“There is a glass ceiling no matter what they tell you.” with Tracy Primeau

The technical world is different from the finance or retail world, in that it is still led by white men. They speak the same language, golf together and tell off colour jokes when you aren’t around. Don’t try to fit in, be yourself and you will keep the respect of your staff and your peers, […]

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The technical world is different from the finance or retail world, in that it is still led by white men. They speak the same language, golf together and tell off colour jokes when you aren’t around. Don’t try to fit in, be yourself and you will keep the respect of your staff and your peers, change who you are and you will lose yourself and your integrity. I tried this at one point in my career and I didn’t like myself very much. When I returned to my previous job, I heard comments like, “Oh good, the old Tracy is back.” Listen to that!

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Primeau.

Tracy is an Authorized Nuclear Operator at Bruce Power. Tracy holds the license for the station when she is on duty. She supervises operations staff directly and is responsible for the safety of all as well as the plant. Tracy is trained to respond to any emergency or upset that occurs in the plant. There are approximately 50 operators that work for her in the control room and the plant. As an Indigenous woman, Tracy uses the Seven Grandfather Teachings as a guide for her leadership approach and style. She has been involved in many presentations as a Keynote speaker or panel member in the Nuclear Industry and Women in Leadership.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Basically I was tired of being a poor student. I was an arts (History) major who fell in love with computers and engineering while in university. I was encouraged to transition majors but was tired of living on macaroni and tomatoes so I applied for an operator job in the nuclear industry. My Dad had worked as a mechanic and encouraged me to apply. My husband was an electrician and helped prepare me for that part of the interview.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

There are so many. I had recently returned from maternity leave with my first son and as such my dose commitment was low in comparison to the other operators on my crew. There was a leak inside the containment building and someone had to go in to isolate. Myself and a control room operator donned SCBA packs and enter the containment building to close the valves and stop the leak. This occurred in 1994. Now when I attend training with younger operators this event is discussed in detail and I get to tell them I was there.

My father was a mechanical maintainer on D crew at the Bruce A station when I was a young girl in the early 70’s. All Shift Managers were men and were treated like gods. It’s interesting that his daughter ended up growing up and taking over the exact same crew as the first “goddess.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I walked into the control room at the Pickering A station as a brand new 22 year old and stuck my hands in the contamination monitor. My fingers were much smaller than the men’s and they slid underneath the backstop. I was stuck and could not remove my hand but too embarrassed to ask for help. Eventually I started to feel faint as my finger remained pinched and bleeding and the emergency response team had to respond to help me extricate my hand. The whole thing probably lasted about 10 minutes but it felt like two hours.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

On top of generating 30% of Ontario’s electricity at 30% less than the average cost, we are the world’s largest nuclear generating station and the reason Ontario was able to get rid of coal. We also produce lifesaving isotopes used around the world saving millions of lives every year in more than 80 countries.

We give back to the local community and beyond in a major way and have a Gold rating from the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Businesses in Aboriginal Relations.

Can you share a story?

Currently, my company Bruce Power is starting the largest construction project in North America creating 22,000 direct and indirect jobs over 25 years of construction. There are 58 suppliers involved who have all opened some sort of presence in the local community at the direction of our CEO who stated if you want a contract you had better open an office in our community. We are also partnering with the local Indigenous community to market new Isotopes together.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At work I’m creating training in the classroom and the plant to help our staff respond better to emergency situations as well as developing drill scenarios to support that.

I’m working closely with new operations leaders as a mentor in leading their crews, inspiring instead of directing and specifically with any young women interested in this path.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM?

No I am not. Women in STEM are still being paid less than men with the same experience and education and are not getting promoted at the same speed.

What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Make diversity a real priority not just a buzzword. If you’ve committed to promoting and retaining women in STEM, make a plan to do so and stick to it. We will have 20% female engineers by 2022 and 25% managers by 2023 etc. Also make your timelines aggressive so you have to work hard to get there and they don’t just happen by chance.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

You have boobs, so what?

Don’t downplay your femininity, you are a woman and that should be celebrated. When I started in this male world I decided to be “one of the guys” but as it turns out, it’s not possible. I was accepted as one of them until I got pregnant, then it was like a switch turned on and I no longer fit in with some and the rest wanted to protect me from everything. When a young engineer informed me I should be at home taking care of my husband and getting ready to be a mother I truly thought I had heard it all. If you want to wear pink, wear it. You may have a hard hat and work boots on but they can be women’s work boots with a bit of colour in them. Paint your nails if that’s your thing, you already stand out so you might as well be yourself.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Your gender brings a lot to the table.

Having women in a traditional men’s workplace is a benefit to your co-workers and your company. Diversity is the key to production and innovation. Having people with varied backgrounds and different thinking styles is imperative to success. Women bring both to the table. Believe it or not our gender can help in physical ways as well. For example, it may take me longer to close a valve but I can easily climb into a condenser water box or a boiler. As a leader I bring different experiences than my male peers that allow me to understand all the people that work for me in a more complete manner. Take this diversity into other areas of your life as well. If what you love to do is traditionally male oriented, give it a try, you will be bringing a lot to the table as the president of a local service club, a hockey coach or a volunteer firefighter.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There is a glass ceiling no matter what they tell you.

The technical world is different from the finance or retail world, in that it is still led by white men. They speak the same language, golf together and tell off colour jokes when you aren’t around. Don’t try to fit in, be yourself and you will keep the respect of your staff and your peers, change who you are and you will lose yourself and your integrity. I tried this at one point in my career and I didn’t like myself very much. When I returned to my previous job, I heard comments like, “Oh good, the old Tracy is back.” Listen to that!

People will talk about you.

You are famous, kind of a minor celebrity at work and it follows you home and into your personal life. This can affect your spouse, children and close friends. People may sing your praises or complain about your leadership but you can bet someone is going to overhear something said about you, good or bad and they can’t wait to tell you about it. You need to let it go and move on thanking the person who defended you (if they did). I’ve heard that I wasn’t ready for a promotion, was only promoted because I was a woman and that I’m the only one in my position with balls, only one of which is true. Smile and carry on.

You are a role model.

There is no getting away from it; you are a role model so embrace it. You will be a role model to people you don’t even know. Young women will watch you chair a meeting or listen to you speak on a conference call and take away pointers on how they should do the same. Watch your words and body language because everyone else is. If you are a bitch, they will try that out, if you are too soft, they may believe they have to be as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by a young person who has commented on something I said that I’ve totally forgotten and the impact it had on them. Make sure the impact is a positive one!

Support women publicly whenever you get the chance.

In saying that I will add, never denigrate them. You may not like another woman in your department or in another role but in public you must support each other. It’s hard enough being a woman in a traditionally man’s world without having other women run you down. If a young woman helps you with a project or an issue, make sure you recognize them publicly and with their supervisor as soon as possible. Some women tend to get overlooked because they don’t speak up or sit at the table. Ask them to sit beside you, give them the opportunity to speak when you are running the show and recognize them for their contribution. If you overhear a female colleague being criticized unfairly, speak up. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook states: “It’s time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table.”


As you will be mentored, mentor other young men and women interested in following your path or those you see as future leaders in your company or community. You have the privilege of being chosen for a rewarding high profile position; use that privilege to help others succeed. I was fortunate enough to have excellent mentors in my career including very few women. Offer to mentor anyone you believe has potential and never say no when asked for advice. One of the few female mentors I have had, Carol, will tell you the story of how she mentored me so well I became her boss.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself as mentioned in leadership lessons. Don’t try to be like “a man” unless that is who you are of course. Don’t micromanage, offer your team autonomy and they will rise to the challenge. Set high expectations and celebrate when your team meets them.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

You can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. No one is here today because they did it on their own. This quoted from Amy Poehler sums it up. Build yourself a team, as Shift Manager I had only 3 direct reports helping me to manage over 50 people but I made sure they were the best 3 teammates I could find and develop. Also, never underestimate your informal leaders, they can make the difference.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My one female mentor mentioned above Carol Lenestour, the first female Shift Manager in North America. But most definitely my family is the biggest help. In my parent’s eyes there was nothing I couldn’t do or be and I never stopped believing that as I married a partner and raised children who also believed that.

I have a younger sister who has emulated me her entire life, same university, living abroad, raising boys, hockey Mom, volunteer and a very successful leader who still comes to me for advice. Knowing she was watching and looking for advice/support made me look inwards and grow myself. She is currently the Chief Operating Officer of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Businesses.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I volunteer a lot and usually take on a leadership role as Chair, President etc. in many local and national organizations. I’m currently a member of the Board of Directors of Women in Nuclear Canada, Chair of the Women’s House Serving Bruce and Grey, Executive of the Kincardine Bulldogs Hockey Club and sit on two Municipality of Kincardine Council committees (one as Chair of the Community Fund giving back to non-profits and the other the Community and Economic Development Committee as the Energy Rep).

In the past I was a founding member of the Ontario Hydro Native Circle, served as Chair of that organization and the Bruce Power Native Circle for many years. I was a Rotarian from 1995–2009 and was the first Rotary President to breast feed at a meeting.

My financial success has also allowed me to financially support those things I care about most, the Women’s House, Big Brothers and Sisters and the United Way.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is out there. I would like to have the ability to see clean energy around the world. Obviously I’m in favour of nuclear with small modular reactors being used in remote communities to get rid of diesel and gas, support clean water and greenhouses but I’m open to anything that is clean. I’m especially interested in this idea in remote Indigenous (northern) communities in Canada of course.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is more a leadership lesson than a life lesson. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama-loved her book and her story but really admire her ability to keep all her priorities perfectly aligned.

Bill and Melinda Gates-their focus on making the world a better place is inspiring and I’d like to talk to them about nuclear power.

Malcolm Gladwell-such an interesting way at seeing the world.

Arlene Dickinson-how does she deal with all those men?

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