As a skills shortage begins to tighten, the typically male-dominated trade industry has turned towards a largely untapped employee pool to boost its workforce.
The trades have begun to engage women as prospective employees, which seems to be a valid solution in a profession where just two per cent of workers are female. Despite these efforts, the presence of women in this field is reducing.
Statistics from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s (NCVER) quarterly report for 2018 show that over five per cent less women commenced trade apprenticeships in comparison to 2017. The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) further highlighted the male and female divide in the trade occupation, with a survey finding that only 16.7 per cent of employees in the construction industry are female. While gender ratios in other trades such as mining and agriculture are more even, it should still be noted that these fields occupy four of the five bottom spots in terms of gender diversity across all industries. WGEA’s 2018 Gender Equality Scorecard found that the construction industry has the second highest gender pay gap in Australia (only the Financial and Insurance Services field had a wider disparity), with women in this trade typically earning 29.4 per cent less than the male wage.
In light of these statistics, how can we encourage female workers to enter what is a viable and potentially lucrative occupation? Let’s see what can be done to redefine women’s work and increase their presence in the trade industry.
A number of surveys have revealed a pattern of many female students not being exposed to trade career pathways during their time at school. After the ATAR, a 2017 report into further education and employment by Year13, found that female respondents were hardly made aware of Vocational Education and Training (VET) or school-based apprenticeships during their secondary studies, unless it was in ‘suitable’ courses such as beauty or hairdressing. If female students were interested in trade pathways, they reported being heavily discouraged from pursuing them and even detailed facing extreme difficulty from their schools. It should be noted that many career advisors are not provided with the relevant information they need to pass onto interested students in the first place, making it hard for girls and women to break into their desired career path.
The development of try-a-trade programs have helped to expose girls to potential trade occupations. Students are able to participate in trades from bricklaying and carpentry to electrical and automotive engineering, while also seeking career advice from teachers and employers. When it comes to the media, the emerging popularity of renovation programmes on television has emphasised the importance of management, planning and organising in the construction process, highlighting to female audiences that there is more to trade than physical roles.
Breaking down stereotypes
It is fair to say that stigmas exist around not only women in trades, but also wider social perceptions of VET and what constitutes male and female work.
There is often a false assumption that women cannot keep up with the physical work required in trade occupations, but data has shown that women are on par and even outperforming their male counterparts in some industries. WGEA’s Gender Equality Scorecard reflected that gender segregation is still rife in the Australian workforce – men feature disproportionately in the construction and mining industries, while women are over-represented in nursing and teaching.
A stereotype exists around the vocational sector in general, with many of the students surveyed in Year13’s report noting that they didn’t see apprenticeships and degrees as equal when it came to post-school education. Up to 74 per cent of students claimed that they would not consider an apprenticeship or traineeship after graduating, while many subscribe to the misconception that VET students earn less and have more trouble finding work than university graduates. These assumptions fail to recognise the ability and knowledge that is needed to complete trade work, especially as advanced technology enters the sector.
Role model programs
Establishing tailored support systems that focus on strong mentorship could be useful in easing the transition into the trades. Women who are interested in the industry but cannot see a way in would be buoyed by testimonials from female role models, who can help them figure out if trade is a viable and rewarding career option. Hearing from women in trade would allow prospective employees to understand job responsibilities and requirements, benefits of working in the industry and why these women sought out a trade profession. Role models of all genders can express the benefits of a trade career and highlight the unique skills that women can bring to the table.
Strong support systems can also be found at home - Year13’s survey showed that students tend to regard their parents as important influencers when it comes to career decisions. Yet stereotypes around VET seem to be significant among Australian parents, as a report by McCrindle Research found that 79 per cent would prefer their children to go to university rather than seek out a TAFE pathway after school. With these views reflecting the general perception that higher education has more value than vocational learning, the publicisation of a trade career’s benefits and prospects could encourage more parents to see it as a viable option. Having this parental support will inspire more girls to look past stereotypes and consider entering an industry that can provide them with a solid and fulfilling career.