Theme Affirmative Action in Training 1987-2008

Non-Traditional Trade Employment

Written by Joanne Pyke, Victoria University

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a concerted effort by government, unions and industry to increase women's participation in traditionally male trade occupations. These efforts were implemented as a measure to increase women's employment opportunities and earnings, as well as to redress the problem of looming skill shortages in industries such as building and construction. The Hawke/Keating federal governments provided the national policy climate and infrastructure for affirmative action programs for women, and different states implemented diverse initiatives through directions set by a National Women's Vocational Education and Training (VET) Strategy. There was a particularly strong push from Victoria. This was in large part due to the commitment to affirmative action by Joan Kirner, a senior minister in the Victoria's Cain Labor government and, later, state premier (1990-1992) (Heywood, ADB).

A major initiative in 1987 was the establishment of Affirmative Action in Training Inc. (AAIT), an organisation based in Melbourne and jointly funded by state and federal governments. Its specific charter was to increase women's employment in non-traditional, entry-level training (apprenticeships) in order to challenge the rigid gender divisions that characterised the Australian labour market and vocational education and training system. AAIT was initially established as a not-for-profit association to implement a project grant, with oversight by a board of directors that included representation from training, union, government and industry agencies. Funding initially was for a manager, a project officer and administrative support, but the organisation grew to a team of more than twenty employees when it gained status as a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) and expanded its research and policy-development capacities.

Despite this growth and apparent success, and in common with many other women's agencies established at the time, the structure and brief of the organisation were enormously challenging. Organisational management was shaped by the need to reconcile the often conflicting demands of organisational growth, compliance with government policies and funding conditions, while at the same time staying focused on the feminist goals that the organisation was set up to achieve. A further level of complexity emerged from the need to reconcile the diverse feminist philosophical approaches that were brought to the organisation by directors, management, employees and aspiring tradeswomen. One of the tensions arose from the fact that the tradeswomen themselves were not always explicitly feminist-rather, many declared that they were simply interested in being qualified in their trade-the very entitlement that the organisation was established to protect. Another source of tension was the lack of a clear career path for women employed in the agency. As a consequence, the organisational culture and structure was shaped by often contradictory demands: to be credible in the eyes of government and industry, accessible and supportive to tradeswomen and inclusive enough to satisfy the feminist aspirations of those who provided the support base for the organisation.

Despite these tensions, the organisation attracted extensive cross-sectoral support in a climate characterised by strong belief in the need to change the gendered character of the Australian labour market, to expand employment opportunities for women and to redress the pay gap between men and women. The organisation grew because there was great passion for the broad project that AAIT sought to implement. Many activists involved at the time shared a firm conviction that this was an important project that was essential for social justice.

When AAIT started, women's participation in trades was extremely low in many industries such as building and construction (1.2 per cent), electrical/electronics (1.8 per cent), metals and engineering (1.3 per cent) and the automotive industries (1 per cent). The organisation's approach was that, despite the formal and legal elimination of sex discrimination, the causes of women's exclusion from the trades were an outcome of deeply embedded cultural and systemic practices that operated to prevent women's access and participation in traditionally male trade training and employment.

The issues to be addressed were analysed by AAIT as 'Demand', 'Supply' and 'Support'. 'Demand' issues referred to employer reluctance to employ women in traditionally male trade occupations owing to stereotyped attitudes about women's capabilities in technical and/or physically demanding occupations and deep employer resistance to incorporating women into traditionally male workplaces. 'Supply' issues were those to do with women's perceived reluctance to pursue employment opportunities in non-traditional occupations. The causes included peer pressure to pursue more traditionally female vocations, a lack of role models to inspire or motivate women's consideration of a trade as a career path, gendered careers advice received through secondary school education, or simply a lack of knowledge about the benefits available in a trade-based vocation. 'Support' was the recognition that, as a workplace minority, women were vulnerable because of sex-based discrimination, sexual harassment and general alienation in the workplace. Indeed, women working in male-dominated trades consistently reported to AAIT the need to 'prove themselves' as representative of all womankind. Even if all went well, it was not possible to 'blend in' without constant reminders of their difference and the expectation that they would not be as good as their male co-workers. In short, AAIT's strategic approach was that the causes of women's exclusion from the trades were many and complex and that all of those conditions needed to be tackled in a broad approach if substantial in-roads were to be made.

To this end, AAIT played an advocacy role with employers and particularly Group Training Companies (GTCs), now termed Group Training Organisations (GTOs). Established in the early 1980s, GTOs were set up with assistance from government largely to support the needs of small businesses, particularly in the building, construction and automotive industries. These smaller businesses found it difficult, given the unpredictable nature of their industries, to commit to employing apprentices for the full duration of their apprenticeship. The plan, then, was to create organisations that would recruit and employ apprentices and place them with one or more host employers for the duration of their training, often over a four-year period. GTOs thus took the risk and responsibility for the training and employment of apprentices, yet were able to generate a cash flow through the 'labour hire' function to industry. Importantly for AAIT's objectives, GTOs performed a key role in providing a stable youth employment and training option, as well as pastoral care, for apprentices who might experience barriers in accessing and participating in trade training. They were seized on as a vehicle for supporting women into traditionally male trade training.

AAIT worked closely with GTOs, industry bodies and large employers to remind them of their obligations under the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act (1986), using any persuasive devices at their disposal. This included: gaining representation on industry bodies; the development of strategic partnerships and 'rewarding' employers for the employment of women through providing access to government employment subsidies; positive publicity as progressive employers; and assistance with recruitment, planning and strategic advice. A series of programs was also conducted and AAIT sourced funding for women-focused programs across industries in order to build a 'critical mass' of female entrants into industries unfamiliar with women's participation. The support provided to employers also involved helping them to find solutions to their most common lament that 'women don't apply' for jobs in the industry. AAIT administered Victoria's Tradeswomen on the Move (TWOM) program, which involved organising female tradespeople to visit schools and talk to girls about vocational pathways into traditionally male-dominated trades. AAIT provided a central contact and referral point for women who expressed interest in the trades. It offered assistance in identifying training and employment opportunities and support through networking with other tradeswomen, as well as links to industry bodies and employers.

AAIT ran a multitude of programs for women in trades over the course of its operation. These included a range of pre-vocational training and employment programs in various industries, with a particular focus on building and construction, electrical/electronics, engineering, automotive, plumbing and horticulture. Overall, thousands of women were exposed to trade employment, either directly through some form of trade training and/or work experience or indirectly through information resources and encouragement to consider trade training. The most ambitious project, however, was the establishment of a Women's Group Training Company (WGTC). Born out of AAIT's experience in the employment and training of women, the establishment of a company that was capable of generating cash flows was seen as the only sustainable way to increase women's trade employment significantly, particularly within a training system that was becoming rapidly deregulated and industry-driven. After a long process of pursuing 'start-up' funding from government, the WGTC was established as a company in June 1995 with the target of employing a hundred women as apprentices in traditionally male trades for placement in industry within eighteen months.

The WGTC did not survive beyond its pilot phase, however, and was not able to meet its employment targets. Only eighteen women were successfully employed and placed in apprenticeships, predominately in the building trades. At the end of the eighteen-month period, the company closed its doors and transferred the women's training contracts to other Group Training Companies.

An evaluation of the WGTC showed that there were multiple reasons for the failure of the experiment. Some of these were to do with internal organisational problems, some with poor recruitment decisions, and some with management that was inexperienced in the day-to-day operational demands a range of industries. Perhaps the most significant problem, however, was that the structural barriers to success were simply overwhelming. Despite the fact that most Group Training Companies at the time were, by default, almost exclusively dedicated to the employment of male apprentices, the idea of a dedicated 'women's' Group Training Company was extremely challenging to the employment and training system. As a company in its own right, the WGTC was also in direct competition with other Group Training Companies whose job it was to find employment placements for apprentices. This constituted a major departure from the established approach to affirmative action, which was to work in partnership with industry and employers to change employment practices. As an independent company, WGTC encountered limits to the possibility of collaboration on the implementation of affirmative action strategies.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to its success, however, was the timing of the company's establishment. A conservative coalition federal government led by John Howard won office in 1996 and brought about a rapid dismantling of the government infrastructure established to support affirmative action for women. Coupled with the implementation of neo-liberal reforms to the education and training system, support for agencies such as AAIT or the WGTC declined and the impetus to support women in trades rapidly faded. The WGTC ceased trading in December 1996, just a year after its establishment. The AAIT subsequently altered its focus to a more politically palatable agenda of access and equity for diverse populations. This was signaled by the organisation's change of name to the Access Training and Employment Centre (ATEC) in 1997, which later became the Equity Research Centre before closing in 2008.

Programs aimed at supporting women into trades have continued, although they are much less ambitious and direct than those fostered by AAIT and WGTC. Women's under-representation in trade employment has also seen little change since the 1980s, with Australian women's employment levels remaining at 1-2 per cent across most traditionally male trades.

Published Resources


  • Pyke, Joanne, Women in Building: The Missing 51%, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1992. Details


  • Access Training and Employment Centre and the Victorian Office for Training and Further Education, National Women's Vocational Education and Training Strategy: Victorian Projects, 1997: Summary and Overview, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Pyke, Joanne, Evaluation and Strategies for Assisting Women through Group Training Companies, Affirmative Action in Training Inc. and the Office of Training and Further Education, 1997. Details
  • South Australia, Employment and Training Equity Unit, Tradeswomen on the Move: Evaluation Report, Office of Employment & Training, Adelaide, South Australia, October 1987. Details

Online Resources