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Women Onsite Powering Change

“I didn’t go into a trade because I’m like this tough woman who wants to break boundaries. It was just what I wanted to do for work,” says Audrey, a first-year electrical apprentice. We met her a few weeks back at the Young Workers’ Centre’s apprentice campaign meeting, and wanted to know a little bit more about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. 

“It happens to be a male-dominated industry so I was really expecting to be working on some job site, all men, having to pretend to be someone I’m not just so that I don’t have a horrible experience. That’s really what I was preparing for.”

Her apprehension is well-founded. By the Victorian government’s own admission, women in blue-collar industries are excluded and made to feel unwelcome. According to its Women in Construction Strategy: “Rigid work practices, a traditionally masculine or sexist culture, exclusion, gendered violence, inadequate work facilities and equipment, and informal recruitment processes have all contributed to the low numbers of women working in construction.”

That’s where Women Onsite comes in. Run by Trades Hall with funding from the Victorian Government the mission is a straightforward one: to support Victorian women toward apprenticeships or traineeships in historically male dominated industries. It will also be partnering with Melbourne University to undertake a research piece so that, in turn, the learnings from this project will contribute to future initiatives in this area.

Exclusion was certainly the experience of Audrey’s boss, Lani, when she was an apprentice herself.  She was mistreated and not taken seriously as a tradesperson. “If there was maybe ten minutes before the end of day [the boss] would say I had to stay and wash his car. I had to change his tyres not because they were flat because he told me they were good life lessons.” 

“I never really touched power points or lighting through that whole time.” But Lani powered through and got her certification. Now Lani owns her own business, Lani the Sparky. She wants to break the trend of tradespeople treating their apprentices poorly, only for them to grow up and treat their apprentices the same way.

Australia's workforce is extremely gender segregated, and it's one contributing factor towards persistent gender pay inequality. Hostility towards trades women discourages women from seeking work in these heavily organised, well paid industries, limiting their opportunities. But, as Lani and Audrey show, small interventions can have big impacts in the shape our future economy takes.

Smashing gender stereotypes

“We suit the trade!” says Lani, her eyes lit up with true excitement for the work that she does. “Our attention to detail, our communication, our work ethic. Women have so many good qualities that men and women working together in the trade will make such a difference.”

“I always struggled at school, I wasn’t very good at English… but as soon as I had tools in my hand, I always wanted to fix something. I was so good at it.”

We all knew kids like this at school: the kinaesthetic learners, the problem-solvers, the ones who liked working with their hands.

Audrey’s experience was similar. “I wanted to do a trade because I don’t learn well in a school or university environment,” she said. “I’ve worked office jobs, retail, hospitality and I know that’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. I like doing different things every day, the hands-on aspect, the fact that you’re learning things as you’re doing them.”

We all knew kids like this at school: the kinaesthetic learners, the problem-solvers, the ones who liked working with their hands. But the boys were encouraged, while the girls were made to feel like they should be focusing on other things. They put hammers and screwdrivers in the boys’ hands, while they put wooden spoons and whisks in girls’ hands. That’s how it starts, and we’re left to wonder what those girls might have built had they been encouraged in the same way. (Or if they’d torn things down instead…)

It doesn’t make for a happy and fulfilling life, let alone a career. 

Try a Trade

Try a Trade Days, for women to try their hands at basic skills in electrotechnology, plumbing and cabinet making are being organised in locations all around Victoria. The most recent, at Victoria University Polytechnic, was very well attended and several women have since made progress towards starting their formal education in these areas. 

The next Try a Trade Day is set to be hosted at the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) office in North Melbourne. This one will be specifically for skills in electrical work and to learn more about the industry itself and how to get started. Women already in electrical trades will talk about their experiences, and give participants realistic appraisals of what a career in Electrical work entails. Another day, for plumbing, carpentry and welding, is set for the 23rd at Maker Community Inc. in Brunswick. 

Be sure to RSVP to your chosen day, as spaces are limited!

“I didn’t go into a trade because I’m like this tough woman who wants to break boundaries. It was just what I wanted to do for work,” says Audrey, a first-year electrical apprentice. We met her a few weeks back at the Young Workers’ Centre’s apprentice campaign meeting, and wanted to know a little bit more about being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

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