18-year-old Catherine Mathewson is helping to close the industry’s gender gap.
When three young women took to the 2014 Skills Canada National Skills Competition (SCNC) podium to accept medals in the car painting category, that coveted bronze, silver and gold-coloured recognition wasn’t only symbolic of hard work, dedication and demonstrated talent, but also of the changing face of the industry itself.
While long considered a traditionally male-dominated field, more and more up and coming members of the fairer sex are rolling up their sleeves to make their mark in the world of collision repair, and in the process, turning outdated stereotypes on their head. Forget finishing school—where girls learned the social graces expected of a lady in fashionable society—this next generation has no qualms with swapping out the pearls and gearing up to earn a spot working in the trades.
It’s a shift 18-year-old Catherine Mathewson is proud to be a part of. The Scarborough native was one of the aforementioned SCNC finalists, taking home silver at the secondary level, behind Vicky Bouchard with gold, and Kassandra Plante-Bilodeau with bronze at the post-secondary level.
A seasoned contender, Mathewson competed multiple times regionally, provincially and nationally throughout most of her high school career. Her proven eye for colour and keen attention to detail has made the competitor’s name known among judges while catching the attention of Leanne Jefferies, Director of CCIF skills program and AIA Canada collision programs.
“She was the Ontario car painting champion two years in a row, and just from watching her in action, she’s phenomenal,” Jefferies says. “She’s got a great level of talent and passion, and has performed exceptionally well. “She knows exactly what she wants to do and she’s willing to do all the work required to make sure she has the right skills. It’s females like Catherine who employers should be seeking out at skills competitions.”
It’s no surprise that this has been the case going back to Mathewson’s first year competing at the provincial level, when she was approached by a BASF tech rep on the lookout for a colourist, drawn to her knack for colour-matching. It’s this positive feedback that has helped push her forward each year.
“When I started, I had no expectations. I thought, as long as I push myself to go as far as I can go, I’m happy; and surprisingly enough I won provincials the first year,” she says. “I was really amazed with myself at nationals, I didn’t expect it to happen. The second year, I knew I wanted to go for gold.
“I was a little sad about coming second, but it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it, and I can’t wait to compete next year at the post-secondary level.”
Mathewson adds that her accomplishments are owed in part to the guidance and encouragement of one of her biggest cheerleaders, her Danforth Collegiate Technical Institute auto collision repair instructor, and chair of Skills Canada, Bill Speed—whom she has come to consider “a second dad.”
Studying auto body under Speed from grade 10 through her final year, the instructor played a definitive role in her development, but is careful to give credit to where credit is due, stressing any successes are a product of her own hard work and commitment.
“I have a certain sense of pride as far as teaching her, but as a facilitator I can only demonstrate, I can point out where to do things better; at the end of the day it’s still on the student,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I just facilitate an opportunity for them and whether they take it and run with it, that’s up to them. She’s got the drive, that’s the main thing.”
With co-ops at Prochilo Brothers and Scarborough Toyota under her belt—each workplace enthusiastic to have a woman aboard—Mathewson’s talents have landed the aspiring colourist an apprenticeship at Vaughn’s Excellence Auto Collision. Currently the envy of her friends, working with BMWs and other luxury vehicles, Mathewson has been busy picking up new skills and refining learned ones since September.
Shop owner Peter Woo says he’s impressed with their latest addition, praising her work ethic and honed skill set as she keeps busy on the polish and refinish side, while also taking time to shadow the resident female airbrush artist.
“You see these two work together, it will blow you away,” says Woo. “It’s just an amazing level of talent. I can’t say enough about it.”
While her own journey may speak to a growing female presence in the trade, Mathewson says the lengthy process has only just begun, and will need much more industry engagement and outreach to young girls, inviting them to step up and realize their dreams—a sentiment wholly shared by Jefferies.
I think there’s a lot more interest from women to enter the collision repair field, and it’s certainly something that as an industry, we need to be working on because there’s a great deal of talent available out there,” Jefferies says. “one of the challenges is changing our image, and attracting those young women in the first place.”
And once those perceived barriers are broken, she adds that there still remains a responsibility to provide female employees with a positive, welcoming work environment.
In this regard, the road for Mathewson hasn’t always been a smooth one, but she’s learned the best way to combat any negativity thrown her way is to simply let the work do the talking.
“Sometimes it’s tough to be the only woman in a big group of men, but I tell other girls, if you want to do it, do it. Don’t let anyone stop you or push you down. Shut them up by doing an amazing job,” she says. “I’m just a proud supporter of women working in the trades in general, and if we can keep attacking the old boys’ club, then why not? Just because you’re a different gender doesn’t mean you can’t do the same thing.”