There’s an old saying that tradies get the ladies. But when the tradies are the ladies, gender stereotypes fly out of the window.
With about 5,500 women in trades currently working in Australia, and only about 2% female participation rates in industries like construction, automotive and electro-technology, pessimists might say the situation is bleak for women wishing to break down the barriers of gendered jobs. But there are plenty of women out there who are leading the charge and creating opportunities for women to succeed in jobs that have traditionally been held by men.
Women in trades aren’t a new phenomenon
With all the buzz about women putting down the gender stereotypes and picking up the tools, you could be forgiven for thinking this is something society has never seen before. However, this isn’t the first time women have excelled in manual trades.
Back in World War I and World War II, a large proportion of the country’s able-bodied men went off to fight, leaving jobs that were critical to the nation unmanned – literally.
This gap needed to be filled, and women stepped up to help keep the economy strong and assist Australia’s war efforts. They picked up trades quickly, becoming skilled in their fields. Unfortunately, fair pay was one frontier women struggled to make ground on, earning only a portion of what men typically received.
As each war drew to a close, they were sent from the tools of the trade back to the tools of the home, although some women in the workplace fought for and won the right to continue their employment. But despite having proven themselves perfectly capable of performing roles traditionally reserved for men, most women either had to give up their jobs or return to female-dominated industries.
Why have women avoided trades between then and now?
“If women wanted to follow trades, they would just do it!”
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The relatively small proportion of female participation in manual trades has two core elements:
- A lack of structural support.
- A lack of awareness and encouragement.
The first factor can be seen in the way facilities, uniforms, and policies aren’t designed with women in mind, resulting in the active exclusion of women from trade-based workplaces. This exclusion can manifest in a number of ways, including:
- Not having a women’s change room or bathroom easily accessible
- Protective equipment provided is too small or ill-fitting
- No policies in place to support flexibility for demands outside of work.
One study sums these issues up under the umbrella of “inadequate resources, biased infrastructure and policies” – but no matter how you want to label the problem, the result is the same: it’s hard for women to be employed in workplaces that are designed with men in mind.
The second element, the lack of awareness, is complex in nature. Because trades are traditionally the domain of men, women often aren’t targeted by employers for apprenticeships, and women generally don’t know how to seek out available opportunities.There are also a number of misconceptions surrounding manual trade work – women aren’t strong enough to handle the labour, women don’t want to get dirty, women can’t handle the ‘worksite banter’. And these types of views tend to be held and perpetuated by men and women alike.
To alter such ingrained attitudes, there is a need for a genuine cultural change to happen in the workplace, as well as better education to ensure the perceptions of women in trades changes on all fronts.
The women working to make a difference
There are groups of women coming together across Australia to support and nurture emerging female talent in trades. These groups, such as SALT (Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen), NAWIC (the National Association of Women in Construction) and The Lady Tradies Australia are being created by women, for women, and it’s a movement that’s gaining momentum.
Organisations like these are uniting women who often feel very isolated in their chosen profession, giving them a space to connect with likeminded people who have experienced similar challenges. That’s not all they do, though – for example, SALT also runs free mobile workshops across ACT, NSW and Victoria, where they teach women practical skills that can be applied in the workplace. They also give talks in schools, which is essential in order to change the perception of women in trades and teach girls that professions don’t have a gender.
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These groups are crucial when it comes to encouraging genuine change for female tradies: with women both advocating for better resources and policies, as well as starting their own businesses designed with women’s needs in mind, this cycle of empowerment is essential for getting more girls into trade-based careers.
Fiona Shewring, President of SALT, says giving women more options is critical for enabling long-term career success.
“We are supporting young girls to make very proactive career choices,” Ms Shewring said.
“We don’t push them to do trades, we are giving them an option in today’s world because people must work…We encourage them to do something they’re passionate about.”
Why is it important to encourage women to take up trades?
Some people might think it seems like a token effort, or that women are just wanting to get in on the success of men – another feminist crusade to take over the world, perhaps. But encouraging women to take up and succeed in trades has far-reaching implications both for individuals and the economy.
The Girls in Trades report compiled by the NSW government states:
“Increasing female participation in non-traditional trades provides an opportunity to reduce disadvantage, break cycles of inter-generational welfare dependency, increase family incomes and increase superannuation savings. Promoting a more even education and employment profile between females and males is not only sensible but it is also equitable.”
It’s widely accepted that increasing the participation of women in the workforce benefits the economy, and unlocking trades for females provides women with another avenue to be their own boss, gain satisfaction from working with their hands, and gain access to potentially high-income professions that are typically held by men.
Demand is leading to supply – and support
With many infrastructure projects and residential housing booms around the country over recent years, the demand for qualified and capable tradespeople has been steadily growing.
While apprenticeship participation numbers fluctuate with the economy, there is a corresponding increase in young people starting university and directly entering the workforce. This means the decline cannot wholly be attributed to economic conditions. The NSW government agrees, highlighting the skills shortage in their Girls in Trades report. This report examines why increasing female participation rates in trades is important, and states, “One response to these shortages is to encourage women to seek relevant qualifications and employment in these trades”.
This means there are opportunities for non-traditional apprentices to step up and fill the apprentice gap – and a growing number of women are ready to don their PPE and get to work. And more importantly: customers are embracing women in trades with open arms.
What makes female tradies different?
Women tradies aren’t just participating in the industry and building networks to support and encourage other women; they’re also changing the standards of service. The Lady Tradies Australia website sums up the points of difference aptly, “warning” potential customers that tradies from their network will return calls when promised, turn up to the job on time, listen to what you want, complete jobs to budget and tidy up before leaving – in other words, all the things that ‘normal’ tradies are renowned for being bad at.
Tradettes Plumbing, an all-female plumbing business that operates in Brisbane, also highlights the difference in their services, telling clients they have “all the relevant training and experience of a male plumbing service, combined with the communication skills, service, cleanliness, and attention to detail of a woman” – the best of both worlds. There is no shortage of plumbers in Brisbane, and Tradettes work to the highest of standards from their combined years in the industry.
The idea that women can provide better customer service than men may rely on outdated stereotypes surrounding ‘typical’ gendered behaviours. But if those attitudes are going to persist anyway, women might as well use them to their advantage.
Industry and government support is growing to help women who choose to follow a trade career
Luckily, demand and opportunity are slowly but surely converging in Australia, and women taking up trades are being supported at multiple levels through government organisations and initiatives.
Branches like Women in Trades within the NSW government are creating strategic partnerships and publishing research contributing to the discussion surrounding female tradies, helping to educate and boost awareness within communities.
The Government of Western Australia has created the Women in STEM and Trades pledge, which an organisation or individual can commit to with the ultimate aim of boosting representation of women in male-dominated fields.
Earlier this year, the ACT announced a $1 million vocational education package to be rolled out over 4 years, which is intended to fund Skills Canberra to develop upskilling and reskilling activities for women in trades, as well as for mature-aged workers.
This increase in government involvement is a move welcomed by Christina Totsis, Head Teacher of Building and Construction at St George TAFE.
Christina says awareness is key, and that promoting the great female talent in the Australian market is the way forward.
“I have many female school students aspiring to being a world class renovator,” says Christina.
She also believes the misconceptions surrounding trades need to be dispelled.
“It is not all about brawn and hard labour, surprisingly it’s about skill and artistry.
“The tools of the trade and materials available now allow the tasks to be completed far more efficiently.”
Women are laying the foundations
Government support can only go so far. Ultimately, it’s up to women to take the leap and blaze the trail.
One woman who is doing just that is Helen Yost, owner of Tradettes Plumbing. Helen runs the Brisbane-based business alongside a team of capable women, but breaking into the building industry hasn’t been without challenges.
After facing a sustained harassment campaign from people apparently offended that women are allowed to participate in the workforce, Helen got national media coverage, which has only fuelled her business. Since the publicity, there has been a massive influx of women wanting to join the team, proving that awareness is a key factor to growing the number of women in trades in Australia.
Helen also has a goal: she wants to see 1,000 female apprentices in Queensland by 2024. Currently, just 49 of 16,500 plumbers in Queensland are women. She wants to see this number increase dramatically, saying, “1000 female apprentices by 2024 is just a start!”
And with female participation rates set to rise, the future is looking good for businesses that are all about catering to lady tradies. Eve Workwear and She Wear are two such organisations. Specialising in women’s workwear, both businesses addressed a major gap in the market, meaning women aren’t sentenced to wearing baggy or ill-fitting clothes when on the job.
It seems all the pieces are falling into place for a lady tradie boom in Australia. So whether you want to be a female plumber, a female electrician, a female carpenter, or any other female tradesperson, now’s the time to kick-start your career. And soon, we might be able to drop the word ‘female’ from these professions altogether, because it won’t be unusual. It will just be accepted.
When your next browsing the True Local listings trying to find an electrician nearby for that busted power socket, consider a tradeswoman to do the job. You can expect her to show up on time, not make a mess and not rip you off.
How women can get started in apprenticeships or trades
Thinking of taking the first step to a rewarding career as a lady tradie? Here’s how to get started:
- Identify potential trades you may want to pursue.
- Do some research and find a trade that appeals to your unique talents and interests.
- Check out your local training authorities (such as TAFE) to see what courses are available.
- Sign up to networks such as SALT to connect with other lady tradies.
- Study, learn, and enjoy!
We trust these female tradies to get the job done:
- Female Tradie – Penny Petridis and her team from Female Tradie are located in Sydney NSW. Their services span residential, commercial and industrial projects, big and small.
- Tradettes Plumbing – If you’re looking for a plumber in Brisbane, Helen Yost and the girls at Tradettes are up for whatever plumbing challenge you can throw at them.
- GEM Australia – Melanie and her team at Generation Electrical Maintenance, service parts of WA, Perth and surrounds. They are known for their quality of work and high standards.
- Marcelle’s Carpentry and Building – Marcelle’s has a ton of experience when it comes to house renovations and enhancements. You’ve just found your next carpenter in Melbourne.
- Premium Gekko Gardening – Servicing Brisbane and surrounding areas, Premium Gekko are experts in all things horticulture, ranging from small residential upkeep to large acreage, commercial and industrial properties.
Resources to help you along the way
How to become an Australian apprentice – Learn more
Find meeting groups through SALT – Learn more
Girls in Trades report – Learn more
The Lady Tradies Australia – Learn more
National Association for Women in Construction – Learn more
Women in Mining Network – Learn more