSEP is a summer program for girls in Grade XI, who are interested in exploring careers in science and engineering. The work includes social activities, workplace tours, networking opportunities and firsthand exposure to career options. Approximately 700 women from all over the province have participated in the program, since it was created in 1990.

“The main reason we target girls aged 16 to 17 is to try to catch them before they make any big decisions about their post-secondary education,” said Holly Baker, Program Administrator for the SSEP. “It’s a paid summer internship where the girls actually work in real research labs with scientists. At that age, they are able to contribute and also gain from the experience. It’s a good opportunity for them to explore more of the reality of working in science and engineering, because they are seeing and experiencing it every day.”

Applications are not accepted based strictly on aptitude, Holly said.

“We do ask for their grades when they apply, but that’s more to know they are registered for school and plan to continue their education. Mostly, we base acceptance on whether or not they are interested in science and engineering. Even if they are not doing the best in their high school courses, that does not necessarily dictate how you will do in those courses in the future. We’ve even accepted girls who say, ‘I don’t think it’s for me but I want to give it a try’.”

Holly Baker
Efforts are made to reach and enroll students in rural areas, Holly explained. “A lot of rural schools and communities might not have the same opportunities as ones in St. John’s or Mount Pearl, so we really do reach out as far as we can. A lot of rural schools don’t offer the same variety of science courses as those in urban areas, so we really want to expose them to these other areas of study.”

The program has also been expanded into Labrador, where they were able to deliver the courses on location.

“We’ve always welcomed students from Labrador, who came to St. John’s to work,” Holly said. “But last year, we expanded and were able to find positions with clinics, geology companies, fisheries officers and more, in communities in Labrador, so that students could participate in their own communities.”

Of course, not all students who take the program go on to study science and engineering. Some of the most powerful lessons are what students learn about themselves.

“There are some who come through the program and realize that maybe this is not for them, and that’s fine,” Holly said. “That’s one of the program’s goals – to help a person find their true career path. We try to place students based on what their career interest may be, and sometimes they don’t get their first choice. You can see some who are not too enthused at the start of the program, but then, by midsummer, they’re saying ‘Oh, the coolest thing happened today!’ and they are so into it. It’s a great feeling when they find an interest in something they didn’t even know existed… to see them discover new passions they might have for the rest of their lives.”

Indeed, the SSEP was evaluated in 2008 by the consulting firm Hollett and Sons, who found that the experience was overwhelmingly positive for students.

“Not all of our participants end up in science-related careers,” Holly said. “Approximately 70 percent of graduates end up in science, medicine or engineering. But more to the point, 100 percent said it was a worthwhile experience and would recommend it to others.”

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

WRDC contributes to gender diversity by “Thinking Forward”

Okay, so you’re an employer in the oil and gas industry. You’ve read the writing on the wall, and are ready to make gender diversity a real priority in your workforce.

Now what? Where do you turn to learn more?

The Women in Resource Development Corporation (WRDC) has just what you’re looking for. It’s called “Thinking Forward: A Practical Guide, Increasing Women’s Participation in the Industrial Workplace”.

It’s a compact handbook, prepared by the WRDC’s Daphne Hart and Meredith Quaile, that will help employers and sub-contractors understand the challenges that women encounter when they are looking for work or working in the natural resource sectors.

“Issues and solutions surrounding recruitment and retention of female labour, as well as ideas to help prepare the industrial workplace for women’s participation, are presented as recommendations and practical checklists for application,” the authors write, in the booklet’s preamble. “The forecasted skilled labour shortage related to trades, technologies and operations in the natural resource sector should be considered as an opportunity for women and industry to move forward together in a new direction.”

Daphne Hart will introduce and explain the booklet to conference delegates during her presentation on March 9.

“One of the things we’ve learned, is what men want and what women want in the workplace are basically the same thing,” Daphne said, in an interview. “Research has shown this. They want an opportunity to hone their skills, feel good about the job they do, be rewarded for it, and feel like they are part of the team.”

Getting to that point can present challenges, however, when the workplace is dominated by one gender.

“There’s much to keep in mind,” Daphne said. “When you hire a woman, make sure when she arrives at the workplace that she knows where to go, who to speak to, that there is someone to meet her and that she knows where everything is. It’s important to prepare the workplace, when women are hired into what was an all-male environment. It's important to involve your male employees. You’ve got to communicate to the men what’s going on, and what your expectations are. Also, address any concerns they may have about women joining the team.  For example, the employer might say: ‘We’ve just hired a carpenter and an electrician. They are both women. They are trained, and we are going to integrate them into the team. We do have a respectful workplace policy in place and we will certainly work together as a team.’ In other words, communication is one of the keys to successful inclusion and integration of women in traditionally male worksites.”

Many positive things are happening in the push to increase women’s participation in non-traditional roles, Hart said, including change from the top down, such as the requirement to include gender diversity plans in developments agreements for major projects. And the numbers of women working in engineering, trades and technology is gradually increasing. However, there is still much work to be done.

“I like to think positively about our challenges, and change does take time,” Daphne said. “But just recently, I was talking with a young woman who is working to become a heavy equipment operator. She approached an employer to ask about possible work opportunities, and he said, ‘No, we don’t hire women.’ And that was four months ago. So it is still out there and unfortunately it still does exist.”

And there are unseen obstacles for women, even after they’ve been in the job for a while.

“I was speaking recently with a female electrician, who works with a large organization, and she’s been there for many years,” Daphne said. “She said to me, ‘I love my work and I do very good work, and have a good rapport with my teammates, but the thing that I find hardest is that, if the team changes or I move to a new team, I have to prove myself all over again.’ This was a very real problem for her. Many women are still fighting this.”

Most often, male workers are unaccustomed to working with females, and unsure of how to conduct themselves within this new dynamic. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, including milder forms of sexual harassment.

“I deliver gender awareness in the workplace training, and I say to people, ‘The men in the workplace are not Hannibal Lecters. They’re not monsters. They go home, volunteer in the community, take their daughters to skating, and so on. But in the workplace, there’s an embedded culture, that’s very traditionally male, because it’s always been that way. I use the following scenarios to demonstrate a point. Let's assume that Joe is a man working on site and he's looking at Melanie, and he's wondering if what he is about to say to Melanie is appropriate, we suggest that Joe do a mind check and ask himself : 'If my wife were standing next to me, or if Melanie's husband were next to her, would I say it then? Or, if this were my daughter or sister, would I want someone to say this to her? So it’s a matter of changing the mindset. Things are changing. Companies really do want an unbiased, gendered workplace. They don’t want any kind of harassment. And it's a wise decision for organizations. It's best to have respectful and harmonious workplaces where both men and women can do their work.”

Today’s organizations have a strong safety culture, Daphne said. “Now, we need to bring gender inclusion up to the same level as our safety awareness, and make it a part of the corporate philosophy and identity.”

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fueling the Future conference moving to larger venue

The industry is buzzing about “Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas”, an international conference scheduled for March 8 and 9, in St. John’s.

Advance registrations have been so successful that the original venue has sold out. The event is now being moved, from the Delta Hotel to the St. John’s Convention Centre.

“There’s been tremendous interest in Fueling the Future,” said Michael Clair, Associate Director (Public Policy) with the Harris Centre, which is presenting the conference. “This has been expressed in calls and emails we’ve received, and reflected in the registrations we’ve booked, which exceeded our own, fairly optimistic expectations. This indicates that the oil and gas industry is committed to increasing women’s participation in non-traditional occupations.”

However, a number of supply and service companies have yet to register, said conference spokesperson, Caron Hawco, Communications Lead, with Statoil Canada Ltd.

“Some supply companies have registered, but we’d like to see more,” Hawco said. “This conference will be of particular interest to companies in the supply sector, who will find the conference program very helpful in working with operators to develop their own diversity plans.”

Oil and gas operators are required to include diversity strategies in their development agreements, and most will expect the same of the suppliers they hire, Hawco added.

Keynote speakers include Sara N. Ortwein, President, ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company; Hege Marie Norheim, Senior Vice President, Statoil; Catherine MacGregor, President, Schlumberger Wireline; Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President, Centre for Work-Life Policy; and the Honourable Joan Burke, Minister of Education, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fueling the Future will feature more than 40 presenters, from industry, government, post-secondary institutions, non-governmental organizations and academia. The conference will highlight employment trends and best practices, explore challenges facing women in the oil and gas industry, and suggest changes that will improve the participation of women in oil and gas.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Statistics tell the painful truth about women’s employment

Daphne Hart
In 2009, for the first time, women outnumbered men in the Canadian workforce.

That’s according to Statistics Canada, which reported that women averaged 50.6 percent of Canada’s 14 million waged or salaried workers, in the first half of 2009.

So, if women are so under-represented in non-traditional occupations, where are they working?

The answers are not encouraging.

“Women still make up about 70 per cent of part-time workers and 60 per cent of minimum wage earners,” according to an article in The Toronto Star, citing the same StatsCan data. “Forty per cent are employed in precarious jobs that are generally poorly paid with little or no job security or benefits such as pensions. And the average full-time, full-year female worker still earns just 71.4 cents for every dollar earned by a man working similar hours, according to the latest Statistics Canada data from 2007.”

And it gets worse, according to research conducted by Dr. Gordon Cooke, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Business at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dr. Cooke was co-investigator on an in-depth study of the same StatsCan information. He found that lower-waged earners are less likely to receive employer-provided training – and thus face additional challenges in advancing to higher-quality jobs. Within this lower-paid, under-educated group, Dr. Cooke found that females have less access to training than males; not due to discrimination, but because women are so over-represented in poor quality employment. The odds are simply stacked against them.

The statistics don’t lie. In fact, they tell a painful truth.

And a new booklet, published by Women in Resource Development Corporation (WRDC), offers some interesting provincial numbers. “Thinking Forward: A Practical Guide, Increasing Women’s Participation in the Industrial Workplace” offers a wealth of information and tools for industrial employers and subcontractors, aimed at enhancing gender diversity in the workplace. (There will be more about this booklet in a future blog entry.)

“Thinking Forward” offers some startling data, drawn from a number of sources. For example, 36 percent of all employed women in the province work in low-paying, traditional jobs, such as administrative (99 percent women), childcare and home support (94 percent), cashier (89 percent), clerical (75 percent) and retail sales (65 percent).

On the other hand, just two percent of all employed women in the province work in high-paying, non-traditional jobs. This would include transportation (eight percent women), contractors/supervisors (six percent), construction (four percent), heavy equipment operators (two percent), and machinists/metal forming (one percent). As well, women represent just three percent of apprentices in non-traditional trades.

Clearly, a preponderance of women are squeezed into a ghetto of low-paying jobs, that offer little opportunity for advancement.

However, this is not to suggest that women don’t have options. “Thinking Forward” also includes projections on employment opportunities in the near future, due to existing and upcoming industrial projects, such as Hebron, Vale-Long Harbour, IOC, Lower Churchill and others. Potential employment demand for these projects is expected to peak at 9,000 jobs, between 2014 and 2106. That’s a lot of opportunity.

Indeed, there may even be time for women to make major career shifts, take training in any number of trades or occupations, and seize these opportunities.

“The forecasted skilled labour shortages and the peak employment demand associated with the province’s large scale projects mean that opportunities exist for the women of our province,” said Daphne Hart, Industry Liaison with the WRDC. “Now is a great time to consider a career in a non-traditional occupation. Trades and technology careers are good options – they are well paid, often unionized, offer self-employment potential and high job satisfaction. It is important to ensure that the women of Newfoundland and Labrador, along with our men, are major beneficiaries of these projects.”

There are a number of programs and services out there, intended to assist and support women interested in entering non-traditional careers. Here are some of them:

Orientation to Trades and Technology (OTT)
A WRDC program that gives women practical experience in natural resource-based industries. It provides a safe and supportive environment for women to explore trades and technology training programs.

Try the Trades
A skilled trades mentoring program, offered by the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, that offers the opportunity for adults, age 18 to 39, to experience skilled trades. Participants spend up to four weeks on a construction site – safety equipment and training is provided – and receive a generous stipend for doing so.

Camp Glow
A fire fighting camp for women 17 and over, to learn about the fire service, develop confidence and explore a possible career change. Offered by the WRDC.

Trades Work for Me
Loads of information about careers in the construction trades offered by the Long Harbour Employers Association and the Resource Development Council. The project can provide financial support for apprenticeable and non-apprenticeable trades.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

Monday, February 21, 2011

There’s no glass ceiling at PF Collins

Susan Collins.
One of the business leaders presenting at Fueling the Future is Susan Collins, of PF Collins International Trade Solutions.

PF Collins was established 90 years ago as a customs brokerage firm, but has expanded and diversified its service offerings through the years. The company provides freight, customs, warehouse & distribution, marine agency and immigration consulting services from locations in St. John’s, Halifax and Calgary. They are recognized logistics specialists in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Susan will discuss the role of women in the global logistics industry, and will recount the stories of the women who work at PF Collins.

At the global level, women occupy just 20 percent of management positions in the logistics sector, according to a 2008 gender equity study by the SSM Group. “In the majority of logistics companies worldwide, more than 70 percent of the workforce is male,” Susan said, in an interview.

However, PF Collins is a notable exception to this rule.

“There are 46 women and 39 men employed at PF Collins, so about 55 percent of our staff are female,” she said. “As well, our management team has more women than men holding key positions in a variety of disciplines.”

At PF Collins, women occupy leadership roles in customs brokerage, freight forwarding, quality assurance, health safety and environment, human resources, immigration consulting, administration, and marketing and sales.

They arrived at those positions through a lot of hard work, with support and encouragement from their employer. Most of the women who are now in management positions started out in clerical and administrative assistant roles. However, unlike many other women in the logistics industry, they did not run into the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ as they worked to enhance their skills and increase responsibility. “In so doing,” Susan explained, “they gained confidence in themselves, which translated into our clients having confidence in the firm.”

PF Collins has always been very big on education, Susan said. “Most of the women in senior management roles have been with us for more than 30 years. They started off in administrative support positions and worked their way up, doing a lot of specialized training that is unique to this industry. We try to match the training we provide to the interests and talents of the individual, enabling these women to work in the parts of the business that appeal to them the most. Education is the big thing. We’ve come a long way and we've certainly developed a terrific team, getting women up to the table and making decisions.”

The investment in training and promoting women has paid off, Susan added.

“I think women bring some very valuable skills to the logistics industry,” she said. “Certainly at PF Collins, we’ve benefited from their focus on developing client relationships, their attention to great customer service and their eye for managing all those important details.”

Traditionally, logistics has been regarded as a masculine field, Susan said. “You're talking about arranging cranes and forklifts to hoist big industrial equipment onto trucks, planes and ships. All those ‘ugly’ details like truck dimensions and load capacity, cargo capacity on aircraft and vessels – where you have to think about mechanical and technical challenges about freight movement and really know your business – the cargo, the carriers and how you're going to come up with the best way to get that piece of equipment where it needs to be.”

At PF Collins, these challenges are being faced by women. “It might not be typical for women to deal with these matters, but here, at PF Collins, they are dealing with them every day. And they're very good at it. They've certainly proven that they can get in there and get the job done on a completely level playing field with their male counterparts in our industry.”

In her presentation at the conference, Susan plans to highlight some of the women who hold management positions at PF Collins, working in a non-traditional industry where their unique skills have made a huge contribution to the company's success.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The business case for hiring – and retaining – women

Lianne Lefsrud

Yes, it would be nice to see more women enter careers in trades, technology, science and engineering.

But there’s an even bigger challenge: keeping them.

That’s according to Lianne Lefsrud, of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades & Technology (WinSETTCentre).

Lianne will be presenting ‘Putting Fuel in the Tank: Best Practices in Promoting Diversity and Innovation’ at Fueling the Future, and has researched and written extensively about women in non-traditional occupations.

Statistics show that the numbers of women entering science, engineering, trades and technology (SETT) have flattened out in recent years, and, in some cases – such as engineering – actually declined, Lianne said, in an interview.

“The largest issue is one of retention,” she said. “As many as 50 percent of qualified women are dropping out of their professions within 10 years. So it’s not just a pipeline issue, where we need to keep people coming in, it’s also a retention issue. We have to keep those trained, talented, educated people in the pipeline, and we’re losing them right now. We have a leaky pipeline. It’s like, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on here?’.”

Research shows that several systemic barriers work, often in combination, to steer women off their non-traditional career paths.

“People talk about work-life balance, and that’s part of it,” Lianne said. “But more than anything, employees need to see a future for themselves. People define success in different ways and, for women, it’s more than work-life balance. It’s imagining what success could look like for them, and how they might work with their bosses, mentors, colleagues and others within an organization, to say ‘how could this work for me?’ ‘How could I get work that’s challenging, that feels like I’m making a contribution, and where my contribution is valued, and people recognize and appreciate it, and I can see where I will be in this organization five or 10 years from now.”

If an employer can create a career path that is more clearly delineated, that can help mitigate other issues that eventually drive women away from their careers, Lianne added.

“More than anything, if a corporation can create that vision, that imagined future, for an individual, they can overcome a whole bunch of things. It solves mentoring problems. It solves work-life problems. For example, if a new parent, with the usual childcare issues, can see that they could be VP of operations five years out, with a plan to get there, that helps. The proactive companies are the ones anticipating that… they’re paying for child care, or providing extra training so women can come in two or three times over the maternity leave, stay connected to the company, keep their skills sharp and still feel involved. I mean, I’ve got two kids, and when you are sitting at home, you feel pretty disconnected from the company. You need to keep those connections alive.”

Yes, a bit of effort is required on the employer’s behalf.  And that’s the whole point of Lianne’s presentation: women are worth it. For more reasons than you might expect; reasons that go beyond social responsibility and have dramatic impacts on the bottom line.

“Our research shows that women’s increased participation and advancement in SETT can bring significant economic benefit to businesses,” Lianne said. “It’s a compelling business case that has been articulated by leaders across all sectors, and supported by research findings. If a company can attract a female employee, there are some pretty powerful reasons why they should work to retain that person.”

Following is the abstract for Lianne’s presentation, ‘Putting Fuel in the Tank: Best Practices in Promoting Diversity and Innovation’:

In an increasingly global and publicly scrutinized industry, the continued success of Canada’s oil and gas industry depends integrally upon its capacity to innovate. Companies are under pressure to attract, retain, and leverage those employees who are most able to fuel their innovation engines. In line with the goal of this conference, the purpose of this presentation is to answer the following questions: How are diversity and innovation linked? The business case: what’s in it for business? What are the challenges specific to technical types like engineers and technologists? What corporate/individual initiatives make a difference? We draw from our experience in industry, regulation, and business research to answer these questions. Our focus will be to share best practices and practical guidance for promoting diversity and innovation by companies, industry associations, and governments.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

COMPASS sets new direction for female recruitment

John Connors.
Of the many non-traditional occupations in which women are under-represented, which has the lowest participation rate of all?

That unfortunate distinction probably goes to the marine transportation sector, where, on a worldwide basis, just two per cent of employees are female. One Canadian study indicates that, in Canada, the percentage may be a little higher, at around three percent.

“However, in Canada, as elsewhere, the vast majority of women in the marine transportation industry work in catering and housekeeping roles, doing what is traditionally seen as ‘women’s work’,” says John Connors, Executive Manager of the Council of Marine Professional Associates (COMPASS), a marine transportation industry association with membership across Canada. “Therefore, the numbers of women working in non-traditional professional occupations in marine transportation are much lower than the three percent indicates.”

This then, is a story about potential – and this is where the story gets good. The opportunities in marine transportation professional occupations are numerous and quite lucrative. Part of the COMPASS mandate is to spread the word about these opportunities and increase the involvement of women in marine transportation.

COMPASS had its beginnings in 2002, Connors explains, when the Marine Institute of Memorial University and Human Resources Development Canada (now Service Canada) formed the Marine Careers Secretariat (MCS) with a primary role to research and document careers in marine transportation. Connors was chair of MCS and moved over to COMPASS when that association was formed in 2008.

“One of the things that struck me from the beginning was the small number of women involved in marine transportation,” Connors says. “It seemed like an enormous inequity, but also an enormous opportunity, for young women.”

One of the first projects undertaken at MCS was a public perception study of the marine transportation industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. More than 1200 students were interviewed from all regions of the province, along with educators and parents. MCS also undertook a study of national and international supply and demand, in the marine transportation industry, that revealed a large and growing shortage of marine personnel. In Canada, the shortage is aggravated by an aging marine workforce nearing retirement age and new projects requiring additional personnel.

“On the basis of those studies, we held a symposium in 2006 of marine transportation professionals and developed a strategy contained in the 2007 report  In the Same Boat: A Collaboratively Developed Marine Careers Promotion Strategy for Eastern Canada. That report has been referred to as a seminal document, one of the best available in outlining the needs of the sector; and it formed the basis of the action plan that COMPASS has been following.”

Building on In the Same Boat, COMPASS has made promoting careers in marine transportation a key priority – and it has given specific attention to promoting those careers to women. It should be noted here, too, that the oil and gas industry and marine transportation are more than two ships passing in the night. They are in fact, tightly integrated and co-dependent, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Marine transportation is inextricably tied to the offshore oil and gas sector,” Connors said. “All of the supply boats and shuttle tankers are staffed by marine transportation personnel. And many of the people on board the floating installations work in vessel, rather than production, operations.”

As noted, very few of those marine transportation positions are filled by women; but, Connors notes, “the number is increasing, and COMPASS intends to play an integral role in making that number growing at a much faster rate.” COMPASS has taken great care to ensure gender equity in its video and print promotional materials and on its website. A visit to the website reveals “Women in Marine Transportation” as one of the components displayed prominently on the home page. The website also displays 25 profiles of young marine transportation professionals, eleven of them women. 

Promotional brochures and posters have been developed in two formats – generic and female-specific. In January 2010, COMPASS released a Gender Equity Strategy, heralding the development of a long-term action plan for reducing the gender equity disparity in marine transportation professions. The action plan outline was developed with the assistance of COMPASS’s Marine Transportation Gender Equity Committee, which has representation from most major women’s organizations.

“There are marine-related occupations onshore, such as naval architects, systems designers, superintendents, and so on,” Connors says, “but the most critical shortages and the greatest opportunities are at sea, as ships’ officers – mates, captains, and engineers. And if you talk to some of the women who have gone into those occupations, you will be amazed at how excited and enthusiastic they are about their careers. They are great ambassadors for their industry.”

There are longstanding misperceptions about marine transportation that die hard, Connors says. “When people think about ships’ captains, many still think about the old grey-haired guy with the dutch cap. Well, it’s not that way anymore. The marine transportation industry is young, dynamic, and high-tech. It’s possible to become a captain or a chief engineer before age 30. And it’s no longer a matter of being gone for nine or ten months of the year, home for two weeks, then gone to sea again. Those days are gone. Seagoing positions provide equal time off for time worked, and on a regular shift basis, so these young professionals can be at home for six months each year. This kind of lifestyle can be very appealing for women.”

And the salaries, says Connors, are fantastic. “Just a few days ago, I spoke to a young woman who graduated from a marine transportation program at the Marine Institute five years ago. She went to work two days after graduation, she’s now second officer on an oil tanker, and from the first day she went to work she has never earned less than $100,000 a year.”

The old perception about rust buckets, with rustic, unisex bunks, is also a myth, Connors adds. “Today’s ships are well-equipped vessels with modern technology and amenities. They’ve got internet, satellite TV, gymnasiums – some even have spas on board. Most have private cabins, with their own washrooms.”

The industry’s attitudes have also evolved. “There is zero tolerance for any kind of sexist behaviour,” Connors explains. “None of the women I have spoken to who work on ships have ever mentioned any kinds of problems working with men. Their typical response is very positive.”

In fact, misinformation is one of the greatest barriers to women entering marine transportation, and dispelling popular misconceptions is a key focus of the strategy to increase gender diversity.

“Our public perception study found that parents are the primary influencer of their children’s choice of occupations,” Connors explains. “And we know that some parents still question whether they want their daughters to go to sea. They labour under old impressions that are no longer accurate.”

COMPASS is pursuing an action plan that tackles the misperceptions problem from three different angles. “The first is to reach young people directly, the second is to reach educators, and the third is to reach parents and guardians. For youth, we have developed a module on marine transportation careers for inclusion in the high school curriculum, and we will be promoting marine transportation careers through social media such as Facebook. For educators, we’re developing a strategy, associated with the curriculum module, for enhancing awareness of marine career opportunities and benefits.  And for parents, we have developed an advertising program that will run this winter and spring on community cable channels and in regional newspapers.”

COMPASS is also working closely with a number of women’s organizations, such as Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Women in Resource Development Corporation (WRDC), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE NL), the Women’s Policy Office, Women Interested in Successful Employment (WISE), the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades, and Technology (WinSETT Centre), and others, to help spread their message to young women.

“Last September we surveyed the first year students enrolling in marine transportation programs at the Marine Institute and the Coast Guard College. I was struck by the response of a woman in her 40’s, now beginning a new career as a ship’s officer, who indicated she had learned about this opportunity though consultation with Women In Successful Employment (WISE). So we know those networks work.”

In a dramatic departure from its traditional image as an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, Connors says COMPASS expects the marine transportation industry to lead the way in establishing a progressive gender equity program that will set the standard for Canada and provide a template for other industry sectors to follow in its wake.

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.