For time immemorial, the construction, mining, trades and manufacturing industries have been a male-dominated environment. Outside of the administration fields, women in these industries have traditionally been few and far between. There are, however, a contingent of women bringing about a brave new world of pink high-vis and ponytails to the workforce, kicking ass and taking names.
A 2016 report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency lists the construction industry as the least female-represented sector, at just 11.7%, followed closely by mining at 13.7%. While, broadly speaking, only 14.7% of the trades and technicians positions within Australia are occupied by women. Unsurprisingly, as much as 74% of clerical and administration workers are female, and the stats have been that way for a few decades at least.
There are a few women out there however, who are bucking the trend and making a go of the ‘blokey’ jobs like mining, construction and trades such as plumbing and electrical. One such woman is Canberran Michelle Tifan, who won both the Outstanding Electrician and Outstanding Apprentice of the Year at the ACT Building and Construction Industry awards in 2011. She’s no stranger to surprised reactions when it comes to her chosen profession.
“You get that initial surprise [reaction] where people say, ‘Oh wow…female…and you’re a sparkie’,” Ms Tifan said. “But the minute you’re head down, bum up and you get in and do the work… then you do it just as well or better than the guys, very quickly you’re treated as an electrician or a plumber.”
Nowadays, rather than go it alone, there are a number of initiatives sprouting around the country which aim to encourage and support women wishing to undertake a career in these male-dominated areas. Both government and not-for-profit programs are available in most states, which utilise training and support networks to connect women with apprenticeships and career pathways which may otherwise be difficult to access.
The Canberra Institute of Tafe (CIT) have seen a marked increase in female enrolment in trades, due in no small part to their Women in Trades Ambassador program. As director of CIT Trade Skills and Vocational Learning, Fiona Mitchell explains:
“We have seen a pleasing increase of women choosing to study an apprenticeship in a non-traditional trade at CIT, and going on to excel in their chosen field.”
While she admits that there is still a long way to go, CIT and other organisations are making inroads with similar programs, by bringing advocates into the education space, and running programs specifically targeting women in trades.
“The priority is to work with female tradespeople, industry and employers to identify ways in which we can provide a more supportive network for women across all trade sectors,” said Mitchell. “As well as offering great career paths, there are so many opportunities to strive to be the best and gain recognition for excellence in a trade skill while undertaking an apprenticeship at CIT – from industry competitions and awards, to the tradies’ Olympics – WorldSkills.”
Not-for-profit group SALT (Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen) was formed in 2009 by a group of female tradespeople who saw the need for a support network which could bring together the experiences and wisdom of current female tradies to a new generation hoping to enter the workforce or retrain. Running workshops in schools and other centres, the group teach women some basic trade skills in the hope that they’ll gain the confidence to enter into a trade apprenticeship.
“We don’t expect all of the young women that do the workshops to become tradeswomen,” said president Fi Shewring. “But the skills we do in a four-and-a-half-hour workshop, we teach them how to use drills, impact drivers, how to saw properly, how to hammer properly, how to use a drop saw; they are life skills that everybody should have and be able to use safely.”
These kinds of programs, and their clear popularity with prospective female tradespeople are an indication that perhaps the traditionally male-dominated landscape of certain industries is changing, albeit slowly.