News & Views

24th September 2019

Women in male dominated trades, why is it not working?

Over the last 20 years, the number of women entering and being retained in male-dominated trade roles has not increased over 3 percent. Why? It is a topic of conversation in many businesses, it is the reason Tradeswomen Australia Foundation was established, it is a question I often ask myself, and it was the reason we completed the Influencers Insights report.

On the surface, it has been assumed that this trend is simply due to differing interests and career choices made by women and men. But our research has shown that there are other barriers stopping women from enjoying the full benefit of trade-based roles including gender stereotypes, bias, discrimination, and harassment.

Every day we talk to the people that influence young women on the career decision they are making about the perceived barrier’s facing them, and often their views polarise that of another group. In the round tables, we saw each influencer group (parents, employers, industry, schools) place the blame of barriers on another influencer group. We decided it was the time everyone came to the table together to discuss the barriers, look at solutions and agree that to increase this startlingly low statistic we would all need to work together. By working through the three key areas of employment; engagement, recruitment, and retention we sought to understand the range of barriers facing tradeswomen from all perspectives.   

 

Engagement
Outside of engagement through career expo's and open days, there is little done to directly engage with young women through mediums they use (smartphones, social media, etc). This causes reduced visibility of trade being a tangible career option for women due to lack of exposure outside of family or domestic maintenance.

Across influencer groups, there was a consistent conversation that young women were less likely to be exposed to manual tasks and lacked access to training opportunities where they may obtain the knowledge and licensing required to work on construction sites. The reasoning was due to limited numbers of young women undertaking trade-based modules during VCE and VCAL and having a lack of understanding about Pre-Apprenticeships and their benefits.

From an employer perspective, although overall the industry is open to the employment of women in trade-based roles there is a disconnect between what is required to create an environment where women are embraced, and staff will thrive and current workplace practice.

"The message continues to be negative because women are not being successful through the initial stages of recruitment, they can apply for lots of roles and not receive feedback. When they aren’t successful, they will tell their friends and the message continues"

– Employer Survey

 

Recruitment
Feedback from employer surveys and round tables showed that employers believe there is a fundamental issue with skill-based trades not being promoted as a long-term employment option. This view was reinforced by careers councillors and parents stating that outside of domestic maintenance the exposure of women to male-dominated trades is limited during their formative years and career selection.

Tradeswomen, however, have a very different perspective. For women actively working in the trade, a major barrier they have and continue to face is the bias involved during the recruitment process. Often unconsciously recruitment teams across Australia use a range of assumptions and personal views when screening resumes and interviewing candidates. This bias is also noticeable across other male-dominated industries. 87% of women surveyed believed they had been discriminated against in their current role due to their gender.

Many employers believed they were offering the same opportunities to young men and women without understanding the differences men and women have when approaching a recruitment process. This often led employers not advertising positions, as apprenticeships and skilled roles were filled through word of mouth referrals (sporting clubs, families) or by people contacting the business directly through a generic email address.

 

"Traditional notions that women are not as strong, can't tough it out, can't stand up to the boys are all definitely spoken about during our recruitment process. But, many of these attitudes are slowly changing across time."

- Employer Survey

 

Retention
 There were many references across the round tables and surveys about the ‘Boys Club’ and the impact this has on making women in workplaces feel marginalised and left without a support network. The perception of the hyper-masculine culture was of concern for direct influencers including parents and career councillors of young women as they would prefer a workplace environment where they were confident that young woman would be safe rather than the unknown. This was a theme echoed by employers but from the perspective of not recruiting women into roles if they didn't fit the culture of the worksite or didn't present in a way where the employer felt they would be able to 'hold their own' on a worksite'. This was further supported by tradeswomen stating they felt the need to defeminise how they presented themselves on in the workplace.

Sexual harassment and bullying were noted as a major concern for employers with this concern further noted by tradeswomen. In a recent study by the ATCU, it is reported that the most common form of harassment was crude or offensive behaviour and unwanted sexual attention. A significant number of people reported inappropriate touching, receiving sexually explicit texts and emails or messages. Nearly two thirds (63.7 percent) of respondents had witnessed sexual harassment at work.

Across all groups, there was a view that mentor interventions implemented across state and federal government initiative had been saturated especially within the group training model. Mentors currently operating within the apprenticeship framework provide support services for apprentices, but many believe these are currently being delivered through a 'tick and flick' method as there is no deep engagement. Current mentors in place do not have the skills or knowledge to deal with poor culture in a workplace and how this may impact on a female apprentice or unable to provide the style of mentoring and support young women require.

It was also noted that the facilities on sites are being designed with a gendered lens due to a lack of female engagement in this process. Feedback from women was that many sites have limited (if any) access to female facilities including change rooms, toilets, etc. Women also commented that as the percentage of women working in trade increased the need for a return to work facilities for mothers will increase.

“When you're not regarded as one of the blokes or a mate of anyone you're open to getting semi-sexualised - The first few months are really hard because you don't have the support network when you're trying to know people and make friends at work.

- Female Apprentice

So, where to from here?
Across Government, associations and working groups there are a range of initiatives in place to increase and retain the participation of women. It is imperative that these programs operate with a long-term view. As programs and initiatives are rolled out the need for simultaneous implementation, constant review and strong culture change management are paramount.
The Industry Insights report further supports other research papers which outline initiatives that have the greatest influence on equality and the removal of barriers for women in the workplace: Visible and committed leadership, more broadly available flexible working models, removing bias from people processes and normalising an inclusive culture are all key to meaningful progress. Across these actions, leadership drive and engagement are essential. From the top-down, support for gender equality and the employment of women into male-dominated workplaces must be openly committed to, communicated about and acted upon.

 

Tradeswomen Australia Foundation has commenced the development and implementation of a range of programs to actively engage with young women and the promotion of trade as a career pathway whilst supporting employers to reduce bias through recruitment, provide mentoring and support services for their female employees and create workplace environments where employees can thrive.  

To access a copy of the report or for further information on how you can contribute to the increase of women into trades, contact Tradeswomen Australia info@twaus.com.au or Angela Gaylard on 0431 292 360.

 

“Over the past 20 years, engagement of women in such roles has sat around 3% with projects previously implemented having limited short term and no long-term impact. Current perceptions across a range of stakeholders are that this is because each project has focused on specific metrics rather than having a high-level collaborative approach. Our aim is to change that and to create an environment where women have equal opportunity within trades.”

- Fiona Lawrie, Founder & Managing Director, Tradeswomen Australia Foundation