28 May, 2017

Reimagining gender equity in trades

By Anne Jones

Over the last three years Victoria University’s Work-based Education Research Centre (WERC) team has undertaken a series of studies into the recruitment and retention of women in traditionally male trades such as automotive and electrical. In our most recent research we investigated the experiences of tradeswomen and female apprentices in the electrical and electro technology industry. In this article I’m going to discuss a few of our findings including some implications for TAFE teaching.

The purpose of our work is to assist tradeswomen’s networks, employers, teachers, industry organisations and other stakeholders to increase the participation of women in trades roles. NCVER data collated for the last 10 years show the proportion of women in training in any given year for electrical, plumbing, automotive, engineering and construction trades has remained below 4%.[1] Of the small numbers of women commencing traditionally male apprenticeships half withdraw early on.

This matters for several reasons. First, for individual women, increased access to these occupations unlocks opportunities for interesting work and, often, increased remuneration and career prospects:

"For me, a big one was you really do feel like you're contributing something, to community, to people. So, it's really rewarding when even if it's something small as putting in a new power point for somebody versus when I was with XXX, we'd build whole substations. There's chamber substations, there's zone substations to power a whole building or a whole suburb. So, it's pretty cool driving round in your community and seeing things that either you've built or contributed to or whatever" (Nicole, electrician).[2]

Second, employers often identify increasing the pool of potential employees as a benefit; this is particularly the case for occupations experiencing stubborn skills shortages such as motor mechanic and air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanic.[3] Internationally and in Australia, there is also good evidence that increased employment of women improves business productivity by broadening the range of capabilities available in a workplace. For example, research by Goldman Sachs has shown that the rise in female labour force participation since 1974 has improved Australia’s economy by 22% and that closing the gap between male and female labour force participation rates could boost the Australian GDP by 11% (Goldman Sachs,2009).[4] Out of 51 employers we have interviewed in our studies, most of those who have worked with tradeswomen have reported that women in trades roles are more organised and better problem solvers than males.

Fiona works as the apprentice recruitment coordinator for a large electrical industry GTO. She is responsible for selecting approximately 80 electrical apprentices each year and told us:

"Our contractors say yeah, this person is really - they're just switched on. They know what they're doing. They’ve researched. They know what they're doing before they get to site. They’ve got all their tools. They're ready to go. We always have that comment come back from the female apprentices that we send out. I think it's because they feel they have to be better. They have to be smarter. They have to be faster."

Michael is the General Manager for a state branch of a large national electrical contracting company which unusually employs 20% female in trades roles. Michael reflected:"

"…my personal experience has been that the working with female tradespeople and apprentices is they’re - they have been incredibly diligent. They have been the ones that came off the tools - as you say - and came into the office. Became great managers - project managers and CAD drafting people - and they built their careers from the tools through into the office. To my mind, they became better managers and better employees than most of the males because the egos were left at the door. It was about their job and working as a team, as opposed to any competition that may have existed in the male workgroup."

Finally, our own and others’ research into female participation in traditionally male trades indicate that these highly gendered workplaces incubate rigid attitudes to gender roles that are harmful to society. For example, the recent Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence reminded us of the strong link between rigid beliefs about gender roles and support for, and perpetration of, violence against women.[5] Similarly, the high suicide rate amongst construction workers aged 15 to 24 – ‘more than twice as high as other young males’ has been attributed to the fact that the industry has ‘…a male culture on steroids’[6]

Planning our study, we were mindful that there have been many failed attempts to increase the participation of women in traditionally male trades. As the 2011 Apprenticeships for the Twenty-first Century Final Report concluded ‘…despite a number of initiatives undertaken by governments and industries, such as the Queensland Government’s Women in Hard Hats and Group Training Australia’s Gender on the Agenda, very little progress has been made.’

For inspiration, we looked at research and successful interventions into other obstinate social problems such as long-term unemployment, gambling and family violence. A team member with a sociology and gender background led us to apply an ecological framework adapted from a model developed by Brofenbrenner in the 1990; an approach several career choice theorists have applied to understanding gendered career choices. One research team, Cook, Heppner and O’Brien (2005), pointed out that ‘the ecological perspective’ demonstrates that behaviours such as occupational choice result from a dynamic interaction between individuals and the cultural and social environment in which they live. Our ecological analysis strongly implies that previous interventions aimed at increasing the participation of women in traditionally male trades have failed because they have been short term and one-dimensional.

The ecological approach suggests that strategies to increase the participation of women in male occupations must, like the problem, be multidimensional and complex; they must address the whole apprentice ecosystem. Taking an ecological perspective makes it clear that no single factor explains young women’s career aspirations. Instead, young women’s career choices are seen to result from the interplay of multiple variables that influence an individual’s career decision-making process. We used a simplified ecological framework developed by World Health Organisation (WHO) to understand the barriers and enablers that influence female participation in automotive trades occupations and to identify strategies to increase female participation (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002).

The ecological framework we used is illustrated in the figure below. It shows four levels of factors influencing a woman’s choice of, and retention in, a traditionally male occupation such as electrical trades. These influential factors interact with each other and change over time. The individual woman’s personal attributes, preferences and capabilities lie at the heart of the model. These develop in the context of her immediate relationships with family and friends, school and RTO teachers and other students, employer and work colleagues. Beyond the immediate level a range of community influences such as practices and culture in the workplace, at school and RTO also shape the individual’s experience. Finally and overarchingly, an individual woman’s choices are affected by societal beliefs about gender and what behaviours and work are appropriate for men and women.

For our study we interviewed tradeswomen, female apprentices and employers from every state and territory except Tasmania; from metropolitan, regional and rural locations; in small, medium and large businesses; and from many different industry sub-sectors including residential and commercial electrical services, construction, mining, power, security and instrumentation. In addition, we met with other stakeholders such as group training companies and RTOs, employer organisations, union representatives and tradeswomen’s networks. In our analysis we looked at the attributes that make a capable electro technology tradeswoman. Our data show how an individual’s personal characteristics and their interactions with family, school, employer, work colleagues and others influence their decisions to enter and stay in a trades occupation.

In this short article we can only give you a taste of the complexity we have observed and have chosen to give you a glimpse of how RTO experiences impact on female electrical apprentices. Twenty-four of the female apprentices and tradeswomen we interviewed chose to comment on teaching quality or other aspects of their vocational education experience. Most (23) of these women studied at TAFE. Thirteen were enthusiastic about their TAFE experience and the quality of the teaching:

"I found it to be a fairly high quality actually…the teachers that we had were very hands-on - and because they’d worked in the field and in the industry, they had experienced and knew what they were talking about" (Rachel, electrician)

"Oh, so far, all my teachers have been pretty good to deal with. Classes are good, it’s been - yeah, it’s really different to uni. It’s really slow paced, they really hang around until you get it, I guess and they offer a lot of tutoring so like all of that’s pretty good" (Olivia, electrical apprentice).

On the other hand, eleven of our participants described a disappointing TAFE experience often commenting on teaching that failed to engage them and meet their learning needs:

"I think sometimes they forget that we’re learning things for the first time, and that they’re reading directly from a structured course note…If you could just stop for five minutes, give me a little bit more information so I can try and process it a little bit better" (Belinda, apprentice).

"For example, they have this thing called XXXX where you basically teach yourself on a computer. I can’t do that, I have to be looking and watching and using my hands… They could see I was struggling and yet they wouldn’t really take me aside and go righto, we’ll go through these through your book instead of going - you having to read it all through on the computer" (Zoey, apprentice).

Participants’ stories included evidence of the persistence of rigid thinking about gender roles:

"There was myself and another girl in the class, and he said - it was a controls class. He said I hate to say it to you girls, please don’t take offence, he said, but you’re going to struggle in this course. He said it’s just the difference between the way the male and the female mind work. To me that was like a red rag to a bull. It was the class I got the best marks in, because again I was determined to prove him wrong" (Lauren, electrician).

"...the women teachers at XX Institute that were teaching electrical got treated very differently by all the guys in the class. They were normally the rowdier classes and the harder classes to learn in. The guys didn’t want to listen to the teachers" (Chloe, electrician).

Luckily our participants tend to be resilient!

Our work and that of others show that TAFE staff can be part of a holistic approach to changing the apprentice ecosystem to increase the participation of women in trades roles. For all stakeholders, it is important to work on respectful relationships, positive behaviour and cultural change in workplaces, TAFE and other RTOs. For teaching staff, there are also unique opportunities to make trades learning spaces more inclusive through using a more diverse range of teaching strategies such as creating opportunities for conversation and interpersonal interaction in addition to hands on work with equipment and e-learning.

It is important to recognise that a complex change such as increasing the participation of women in traditionally male trades will require sustained effort. My colleagues and I look forward to sharing our full report with you later this year. If you would like to be on our mailing list please contact annet.jones@vu.edu.au.

Anne Jones with Berwyn Clayton, Naomi Pfitzner, Hugh Guthrie

Professor Anne Jones is an Emeritus Professor at Victoria University. Previously Anne was Executive Director Academic Affairs at Box Hill Institute of TAFE.


[1] NCVER data provided to the project team in August 2016.

[2] Note that pseudonyms are use throughout this article for individuals interviewed for the study

[3] Department of Employment (August 2016) Skills Shortage List Australia(https://docs.employment.gov.au/documents/skill-sho...

[4] Goldman Sachs Research Report (November 2009) Australia's Hidden Resource: The economic case for increasing female participation. http://www.asx.com.au/documents/about/gsjbw_
economic_case_for_increasing_female_participation.pdf

[5] VicHealth 2014. Australians’ attitudes to violence against women. Findings from the 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS)

[6] http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/hard-times-the-
suicide-scourge-among-australias-tradies-20160218-gmxtcx.html

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