Female workers could be the answer to the skills shortage in manual trades, but only if more is done to remove the barriers they face entering male-dominated industries, new research shows.
- Only a tiny percentage of tradespeople are women
- A new study says more women in trades could help alleviate the skills shortage
- The research shows that there are a number of ways to overcome the barriers women face
The Charles Sturt University study identifies obstacles for women pursuing trades at every stage of their career, from school — when girls are more likely to be pushed towards higher education than a trade compared to boys — through to a lack of appropriate facilities such as toilets and changerooms for women on worksites.
Lead researcher Dr Donna Bridges said more women taking up careers as tradies could relieve pressure on the building, construction, maintenance and renovation industries.
“We were first interested in women working in the manual trades, because there’s a skills shortage in regional New South Wales in the manual trades,” Dr Bridges said.
“Of course, women are a big recruiting pool — 50 per cent of the population — and yet only 1-3 per cent of tradespeople are women.”
Lady tradie determined to break down barriers
Twenty-three-year-old carpenter Tiffany Atkinson of Orange, in central-western NSW, said starting out as one of a small number of female tradespeople meant she battled stigma from both colleagues and clients.
“I’ve had a fair few difficulties with clients going, ‘oh, a woman can’t be doing this,'” Ms Atkinson said.
“Things on roofs mainly, like when you’re working up on the roof or carrying something really heavy.”
Online support networks made up of other women working in the trades have been key to overcoming the various hardships she has faced.
“You can always talk to someone and someone’s always been through your situation before you — it’s just a different name, it’s just a different town,” Ms Atkinson said.
“They might have been caught up in that situation and now know a way to overcome it.”
Over the years, Ms Atkinson used her reputation to build her career.
“Everyone just knew me as the chick that wore pink around,” she said.
“So I was like, ‘oh well, everyone knows me as the chick in pink, so just brand a business off it.'”
Support and education is the key to success
Ms Atkinson’s experience with support networks reflects one of the solutions to keeping women employed in manual trades.
“It gives them a forum to talk about their experience and realise that they’re not alone,” Dr Bridges said.
“So they can engage with each other about what’s going on, add a bit of humour to that, which of course creates resilience.”
But another significant factor to improving women’s longevity in the manual trades is education about appropriate workplace behaviour.
“[There’s] issues around bullying and harassment, issues around making jokes and sexualising other people,” Dr Bridges said.
“I think there needs to be much more awareness in the industry around codes of conduct and acceptable behaviour.”
Implementing a ‘no dickhead policy’
Licensed builder and business owner Dionie Sullivan said she had a range of negative experiences as an apprentice, from a lack of appropriate facilities through to sexual harassment.
Those experiences led her to introduce a ‘no dickhead policy’ once she started her own building company.
Working across Bathurst and Sydney, Ms Sullivan said her policy revolves around respect for everyone onsite, from tradies to delivery drivers to clients, and has garnered a positive response, even from men.
“The culture in the construction industry is very macho, it’s very toxic, it’s a very hardened environment,” she said.
“I’ve actually had feedback from the guys that it’s actually a relief to know they can come onsite and relax.
“There’s nothing to prove, they don’t have to prove their masculinity on the site and it’s all about just being professional.”
More exposure, higher recruitment
Ms Sullivan said she still comes across people in the industry who seem to be surprised that there are female tradespeople at all.
“Possibly a lot of that comes down to exposure,” she said.
“We watch all the trades shows, The Block, House Rules — there’s no female tradies on TV.
“You’re possibly only really exposed to a female tradesperson if you’re in the industry and you see it firsthand.”
The research shows there has been progress in recruiting women as tradespeople, with training organisations such as TAFE and larger employers implementing policies and programs to help recruit, train and retain women.
Dr Bridges says this needs to continue, and to be supported by more government and private sector policies and education programs, to create a sector that is stronger and more responsive to customer needs.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there that do want women tradespeople and cannot find them,” she said.
“The more diverse your workforce, the more responsive it can be to customers, to the community.”