Thriving in a non-traditional job

March 8 is International Women’s Day. At HHB it is an opportunity to learn more about employee Eyrka Sparks in Maintenance.

When Eryka Sparks is plowing snow on the MacKay Bridge, the slight 23-year-old Dartmouth resident gets one of two reactions: a thumb up or a scowl.

“It’s amazing the response you can see in just a few seconds when a driver recognizes it is a woman behind the wheel plowing snow. You’ll see a smile that says, “you go girl”, or you’ll get a snarly look that easily translates into “what’s a woman doing plowing snow?”

She says it’s currently about 50-50 in terms of reaction, but she’s looking forward to the day when a woman working in a trade or a predominately male job doesn’t raise an eyebrow of any kind. As the first woman to work the HHB winter maintenance shift, she knows that day is still some distance in the future, but it is her hope as the country celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8.

Born and raised in Dartmouth, she said she was tinkered with cars from an early age. Inspired by her step-father who was a mechanic, she moved from taking apart and reassembling remote-controlled vehicles to replacing bearings and changing out the alternator on her own vehicle.

She passed on auto shop at school because she thought her future was something computer-related, but a short stint at a call centre following graduation made it clear that was not her path. Convinced she needed to do something she was passionate about if she was going to succeed, she signed up for the one-year automotive services and repair course at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).

“There’s a lot of pressure to go from high school to university. The trades still don’t get the respect they deserve, especially if you are a woman. It may be changing, but even a quick scan of social media shows people look down at the people doing manual labour.”

One of six women in a class of 25 at registration, she was one of just three who graduated.  She said she ignored the inappropriate and unwelcome “boys will be boys” sexual comments, and in general, left the program feeling accomplished and empowered.

Unfortunately, that did not last long. When she found work in a major car dealership, as the lone female, she felt marginalized from the first day. She wasn’t offered the helping hand offered to other apprentices and the degree of verbal sexual harassment was cranked up a notch.

“I didn’t want to be running to the boss all the time. I’d seem weak, but I see now that was a mistake because I let the harassment get to me and I stopped doing what I was supposed to be doing. I lost focus and was let go.”

She bounced around odd jobs for a bit. As she continued to work in male-dominated shops, she was once assigned a broom closet as a change room and at another location had to climb ten flights of stairs to use the women’s bathroom.

Last year she took a job in the toll booth as she planned her next career move, and then last fall jumped at the opportunity to join the paint crew.  Initially fearful of dangling below the road deck of the MacKay Bridge to paint, she said she grew to enjoy the experience. She is looking forward to doing it again this summer.

As the lone female painter, the first female on the winter maintenance crew, she has nothing but praise for the way HHB accommodates its female workforce. More than just the amenities – she has her own locker room and washroom – she said her co-workers have been helpful and respectful.

“I’m green. I come in with some skills, but zero experience and the team is very tolerant. They’ve shown me how to do things that I never imagined and I leave every day feeling accomplished and valued. How many women my age can say they’ve plowed a bridge, filled potholes, or can change a 36- inch tire that weighs almost as much as they do?”

Although she grimaces slightly at the suggestion that as a young black woman she might be a role model, she said she’d love to have company in the women’s locker room.

“Women need to go for it. No one should have a “what if?” bouncing around their heads. So if you decide to go for it in the trades, there’s no place better to start than HHB.”

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