Recently, we were renovating our house and needed some electrical work to be completed. When two female electricians arrived and set to work, my nine year old daughter couldn’t contain her surprise. As they installed fans, dimmer switches and replaced light bulbs, my daughter whispered to me, “Mum… they’re ladies! Isn’t that funny?”
Having always strived to teach my children that “women can do anything”, I felt a little dismayed at her reaction. However, given that they were the first two female tradespeople she had ever met, her response was not surprising. No matter how many times I told her that women can work in any occupation they choose, the reality was that she had only ever seen males perform traditional trades. Subconsciously, she had begun to categorise “boys’ jobs” and “girls’ jobs”, and any deviation from this was seen as amusing and unusual.
According to a 2013 government report entitled “Women in Trades, the missing 48 per cent”, fewer than two percent of construction, automotive and electrical tradespeople in Australia today are women.
There were just 676 female carpenters, 931 female motor mechanics, 638 female plumbers and 1,432 female electricians nation-wide in 2011 within a total technicians and trades workforce of nearly 1.43 million people.
In the largest single trade occupation in Australia – that of electrician – women were just 1.3 percent of the total.
It got me thinking – why, in this modern era of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, are women so unrepresented in trades, and what can we do to encourage young women to consider a trade (in addition to hairdressing) as a future career path?
Rebecca Senyard – Plumber & Mum of Three
Rebecca Senyard, also known as The Plumbette, is a female plumber and mother of three girls. I asked her for her thoughts on the issue and learned that becoming a “lady tradie” is not an easy career path to follow, although it can be a rewarding one.
Having grown up within her family’s plumbing business, Rebecca followed in her father’s footsteps and completed a plumbing apprenticeship when she was in her early twenties. Little did she know how difficult it would be to study and work in such a heavily male dominated industry.
“I started my plumbing apprenticeship in 2006 when I was 22,” Rebecca shared. “I wasn’t too worried about working with men because many of my dad’s clients and plumbers had known me since I was little. But when I was introduced as a new apprentice I received mixed reactions. The younger guys seemed to accept it more easily than the older tradies.”
Rebecca said her time at TAFE College was particularly difficult, as she was acutely aware that she was in the minority, and felt a need to prove herself in a way that her male counterparts didn’t have to.
“As an apprentice, I didn’t enjoy going to Tafe,” Rebecca said. “It was hard being in the minority and having your every move watched. And there was an underlying pressure to perform well… If you couldn’t perform a job without making a mistake you felt judged because of it.”
“There were many times at TAFE when male students would stop working to watch me bend copper pipe. They thought it was awesome when I did it easily. But it was a different story when I had to cut corrugated roof sheets with electric tin snips. I couldn’t do it straight and the guys in my class laughed at my clumsiness. I was a little embarrassed as the teacher watched on in amusement, but then a work colleague who was an apprentice swore at them, telling them to stop watching me because I would be able to do it if they stopped laughing at me.”
Rebecca doing her thing
Rebecca also tells stories of teachers and fellow tradespeople making her time at TAFE very uncomfortable, and at times, downright discriminatory.
“There was the time when we learned about first aid and the male instructor asked me in front of a classroom of boys, what I would do if I had blood gushing out of my vagina. I remember my face turning red and not knowing how to respond,” Rebecca said.
“Or there was the time when the teacher left the classroom and one of the apprentices thought it was the perfect opportunity to show the others in class a porn video on his phone with the sound turned up.”
“I naively thought porn in the trade industry was a cliché, but it was literally everywhere I turned. When a TAFE teacher noticed me reading a Woman’s Day magazine, he told me they weren’t used to those types of magazines at TAFE because the women in my magazine had their clothes on.”
However, Rebecca made it through those tough moments, stuck with her apprenticeship and graduated as a plumber.
“I can remember the day I finished my last exam and rejoiced that I didn’t have to go back to TAFE,” Rebecca said. “I also remember getting a standing ovation from the plumbers in my class for sticking through and finishing my apprenticeship. Interestingly, the guys knew it was hard for me, but they didn’t necessarily make it easier for me to fit in. And I didn’t expect special treatment because I had entered their domain.”
Although there were numerous challenges in Rebecca’s plumbing career, she also points out that there were many good times too.
“Sometimes the tradies were funny and I enjoyed working with them because they got on with the job. I also enjoyed teaching my classmates at TAFE how to do their pipe sizing if they were too embarrassed to put their hand up and ask for help from the teacher,” she said.
“I loved being able to help people with their plumbing problems. Helping people in a practical way is such a blessing. I also enjoyed the challenge of solving a new problem I hadn’t come across before. I loved working with my dad because we could bounce solutions off each other. I loved our clients and meeting new people every day.”
Helping people in a practical way is such a blessing.
Psychologist, Collett Smart, says it is fantastic that women are being supported to break the stereotypes.
“So many times we hear about strong women emerging, because their fathers taught them that their worth was in more than in how they looked,” Collett says. “Rebecca’s story of helping in her father’s business and how it never occurred to her that she ‘couldn’t do it’ is a fantastic example of the role that dads can have in their daughters’ lives.”
Rebecca and her Dad
Collett believes that Rebecca’s story shows that things are changing, albeit still very slowly.
“I am heartened to hear that it was the younger men in her class that were less surprised by her choices,” she says. “We need more young men to push back at the stereotypes too. So, the messages we send to our sons, about the roles of women and girls, are equally as important as what we teach our girls about themselves.
The messages we send to our sons, about the roles of women and girls, are equally as important as what we teach our girls about themselves.
“Our daughters need to be taught that they can also be strong, not overprotected. We have to arm them with the tools and the language to question, resist and challenge stereotypical language and attitudes. Both overtly, as well as within themselves.”
Collett also warns that, as Rebecca experienced, hardcore pornography is available to anyone with a smartphone, making it important to be vigilant with children’s use of technology.
“The average age kids are seeing porn today is 11, and adolescent boys who view porn are six times more likely to think it’s OK to be sexually aggressive, and are six times more likely to hold someone down when having sex with them,” she says.
“Our sons are learning powerful messages about women that has the potential to override our family values, if we don’t shield them from pornography. Many boys see porn before they even have their first girlfriend.”
So what can be done to make women tradies a respected norm, and not a novelty? Rebecca suggests three main ideas: break down stereotypes, increase education in schools and encourage more support from male tradespeople.
According to Rebecca, many people still falsely believe that trades are a man’s occupation, and think that women are too weak to handle the demands of the job.
“You do need to be fit,” Rebecca acknowledges. “But all the skills and training are learned on the job, and any heavy lifting requires more than one person, regardless of whether one of those people are female,” she said.
“There’s also a misconception that women tradies need to be tomboys… You can still be a girly girl and love all things pretty, yet enjoy doing all things practical.”
Additionally, Rebecca said that girls are not taught in high school about the apprenticeship opportunities available to them.
“It’s important to let girls know there are apprenticeship opportunities available to them if they want to get their hands dirty,” Rebecca said.
“I’ve heard too many stories of girls telling their career counsellor or their parents that they want to study a trade and then they get placed into a hairdressing or cooking apprenticeship because it is seen as a more acceptable career for a woman than say a plumber.”
Despite growing awareness of the issue and government initiatives to encourage women into trades, Rebecca said that women also faced discrimination from men who prefer male apprentices over female ones in their workplaces. She hoped that men would begin to realise the value of having female tradespeople on their team.
To young women who are just starting out in a non-traditional trade, Rebecca offers this advice and encouragement:
“Understand your values and rights and act confidently, even if you waiver inside. Remember your purpose for being there and your goals,” Rebecca said.
Understand your values and rights and act confidently, even if you waiver inside. Remember your purpose for being there and your goals.
“Working on a job site when you’re the only woman is hard. As a young woman, I wanted to be accepted as part of the group – especially when I went to TAFE, but in hindsight, being respected would have gone a long way.
“For me acceptance and respect is letting me get on with the job. No snide remarks, no eye rolls when I ask for help. The pressure on women tradies to perform is quite high. We need more guys who aren’t afraid to stand up to their mates and say ‘back off’. Let us women do our thing.”
To follow Rebecca’s adventures in plumbing and motherhood, check out The Plumbette and follow along on Facebook. If you’re a women in a trade, or thinking about beginning a trade, there are a number of online support groups including The Lady Tradies Australia. If you would like more information about what trades are available, visit Women in Trades.