Theme Breaking Down Trade Barriers

Non-Traditional Trade Employment

Written by Dinah Cohen, University of Technology, Sydney

During the 1960s and 1970s, as the second wave of feminism grew and girls were encouraged to have their own careers, increasing numbers of young, mainly middle-class women enrolled in professional degrees at universities, historically the bastion of men. The opening up of career and work opportunities for women, however, did not extend into the non-traditional trades, regardless of the women's class background. Hairdressing was the only trade that women entered in large numbers and, not surprisingly, it was also the lowest paid. Given that there were approximately a hundred different trade areas, this meant that women severely limited their career choices and access to better pay.

As feminists gained leadership positions in the bureaucracies, supported by the new Whitlam Labor government agenda of equal employment opportunities, they successfully lobbied for funding for affirmative action programs for women. The National Working Group on Women in Apprenticeship was established in October 1985 in response to recommendations made by the Committee of Enquiry into Labour Market Programs, commonly referred to as the Kirby Report. This report stated that: 'special efforts will be necessary to encourage women of all ages to take up non-traditional work'. One of these initiatives was the Tradeswomen on the Move program (TWOM), which was conducted in several states from 1986 to 1996. Like most activists in that program, I became a coordinator of the South Australian program by a very circuitous route.

In 1980, I was in my mid-twenties with an economics degree and a teaching diploma, but, keen to acquire more practical skills, I enrolled in a casual woodwork class. Before that, I had hardly lifted a hammer and was no natural to this art form. But I was bitten by the desire to learn more-how are buildings put together? I tried to find an apprenticeship in the wood trades in Sydney but the twin barriers of my gender and my age meant I was not successful. I moved to Adelaide in 1983 and immediately heard of a few women who were training or already working as carpenters, and this encouraged me to keep trying. I was accepted into a six-months full-time pre-vocational wood trades course at a TAFE college. There I was, a twenty-nine-year-old lesbian feminist in a class of sixteen-year-old boys and all male lecturers. I learnt a lot about their culture-cars, football, girls-but I am not sure they learnt much about mine!

I know I would not have survived those six months without the supportive household of women I lived with. Many an evening I had to have a good scream when I got home. It was the joy of learning to work with wood that kept me going. The tools, the machines, and creating and building things opened out a whole new world to me.

Given my experience in the all-male environment of TAFE, I knew that four years working on building sites would not be a wise choice for my sanity so I opted to complete the Carpentry and Joinery Trade Certificate as a non-apprenticed adult. I started doing small jobs for people and learning on the job, though I often thought it would have been easier to be an apprentice and have someone show me the tricks of the trade. After finishing my TAFE certificate, I ran my own carpentry business for a couple of years.

In 1987, I was invited to be part of the new Tradeswomen on the Move (TWOM) program being rolled out in schools across Australia. It was funded by the federal Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) and the South Australian Office of Employment & Training. The program was managed and delivered by the State Employment and Training Equity Unit.

We based our program on a Western Australian pilot of 1986. This involved a team of four tradeswomen and a coordinator visiting schools all over South Australia talking to girls (and sometimes boys) about careers in non-traditional trades. In that first year, the team included a motor mechanic, two carpenters, a fitter and turner and a gardener/greenkeeper. Over a six-week period, we visited fifty-two schools in both metropolitan and rural areas and spoke to over five thousand students. We used the media as much as possible to promote the message that 'Girls can do anything' and we produced promotional materials, which included eye-catching posters, brochures, stickers, a booklet and a video.

In 1988, I became the coordinator of the program and for three years was privileged to take the tradeswomen team all over the state. The team grew to forty women from a range of non-traditional trades and we represented many types: feminine, heterosexual, married mothers, and lesbian identified. Each woman chose her own style and survival methods. Some chose to wear pink overalls and paint their toolboxes pink to reinforce their femininity, while others wore the standard overalls or uniforms for their particular trade. About that time, some of the TAFE colleges in South Australia also ran a program called Introduction to Trades for Women. These courses introduced women to a range of trades in the hope they would choose one for a career.

In 1990, I produced the first national evaluation report of TWOM programs for the Department of Employment, Education and Training. Across Australia, our conclusions were consistent. To make a big difference in the numbers of young women entering non-traditional trades, initiatives were required at many levels of society: getting the message out to parents, teachers, career counsellors, employers, the media, tradesmen and boys and, of course, girls themselves. It had become very clear to me that, unless parents were willing to support and encourage their daughters to enter these male bastions, in most cases it would not occur to girls to consider the trades as career options. When girls did choose this path, they would often be actively discouraged by family, friends and teachers. The report was shelved. Some of the recommendations, which included national advertising campaigns, were more costly than the Hawke Labor government was willing to commit to.

In 1996, the new Liberal federal government of John Howard stopped funding TWOM programs and they have never been reinstated. Sadly, the number of women in non-traditional trades has barely increased since then. The barriers are still huge and there remains much work to be done.

Published Resources


  • Kirby, P. E. F. (Chairperson), Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, January 1985. Details
  • South Australia, Employment and Training Equity Unit, Tradeswomen on the Move: Evaluation Report, Office of Employment & Training, Adelaide, South Australia, October 1987. Details
  • Working Group on Women in Apprenticeship, Report, Department of Employment, Education and Training, Commonwealth/State Training Advisory Committee, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Adelaide, South Australia, 1987. Details