Nerissa D’Souza and Sajesha Manoharan want to pursue careers in automotive engineering and break down barriers in the predominantly male industry. Photo courtesy of Centennial College

Toronto students take on gender, cultural biases

  • March 4, 2016

TORONTO - Nerissa D’Souza and Sajesha “Sunny” Manoharan are trying to break the double whammy of gender and cultural barriers by forging careers as auto mechanics.

The aspiring mechanics from Toronto’s Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School made history by becoming the first all-female team to place in the Toronto Automotive Technology Competition. D’Souza and Manoharan, both 17-yearold Grade 12 students, took third overall in the 17th instalment of the annual competition held during the Toronto International Auto Show.

“Coming top three is huge for us since we are women,” said D’Souza.

Manoharan was less enthusiastic about their finish and more focused on their cultural victory.

“I’m disappointed because we wanted to come in first obviously, but very, very happy because we basically made history,” she said. “It is about time to break down all of those stereotypes that only men can be able to work in the automotive industry.”

For Manoharan, it goes much further than gender barriers, however.

“Because I’m Sri Lankan, you don’t see women at all in heavy duty industry,” said Manoharan. “My parents were shocked because they thought that I was going to go on a different type of career path. My parents are very supportive of my decisions ... but they were kind of disappointed and tried to talk me out of it.”

Her extended family was even less understanding and got a little revved up by the idea of their niece becoming a grease monkey.

“My uncles and my aunts on the other hand were pretty shocked,” she said. “They always thought that it was an industry sort of just for men. I told them it is changing and that whatever a man can do a woman can do.”

Words alone weren’t enough to warm them up to that idea. It took action, commitment and results.

“All of the family members that told me this was a really bad choice are now saying, ‘Oh, I knew you had it in you,’ ” said Manoharan.

D’Souza too said her parents, though supportive, were caught off guard by her interest in the automotive industry as a career, even though her father had an unexpected hand in her decision, buying her toy cars every Christmas.

“My parents come from an Indian background,” she said. “In our culture our parents want us to be lawyers, doctors, engineers.”

The girls’ school, specifically their mentor Isaac Ozah — who spent nearly every weekend with the girls this school year preparing for the competition — was supportive all the way.

“I feel very blessed and I know Nerissa feels very blessed too to have a support system like I do at this school,” said Manoharan. “Mr. Ozah spent a countless number of hours showing us that we are capable.”

“(He) gave me the confidence to break the news to my parents that this is what I actually want to do and not become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer like an Indian parent would want their child to do,” said D’Souza.

Having taught both girls since Grade 10, Ozah, the school’s tech director, said he always believed in the duo.

“(When) they came to me and told me, ‘Look Mr. Ozah, we want to be automotive service technicians,’ I said if that is what you girls want to do then you’d be good candidates for this competition,” he said. “I thought they would come in first place, I thought they were going to win.”

An immigrant himself, Ozah said he strives to instill in all his students that traditional gender roles do not apply in Canada.

“I am personally trying to break down the barriers,” he said. “This is a free country. Whatever a man can do a woman can do.”

Both girls are already enrolled in level 1 of the automotive service technician program at Toronto’s Centennial College and dream of one day owning their own automotive shops.

And that’s exactly where Manoharan feels she belongs.

“When I am in the shop I feel at my best,” she said. “It is a powerful thing when you have something that is broken and you get to fix it, alter it or change it to your liking.”

The Feb. 11 competition, won by a team from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School in Mississauga, challenged the teams to perform a number of timed technical tasks. The top three schools are to receive a vehicle from GM Canada for training purposes.

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