By Sherri Haigh
It was her path, and no one was stopping her.
Karen Pullen knows what it’s like to be the only woman on a construction site, and as a proud certified electrician, she is committed to helping make it easier for those who follow in her footsteps.
“At 18 you walk on a job site and you are the only woman with 600 to 1000 men, and you know full well you aren’t wanted there,” says Pullen, recalling the beginning of her journey to become an electrician in 1989.
“I cried on my way home almost every day for the first year of my apprenticeship,” she says, remembering some coworkers who were committed to making her life miserable. But her skills, love of the job and a fierce stubbornness prevented her from giving up.
“I was better at it than most of them, so why should I leave. They had a job where they could put money on the table, earn a living and feed their families. I had moved out of my parents’ home and was earning my own way in life, and I was never going to be able to have all the things I wanted in life if I didn’t continue my apprenticeship,” she said.
That experience inspired her to help other women who choose what some may see as a non-traditional career path. As a member of IBEW Local 353, she chairs the Local’s Women’s Committee and now is also Chair of the newly formed Ontario Construction and Building Trades Women’s Committee.
“We are trying to smooth some of the sharp edges and let women know there is a place for them in construction,” she says.
Pullen says there are definite advantages to working with the IBEW and their partner employers with the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO).
“There are some contractors who are shining stars and see the upside to having women on their roster, so there is promise,” she notes.
As an IBEW employee, she benefits from the best possible training, a strong focus on safety and a union that helps address employee concerns. Despite the challenges at the beginning of her career, she has no regrets.
“I really liked my job when on the tools and now dealing with the membership. You have so much freedom, particularly when on the tools, and I really enjoyed moving from place to place and job site to job site.”
She was also very aware of the risks and why there is such extensive training.
“It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t done the job, but you have to not only be responsible for yourself but also for others. It’s a dangerous job, and you can hurt people around you.”
That’s why she is supportive of the IBEW and ECAO contractors who put such a high emphasis on training and safety.
“It is definitely an advantage to work in a unionized environment. We are the best trained and have the most support,” she said.