Quickhit – bring on the female tradies!

If you were to make a guess, how many female tradies would you think there were in Australia?

I’d probably say something like: well, it’s probably less than 50%, because the trades are still seen as such a male area, but I know plenty of women who are pretty handy, and so that’s got to reflect in a growing number of women going into trades, so surely it’s got to be at least 10% to 20% by now. Surely.

Nope. Apparently it’s about 1.7%. Let me repeat that. 1.7% of tradies are women.


This gels with my recent experience of trying to find some female tradies. About as rare as hens’ teeth.

Anyway, this article in the SMH is doing a bit of awareness raising and talking about encouraging girls from a young age (less than 12) into thinking of going into a trade.


* Thumbnail image Hard day, hard hat from Sarah G…’s Flickr stream.

Categories: gender & feminism

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34 replies

  1. I was reminded forcibly of your search for female tradies on Monday when I almost took my business elsewhere after an airconditioning guy made an “aren’t wives dumb” joke to me over the phone. (Blogged here.) Only reason I didn’t go elsewhere is they’ve done good work for us in the past and I’m too lazy to bother finding someone else.

  2. Astounding isn’t it, less than 2%.

  3. @mimbles: I saw your post on that and could definitely understand where you were coming from. So frustrating that we have to compromise between giving the work to someone who makes us uncomfortable to doing a whole lot more work to try and find someone else.
    FWIW, the only female tradies I was able to find were a couple of painters, through the Master Painters Association. But for one of them, the number I was given was not actually that of the tradie, and for the other, she was too busy to even come and give me a quote (which is promising). But I did have a chat with her, and she couldn’t think of women in other trades, eg plumbers and sparkies. I asked all of the tradies who I did end up having come through, and none of them knew any female tradies at all.
    [Edited to clarify to whom I was replying]

  4. @blue milk – yes, it’s shocking. I wouldn’t have thought there was anything in Australia any more (except perhaps for front line combat roles!) where the proportion of women was so small.
    Hmm, I wonder how many women go into trades through the ADF? That would be interesting to find out. Because encouraging women into trades through that avenue could be a positive role the ADF could play in relation to this particular social issue.

  5. Trade work is interesting for a few reasons.
    In the past, especially in Australia , it has been a leveller of incomes (especially with immigrant families). In a lot of cases young men in trades were able to become financially independent and secure before their professional counterparts.
    I can’t think of a similar pathway for women.
    Secondly, it has often been a bastion of masculinity, passed down from fathers to their sons both for formal and informal trade skills.
    A few other things which might come into play with the gender balance are on-call and non standard hours of work as well as a single person often in a strangers home.

  6. http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Chapter8002008
    Some relevant stats re women and work in Oz during the last couple of decades.
    First the good news:
    “The last 25 years have seen substantial changes in women’s economic circumstances. In particular, the proportion of women earning their own incomes has risen, and levels of economic autonomy experienced by women have increased …”
    Then some not so good news:
    ” Nearly all of the increase in women’s share of total income occurred in the 13 years from 1982 to 1995-96, while in the decade to 2005-06 women’s share of total income changed little …”
    What happened during the latter period?
    It starts to get a little worse:
    “While there was significant growth in real incomes (i.e. income adjusted to remove the effects of price change) during the decade between 1995-96 and 2005-06, there was very little change in the distribution of men and women across the gross personal income quintiles. ”
    “If there were no inequality in the incomes of men and women, then each quintile group would contain equal proportions of each sex, with 20% of men and 20% of women located in each quintile group. This is not the case in Australia (or in other countries) as women are over-represented in the lowest income quintiles and under-represented in the highest quintiles. In 2005-06, for example, 25% of women were in the bottom quintile while only 11% of women were in the top quintile. The pattern for men was the opposite: 29% of men were in the top quintile and only 15% were in the bottom quintile. ”
    “In spite of the growth in women’s employment since 1982, the share of income received by women from both earnings from employment and government pensions and allowances overall remained relatively stable….
    I hope y0u find this relevant.

  7. I know a few trade-qualified women (two electricians, four carpenters, one plumber, one glazier, five or six auto mechanics and a panel beater) and all of them grew up on farms except for the panel beater, who is in business with her dad. Most of the women in my area doing apprenticeships, though, are in the beauty industry – also a way to business ownership, and one with lots of female mentors, but considerably lower income than most tradies and a major overlap with the service industry. I wonder if part of it is not wanting to be the only woman in an often-isolated situation with a group of men responsible for your pass or fail?

  8. Wow, that’s a lot lower than I thought it would be!
    I was rather heartened when one of the tradies on Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day* brought in his teenage (?) daughter to help with the mosaic in the Roman villa. I wondered if she was just helping out for the day, or if tradie-dom was her full time gig.
    *A TV series where ordinary UK tradies were brought in by English Heritage to build a Roman villa. It was BBC-style edu-tainment with America’s Next Top Model-style “I’m not here to make friends!” speeches. Brilliant.

  9. Perla – We’ve really enjoyed Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day too! Did you catch the episode where several volunteers came onto the site and apparently worked noticeably harder and more efficiently that the tradies? The volunteers were women 🙂

  10. oops. _than_ the tradies.

  11. I think I caught a bit of that! I rolled my eyes at foreman Jim mocking/criticising the others with talk of “lady volunteers,” but it was great that the community was able to get involved.

  12. You mean female tradies could really use the slogan


  13. This instantly made me think of the giant collective eye roll we got at our (all girls) high school when we asked if we could turn a disused locker room into a wood or metal work shop. Oh no ladies, you have home economics to keep your urges for practical learning at bay! I think it’s absolutely true that girls need to be encouraged from a young age, but being some one who used to hang out with her dad in the shed, it would have been nice to see that encouragement continue in formal education.

  14. The article was interesting to me on a slight tangent, because I was scanning The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces.
    There’s heaps of places to discuss gender and IT, but one potential crossover that is relevant to this take on women in trades:

    Discussions about the lack of women and underrepresented people of color within the information technology sector and the tech talent shortage have increased substantially in the last decade. This underrepresentation has most commonly been attributed to racial and gender disparities within the K-16 STEM educational pipeline (e.g., coursetaking patterns, intended majors, test scores, graduation rates) which ultimately result in a small percentage of qualified women and people of color entering into the sector.
    As a result, the primary focus has been on improving K-16 STEM pipelines… While gender and racial disparities within the K-16 pipeline are a major issue, the practices, policies, and culture within the sector must not be overlooked, and the underrepresentation in STEM will not be solved without the analyses of subtle or hidden biases in the workplace.

    I wonder if there’s something similar going on here. Pipeline improvement is attractive for funding and publicity purposes: it’s not “negative” because it doesn’t criticise adult culture. It offends important people less. However, as with STEM, presumably there needs to be attention to both the pipeline and the retention of women entering trades, including investigation of workplace culture. (Obviously SMH and HAT are not the only two places in the world discussing this though, I’m not claiming that investigating workplace culture in the trades is a new idea, only that the “pipeline” way to fixing things tends to outcompete it because it’s Not My Fault.)

  15. Don’t forget how much having a trade depends on getting an apprenticeship, which is still (though less than in previous generations) at the discretion of the senior tradies as to who they take on. Good old fashioned sexism can have a huge impact if qualified tradies don’t fancy having girls in their work environment, or make things unpleasant for them when they get there.

  16. Proud of my little sister who is currently training to be a carpenter 🙂

    • This thread is making me wonder whether one of my vague ideas might actually be worthwhile implementing – a women-tradies online network where they can spruik themselves and, if and when, advertise for apprentices. Would it be useful?

  17. tigtog there is something like this operating, or was… I know organisations in the womens’sector used to keep a directory of female tradies and preference them with work, something that was very useful for those organisations whose client base were women escaping trauma like DV and incest.

  18. Good on you for saying something @mimbles! I frequently freeze in shock and fury over those things.
    @tigtog, I think that sounds awesome! I tried using the womenintrades w/s and it returned nothing for electricians and I couldn’t find a segment for roofers, and there was only one plumber. Feeling sheepish that this hadn’t actually occurred to me (looking for a female tradie) when I’ve had to call people in lately – I asked friends for a recommendation and went with that rather than even thinking to find women first. But that’s now on my agenda to discuss with TBO tonight! 🙂

  19. Mary said:

    I’m not claiming that investigating workplace culture in the trades is a new idea, only that the “pipeline” way to fixing things tends to outcompete it because it’s Not My Fault.)

    I think you need both, but there are good reasons that the pipeline approach attracts a lot of investment. I work for a company that runs (self, not govt funded) some school programs to encourage girls into IT. They discovered that year 9/10 is actually too late to run these programs – they meet a lot of really smart girls who are surprised by how interesting IT can be, but have already decided on their career path.
    Fear of what the workplace culture might hasn’t come up much – I’d guess that for most it first really impacts at University. But having greater numbers of women in courses in the first place will in itself greatly help change the culture.

  20. In a lot of cases young men in trades were able to become financially independent and secure before their professional counterparts. I can’t think of a similar pathway for women.
    I know quite a few ladies who are earn a good income through sex work.
    Just to completely change the topic.

  21. Apologies Jo Tamar, I really don’t want to make this thread about IT.

    I think you need both, but there are good reasons that the pipeline approach attracts a lot of investment.

    I agree. I just think there’s also more than a smidge of “phew, it’s not about sexism, it’s about making young girls aware. Yay, no need for the f-word!” as well.
    Chris, I’ve noticed this a few times in your comments in reply to me: you tend to talk to me like I’m an outsider to the computing industry, to open source and to computing outreach to women. I am in fact a professional outreacher to women in open source and related communities and so I feel like I’m being splained to.
    Per my promise to Jo Tamar, let’s take it off Hoyden if you want to discuss IT further right now. My email is mary@ that domain I just linked to.

  22. My family is in Canada, so experiences may differ, but I have a sister trying to complete her carpentry apprenticeship. Problem is that where she is, the trades tend to follow the oil and gas industry around to where the jobs are. And if the jobs aren’t local, they don’t take her along because they don’t want to pay for a separate hotel room for her, because she is the only woman. But of course this means she falls behind all the male apprentices and takes longer to get the hours she needs to finish qualifying. Boo.
    Her crew was in a different town all summer, so she stayed home and helped to run the family farm. She’s pretty much given up on the idea of being a carpenter and now tells us she is happy being a farmer. Which would be fine, except that I worry she isn’t embracing farming joyfully but is picking up the responsibility because she is giving up her first dream. 😦

  23. Mary @ 24 – sorry I didn’t intend to talk to you as if you were an outsider to the IT industry – I know who you are and what you do.
    But having had some peripheral involvement with the outreach programs I disagree pipelining is done because it means that companies don’t have to do work in other areas such as workplace culture. There are *also* programs funded in those areas too but they obviously don’t get nearly as much external publicity because they are internal to companies.
    I think that view is actually being quite unfair to the people who run them as often it is not part of their job and they volunteer a lot of their time for free.
    Anyway I won’t say anymore on this topic.

  24. I find it unusual that workplace culture has only rated one mention (plus the hotel room comment above.) Workplace culture is huge. Apprenticeships in Australia is where a macho and boneheaded form of masculinity is enforced and policed through an endemic sytem of hazing and workplace violence – up to and including kids being set on fire by their workmates. Following the #mencallmethings discussion, and what we know about the prevalence of male-on-female workplace harassment in any workplace, it doesn’t take a genius to imagine that some girls are just chased and intimidated out of the industries even if they do make a start.

  25. Exactly my thoughts, Helen. Knowing about the culture of bullying, harassment and violence, must also certainly prevent at least some parents from encouraging young people into trades. My neighbour’s son left a building apprenticeship after fifteen months of that shit, including serious sexual harassment from his (male) boss and some other colleagues, all Nice Men who are respected within their communities. I would have concerns about a son or daughter aspiring to venture into these places for four years.

  26. Workplace culture doesn’t have to be as overt as sexual harassment, either – my first job out of uni was in an IT department, as a systems administrator. I lasted barely 12 months. I started as a temp – when my direct supervisor wanted to hire me permanently the director of the department told him he didn’t want a young girl working in his department, because “she’ll cause trouble with the boys”. My supervisor hired me anyway, having threatened to go to HR over it, but it was a very tense 12 months as the director wouldn’t even talk to me and – probably as a direct consequence – although I was never sexually harassed I certainly was treated with no professional respect. And I haven’t worked in IT since, despite loving the programming I was doing.

  27. a macho and boneheaded form of masculinity is enforced and policed through an endemic sytem of hazing and workplace violence

    Absolutely right, Helen. As I recall it was fifteen minutes in the snap cold fridge in my fast-food shirtsleeves for me. It’s an aspect of Australian working culture that can’t die fast enough.
    I take issue with the basic premise of the figures, though. Bear with me.
    It occurred to me that there’s a basic inequity in the way we think about trades, education and apprenticeship in our economy. The trades are a set of professions and occupations you get to through traditional vocational and on-the-job learning; they’re blue-collar and they have a professional culture associated with them, and the traditional class barrier applies: university and not-university. Professional and trade.
    But is, say, the work done by an aged carer, a disability carer, a neighbourhood centre manager, or a childcare worker more like the historical “professions” (law, engineering, medicine) or more like the high-skill work a tradesperson does? I think it’s the latter and I wish the pay and job respect followed it. Or in the rest of the SACS sector, community development workers, youth workers, support workers. Not necessarily university-educated, but in all-cases, they need high levels of skill and insight and constant ongoing training. It’s a particularly perverse double-standard because they’ve typically got higher levels of formal education than workers in stereotypical machine and building trades.
    We’ve got these massive—and massively growing—sectors in the “social” end of working economy, totally female-dominated, that either require a three-year degree or a TAFE Cert IV but don’t carry either the prestige of a profession or the high wages of a trade.
    Short argument: of course the figures list the rate as 2%, the definition is wrong.

  28. @Liam, to be fair, in the article itself, it specifies “the building and construction trades”. It was me who just said “trades”, and I should have been more specific.
    That said, while I agree with your comment (ie “I think it’s the latter and I wish the pay and job respect followed it”), I don’t think it has to be either/or.
    I think that everyone here is well aware that the so-called pink collar trades should attract the same pay and prestige as the “blue collar” trades – and lilacsigil referred to this in passing in relation to the beauty industry.
    It is a mainstream enough issue that the Prime Minister has announced a policy – and money – to try to redress the gendered gap.
    The fact that only 1.7% of people working in the building and construction trades are women is a different issue (perhaps a very different one, but maybe two sides of the same cultural coin), and one which I think gets far less press, at least in a substantive sense, which is why I phrased the beginning of the post and the tagline on the front page the way I did.
    But in any case, I want it all. I want both the trades (and other jobs/career areas/etc) in which women are over-represented to be paid commensurately with the trades (and other jobs/career areas/etc) in which men are over-represented – and I want us to work towards no gender being over- or under-represented in any field.

  29. As I recall it was fifteen minutes in the snap cold fridge in my fast-food shirtsleeves for me.

    Liam, that’s terrible, I only did a minute or so. And it’s the closing of the airtight door which is so scary, although I’m sure once I got over my panic there would have been a safety opener. Gary, in the unlikely event you’re reading this, you’re a douche. (Infections Diseases hospital kitchen, Fairfield, Vic 1977)

  30. Just coming back to this thread because of a point I saw raised elsewhere, about the correlation between the lack of opportunities for women in lucrative blue-collar trades/industries and the relatively new phenomenon of women outnumbering men in undergraduate enrolments: further education is the only path for most women to match the incomes of their male schoolmates who go into trades, therefore they pursue it harder.
    Of course, once they have those degrees they won’t be paid as much as the men they studied with at university either, but at least they’ll be earning more than the women in pink-collar industries.
    If the workplace culture in the trades was more welcoming/inclusive for women, with a realistic chance of making journeyman/master(!) status in good time, surely there would be a substantial cohort of girls who would be happy to train for a trade rather than pursue higher education.

  31. It’s a sad number, but not actually one that surprises me: it’s not strictly the construction industry, I realise, but I’ve been working on a (currently small, we’re there to get it started) minesite, and I’m the only woman there who isn’t admin or camp staff. There is not one female tradie on site, out of, say, about 80 people. I’ve been on a few other sites, and I recall one of the more well known larger companies had quite a few female dump truck drivers, but I can only recall one female tradie.* (She was only just starting out, as a trade assistant – essentially the bottom rung – and commented that the work was no harder than being a nurse in a hospital, and the pay much better.)
    As an interesting side, minesites seem to be one of the few places where the unpaid. unseen domestic work situation doesn’t hold – all work has monetary value and is paid. Some people cook, some people clean rooms and offices, some people weld pipe, but everyone is expected to do their job only. My job is to ensure a pipeline gets built and people get water when they need it – I’m not expected to cook, or clean my office, or even clean my room beyond basic neatness.
    *It’s worth noting that sometimes I only spend a few days on site – I work for a consultancy – so particularly with larger sites I am very likely to have not known what roles each of the women was undertaking.

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