Occupations in Australia are often very heavily gender segregated: nowhere more than in many of the traditional male-dominated trades. Many attempts to shift to a more equitable gender balance have been made over the years. By and large they have not been successful. Numbers of female apprentices and tradeswomen in these trades have remained stubbornly low.
A recently published report by researchers from Victoria University has examined the issue using the electrical and electro technology trades as an example.
Why aren’t there more tradeswomen in the male dominated trades?
There are many reasons. They include a lack of exposure to women working in male-dominated industries early in life and stereotypes and bias against women working in such trades, starting early and reinforced at school. There is also a lack of awareness of the opportunities and career paths such trades offer. Stereotypes and myths also exist about womens’ supposed lack of the qualities and capabilities needed to ‘do the work’. Workplace cultures can be non-inclusive, traditionally masculine or ‘blokey’ and there may be biases against recruiting, developing and advancing the careers of women. Finally, work practices and issues such as unavailability of flexible employment opportunities, appropriate workplace facilities and even clothing and footwear can all inhibit participation by women.
At the end of the day traditional male-dominated occupations and workplaces reflect community and societal stereotypes about the sorts of work men or women should, or can, do. There are other factors at play too. Young women considering a male-dominated trade are influenced by the attitudes and experience of their families and friends, careers advice and the opportunities and encouragement that might be provided, or not, by their schools, their RTO and work colleagues.
So is it any wonder that it has been hard to get more women into such trades? As the researchers suggest, the many initiatives in the past have failed because they:
“have not addressed the core problem of culture and behaviour, and stakeholders have not taken…[a]…holistic approach, have acted alone and often have been unable to sustain their interventions.”
The one key message is that there can be no quick and easy fix.
Why is it important go get more women involved in these trades?
When asked, employers of tradeswomen, the tradeswomen themselves and female apprentices all pointed to a need for workplaces becoming more flexible and supportive. Those interviewed also thought that women bring something extra to such workplaces. These ‘extras’ include positive cultural and behavioural changes in the workplace, improved attention to detail and better work organisation and planning.
So what’s the solution?
It’s about finding the right women. Those who become electricians have attributes that are common to aspiring male and female electrical tradespeople such as exposure to trades through their family background, strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) capabilities and an interest in hands-on work and practical problem solving. They also need to have a range of personal attributes that enable them to thrive in the masculine cultures of electrical trades workplaces. These are best described as ‘survival skills’. Tradeswomen’s’ networks help.
The research findings also suggest that the best way to change things is a comprehensive, coordinated, change program initially involving all stakeholders at a limited site in a program of sustained, shared and reinforcing change.