WOMEN’STEC Student of the Year, Aine McLaughlin, was announced by Budget Energy CEO Eleanor McEvoy at the WOMEN’STEC Gala Awards.

The annual WOMEN’STEC Gala Awards took place on 15 March 2016 at Belfast City Hall to celebrate and showcase the achievements and innovation of women in non-traditional skills training.

In the past year, in excess of 140 students participated on the Supporting People – Empowering Communities (SPEC) programme ran in partnership with Clanmil Housing Group and part funded by the Northern Ireland European Social Fund 2014-2020 – Investment for Growth and Jobs Programme, the Department of Employment and Learning. The programme has received resounding support from the construction industry and partner organisations and is being backed by leading construction firm Gilbert-Ash and JMC Mechanical and Construction Ltd.

Student of the Year, Aine McLaughlin, gave an inspiring and heartfelt testimony at the Awards, outlining the obstacles she has faced and her determination to succeed:

“My name is Áine McLaughlin, I’m 34 years old and a mother of 4 children. I’d like to start off with a quote: ‘Every Woman has a right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do.’ (by Ani Di Franco)

“Growing up, and as a teenager, I thoroughly enjoyed subjects like Technology, Art and Home Economics. I also had a very keen interest in Mechanical Engineering and Welding. In particular I liked the idea of becoming a Welder.”

“At school, I was eventually able to get a placement in what was considered ‘a boys role’ in a local engineering firm so I could learn more about, and gain some experience of welding, fitting and so on. (I would definitely say, it was much easier for boys to get these placements back at this time.) During my placement, a few of the boys and I became friendly, and they had told me about the other men making “waged bets” on how long I would last! – the highest bid was 1 month. On hearing this, it made me realise that I was in for the long haul and, with such chauvinistic attitudes! I remember getting annoyed and frustrated. I definitely feel there was a lot of discrimination for women, like me, who were interested in a hands-on subjects like welding.”

“Even as a young women, I began to realise that I had a harder battle to overcome than I first thought, some comments I had received from men were “ you aren’t the right height or size to be a welder!” I got laughed at and told, “but you’re a girl!” I was disgusted, in my eyes, it didn’t matter on height, weight, size, or gender, it depended on whether or not you could weld.”

“Fast forward to October 2015 – 17 years later, after taking a family career break, I decided that I was the only one stopping me from being who or what I wanted to be, and that this time, I will let no one get in my way!”

“So I enrolled with WOMEN’STEC, and I began my Joinery class which was facilitated by Louise Anson. Louise has given me inspiration and rekindled that wee flame, that I thought had been extinguished. To see a woman in a non-traditional role, and to hear Louise’s stories and see her work, is someone for me to aspire to be. I loved making my stool in class, and learning how to make the joints, and when our course came to an end, I was gutted. I wanted more. I was delighted to hear that the Furniture Making class was to commence soon after, and after completing that course, I spoke with Louise and Patricia about where I could go next? What I could do? They signposted me to my local College, and Patricia contacted the college and retrieved details for myself. I would not have been able to attend these courses had there not been childcare available, so I want to thank Patricia and Peggy at WOMEN’STEC for providing childcare.”

“In completing the WOMEN’STEC courses in Joinery and Furniture Making, I want to continue to work in Joinery, I am looking at ways to progress my career, and one day I hope to start my own business. Though in order for me to achieve my training and education, it is essential that childcare is available.”

“Thinking back…. before I had a family… I faced many barriers and challenges. I recall being treated unfairly because I was a woman. There were times when I had comments like, “How dare I try and do a man’s job – after all, I was just a woman!!” I remember feeling I was deflated, my self confidence at rock bottom, I felt useless…. I had failed.”

“Back to present day…..
After 17 years, I realise that I should never have thrown the towel in, I should have pursued my career and since having children of my own, I teach them – that they can be anything they want to be, they must get educated, they must work hard, and the only person that can stop them, is themselves!!”

“I just want to thank all the staff in WOMEN’STEC, for all the help and guidance they have given me, and I know that I can call on these women at any time. Food for thought: It’s easy to give in to feelings of self doubt and back down from challenges. But that’s certainly not what being a strong woman is all about?”

“If you don’t like being a doormat, then get off the floor!!”

“A final quote by Shakespeare: ‘And thou she be but little, She is Fierce!’”