Women IN power – Kelly Kienleitner
“We have to learn constantly to stay on top of things. I love that! I hate being stagnant.”
By Anthony Capkun
April 19, 2021 – Take away the names and any gender identifiers, and the story you’re about to read could have been told by just about anyone.
In the April 2021 edition of Electrical Business Magazine, we invited readers to meet some of the women—in various stages of their careers—who are powering up Canada’s electrical sector, and who provided us with a candid account of their journeys as female electrical professionals.
This is Kelly Kienleitner’s Story
“I had been a stay-at-home mom since my son was born, and ran a daycare,” Kelly explains when, at the age of 35, she found herself in the middle of a divorce. Knowing she couldn’t make a living at daycare, so she took an adult education course to explore career options.
“I took tests for three days—math, English, physics, spatial […] they put all the tests on the computer, which spit out about 120 jobs for which I had the aptitude, attitude or the training to be able to do.” Kelly says, who then narrowed the list to 10 possible careers, then two: corrections officer or electrician.
She then attended BCIT’s first-ever Try-A-Trade for women, where Kelly explored 12 trades over 12 nights. “And it reinforced the fact that I really wanted to be electrician,” she says.
With her goal in mind, Kelly went back to school to upgrade her math, physics and English, then enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship program. When she came out of school, she took a turn and, rather than go straight to electrician, she became an electric motor winder. “So that was my first trade. Electrician is really my second trade.”
And for Kelly, being in electrical—and in the trades—is a perfect fit. “As a child in school, I was the round peg that they were forever trying to shove into a square hole… and I never quite fit. I come to the trades, and it was like ‘Oh, this is where I fit!’.”
Little did Kelly know when she entered the profession of motor winder that she would be the first woman pursuing that trade in British Columbia, and the first to get a Red Seal for it. For some of the others journeymen, it took some getting used to.
“I started as a maintenance man, because that’s what they do in that trade […] So, shipping, receiving, cleaning parts, just basic stuff,” Kelly recounts. “In my first week, one of the old journeys came up to me—a big ol’ German—gets right in my face and tells me ‘This is men’s work!’.”
Kelly kept her cool and politely asked him whether the work of motor winder required his gender-specific anatomy; for the jobs that did require a man’s anatomy, Kelly would pass on those, and work on the others.
“He stormed off,” Kelly says, “Three days later, he comes back and he apologizes to me. He said ‘You know, I never thought about it that way. What exactly does that thing in my pants have to do with my ability to do my job?’.”
That same, big ol’ German also played a key role in Kelly’s I’ve made it moment.
“When he retired, he walked me over to his toolbox (and winders make a ton of their own tools… it’s just part of that trade), and said, ‘I’m retiring, I don’t need them. I want you to have them’,” Kelly says. “That was such an immense compliment.”
She loves that, in electrical, the work changes all the time. “We have to learn constantly to stay on top of things. I love that! I hate being stagnant.”
And while she’s come upon a few bumps in the road because of her gender, she’s also seen it go the other way.
“I was recently talking to a young man whose foreman couldn’t understand why he had to go and get his children at school,” Kelly says. “So there is a little bit of that old-school hierarchy that still exists.”
“I’ve always said that [women] are 48% of the population, so we should be 48% of everything we want to be included in. So, yes, there are barriers; yes, we are making progress. And I am really, really proud of my union local, because 7% of our journeys are women, and 17% of our apprentices are women.”
One of things Kelly feels would help more people stay in the trades is 24-hour daycare.
“And I want it for the guys, too. Daycare is set up for office workers, not for us. We work shifts. We need 24-hour daycare so that we, as parents, can do the work that’s necessary to move our country forward without worrying about our kids.”
“Especially for the girls, one of the things I always say is: ‘Listen, you know what? I started out as a welfare mom. I’m now chief instructor. I’m a foreman. I make $100K a year. And it’s given me the freedom to stand on my own two feet’, which, as a female, is so important.”
When I asked Kelly when she thinks she will be able to say We’ve made it, her response was quick:
“To be quite honest, when our gender stops being a topic of conversation. When the conversation becomes about whether we’re good tradespeople.”
This is an excerpt from the Special Feature “Meet some of the women powering up Canada’s electrical sector”. You’ll find the full feature article—along with other great content—in the April 2021 edition of Electrical Business Magazine. Even more back issues are located in our Digital Archive.