Even though she excelled academically and had been accepted to several universities, Kate Campbell struggled with which path to take after high school. That is, until her parents gave her a graduation gift: They told her they didn't care whether she went to university. They just wanted her to do whatever would make her happy.
Fast-forward by nearly a decade, and Ms. Campbell, a carpenter, one of the stars of the HGTV home improvement shows Decked Out and Disaster Decks, and a popular speaker at home shows and schools, appears to have found her calling. And she encourages other young women to do the same.
But getting from high school to her dream job was not without a few hurdles. First, she had to overcome the societal bias against pursuing the trades as a career choice.
"We've over time developed a stereotype about the trades that they are a consolation prize in terms of success," Ms. Campbell said. She is hopeful that that's changing. "I think the more that people express that they love the trades, and that it's lucrative and challenging, and that they're passionate about it, the more there will be a paradigm shift."
Then she had to find her way into a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. Statistics from Toronto's Centennial College show that only 3 per cent of the students in its traditional trades programs are women, and 97 per cent are men. Ms. Campbell got her start almost a decade ago by enrolling in the Ontario government-funded Women In Skilled Trades (WIST) program, a pre-apprenticeship training program that introduced her to carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing, and educated her on building codes and safety. From there, she completed 400 hours of apprenticeship as a carpenter with the home improvement show Holmes on Homes.
Finally, she had to contend with the sometimes less-than-subtle bias against women in the trades. While Ms. Campbell said she has been lucky to have mostly supportive co-workers, occasionally, it bubbles to the surface. She recalls the time a roofer tapped her on the shoulder when she was using a jackhammer and told her: "You don't belong here. You're taking a man's job."
She was so taken aback she laughed, thinking he was joking. "That was the wrong reaction because he was not happy," Ms. Campbell said. But she also knew she had support.
"Having a great network of guys that I work with behind me, I went to my supervisor and said 'I don't appreciate that happening.' And my supervisor stuck up for me. He said to the man, 'If you feel the need to make those comments, you don't need to be on our site. Because we don't think that way, and we don't accept people who think that way.'"
That attitude is shared by Ms. Campbell's current supervisor, Paul Lafrance of Decked Out. Although Ms. Campbell got her start on Holmes on Homes, it wasn't until Decked Out that Ms. Campbell was given a voice.
"I walked on site the first day with Paul, and the sound guy came up and put a mike on me. I'd never been miked before, and they were looking at me like I was someone who something had to say. I felt like I was important and valued," Ms. Campbell said.
While she acknowledges that working on a TV show is a somewhat protected environment, Ms. Campbell said she faces many challenges typical of being on a regular construction site. Most relate to having confidence in your skills.
"If I was talking to [young women] looking to get into the trades, I would say don't be afraid to make mistakes. I was really nervous on site because there's pressure to be perfect. I felt it was magnified 100 per cent more than if a guy was making a mistake," Ms. Campbell said.
Confidence also means getting in there. "Learn to take chances and pick up that power tool and not be afraid to jump in with the guys and ask questions," Ms. Campbell said. "A lot of the time I didn't want to give anyone a chance to scrutinize me, so I would almost take myself out of game by not jumping in."
For Mr. Lafrance, who regards Ms. Campbell as a role model for his own four young daughters, encouraging a jump-in attitude became a priority.
"My challenge to her over the past four years is to kick her butt to not back down. If you sit back quietly, you end up not getting to do the stuff that you want to do," Mr. Lafrance said.
He said he still sees a double standard rooted in gender. "If you push hard and you're a guy, it's ambitious; but if you're a girl, you're trying to prove a point or have some ulterior motive. And I think that's nonsense. That does not happen on my job site. I want Kate to be a face for promoting women in the trades. She's highly skilled, highly creative, and we need more people out there like her to tell other women 'Don't sit back, get out there and do what you want to do. Don't let the culture decide what you can and cannot do.' "
Ms. Campbell agrees. "I'm proud of where I'm at right now, because I don't look like I'm the girl in the background, or like I'm there because of TV. I'm building, using the power tools, giving input on design ideas – it's empowering. It's leading by example."