Champions for Equality: Tamara Pongracz and Tina Strehlke

In honour of International Women’s Day, and in partnership with the BC Gender Equity Office, I’m sharing Champions for Equality, profiles of women in British Columbia whose work actively combats biases, broadens perceptions, and celebrates women’s achievements.

Tamara Pongracz, Chief Instructor, Trades Access, BC Institute for Technology

When Tamara Pongracz began working as a welder’s helper in the 1990s, the percentage of women in trades-related jobs and industries was believed to be around 2-3%. Female representation was so low, when she received a letter of welcome into her plumbing apprenticeship program, it was automatically addressed to Mr. Pongracz. Tamara found her way to the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), eventually heading the Trades Discovery program. Now as Chief Instructor of Trades Access at BCIT, Tamara helps students find trades or career paths through real-world experiences. This includes the Trades Discovery for Women program, encouraging women to pursue careers in what was once known as the “final frontier”.

After high school, amidst the recession of the 90s, Tamara found minimum wage jobs were not paying the bills, let alone providing enough to save enough for post-secondary education. With the help of her father, Tamara found work in construction. The money gave her independence, allowed her to pursue education, and gave her post-secondary credentials and opportunities she never imagined otherwise.

But being a woman in a male-dominated field was one of the biggest challenges she faced in her early days working in the trades. As an Indigenous woman of small stature, there were many moments where she was forced to pick her battles, where being assertive rather than aggressive, or understanding the right moment to diffuse a situation with a joke was necessary. Her father advised it wasn’t her job to change the culture of the industry she entered. “Don’t try be one of the guys,” he told her. “Don’t demand they change their ways for you. If you earn their respect, their world will be your world too.” Tamara came to appreciate the focus on teamwork in trades– “At the end of the day,” she says, “we’re all on a deadline and have to get the work done together.” Even so, a strong sense of self was crucial, and, as her confidence grew, she made many male allies on the job, who cheered her along the way and still do.

Now Tamara is able to pass her shared knowledge on to her students, who she cites as her biggest inspiration. “I’m always excited to see underrepresented groups thrive and provide opportunities to support them,” she says. “It’s been amazing see the strides made, along with the increased support of the government for women in trades. It really energizes me to continue.” Her advice to those following a similar path to hers is to “own your greatness, value your lived experiences and take advantage of every opportunity.” It’s important, she says, to recognize that the barriers a woman may face have been encountered by those before her—knock ‘em down, and be sure to leave the door wedged open as you go, so others can follow the same path.

Photo of Tamara courtesy of the BCIT Foundation

Tina Strehlke, CEO, Minerva BC

As CEO of Minerva BC, Tina Strehlke leads a team of thoughtful, talented change makers who develop, empower and promote women’s leadership. Tina credits her mother as the strong role model and influence who defines her as a leader. Growing up knowing her mom loved her work as an internist/oncologist – and was exceptional in her work – inspired Tina’s to be more than a leader. Her mom inspired her to make a difference. 

It wasn’t always easy, even for one who was recognized as leader from a young age. As with many people, deep down Tina sometimes associated leadership as being masculine. As she was promoted into executive roles, at some level, it didn’t feel like real leadership because being drawn to supporting and empowering others wasn’t often celebrated in business, government or community. In a way, being a caring and encouraging person seemed smaller and less important.

Tina really embraces all the amazing women who work at Minerva for helping her re-define leadership.  These are people who helped her understand society’s concept of leadership is out of balance, and that we need to value curiosity, humility, and empathy as much as we value other leadership traits.

These concepts and the opportunity to learn are what inspires Tina every day.  For her, learning is at the heart of change. With this as a guiding force, Tina and her team at Minerva BC focus on developing strong, values-based leaders who have the inspiration and confidence to influence the world around them.

If there were just one thing Tina would say to someone who is starting out or making a change to pursue their goals, it is take bigger risks than you think you are ready for and ask people around you for help. 

For those facing barriers or those who may not believe they have what it takes, Tina says take the first step.  Put things in motion, then figure out how to navigate the first obstacle. Breaking your goal into smaller steps will allow you to think and solve problems in front of you. And it will help you figure out what you need to be successful.

Tina first discovered Minerva in 2001 when working as an employment counselor at Training Innovations – a leading B.C. career development company specializing in in-person and online career solutions.  She joined the Minerva team in 2016 and actively works to mentor and support women and girls to discover their strengths and develop their leadership skills.