Theme One Step forward Two Steps Back: Advocating for a New Generation of Women in Male-dominated Trades

Non-Traditional Trade Employment

Written by Fi Shewring, President, Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen

Leadership in this field is not something I aspired to, just as no one sets out to be a drunk. As a woman who began adult life with a relatively short focus that was further curtailed by five children, entering a non-traditional trade was not my plan or ambition. The idea of advocacy and leadership in anything seemed to be something others of intellect and sharp wits excelled in; it was not for someone who struggled with school work and spelling.

Even once I was well ensconced into learning a trade it took a while for the penny to drop. There were no other women-why? Yes, the work was different, at times hard and dirty but nothing that a shower couldn't fix. Skills that came naturally to me-a steady hand, an ability to do practical things and basic common sense-were everyday requirements for this work. No big deal. I've got those skills in spades. What do you mean women can't do this work? Don't want this work? Aren't wanted? Says who?

I thought research seemed the way to go to answer these questions. It seemed a simple process of finding the facts to counter the negative attitudes-let people know and all would be resolved. It seems so naïve in retrospect, but perhaps a logical response from a person who works well with the demands of trade, a practical person used to problem solving and getting on with the task, characteristics of most tradespeople.

I first began to research women studying trades at the TAFE NSW campus where I worked. As the only female trade teacher on campus and one of only two part-time female painting and decorating teachers in NSW, it reminded me of being on site-I was very obvious and highly scrutinised. My survival tactics where the same-head down, shoulder in and work to the very best of my ability. As a non-academic, I found researching to be a steep learning curve but passion for my trade provided strong motivation.

Initially it was difficult to find reliable data. As a researcher, I found it was and still is frustrating to read reports and try to sift out accurate material that relates to women in male-dominated trades. Most statistical data combine occupations; for example, in construction, the figures state that 12 per cent of the workforce are women. But this does not reveal that only just over 1 per cent are tradeswomen, with most other women being project managers, architects and designers. General figures for trades and apprenticeships can also be deceptive. Figures for individual trades need to be separated and itemised, as the inclusion of traditional trades for women, such as hairdressing, make the numbers appear much healthier than they are. As an advocate, I find it frustrating when well-meaning people inaccurately report the facts in the media, policy papers and at conferences. People generally do not question information they receive if it fits with their expectations.

Local and international research showed that the very low proportion of female apprentices in non-traditional areas was systemic, and that the main factor preventing women from gaining apprenticeships or trade training was a reactionary, tribal male culture. This not only keeps out women but also excludes men who do not fit the culture's prescriptors. It is repeatedly seen as the main cause of the huge attrition rates of apprentices, which are well over 50 per cent, and, by the age of twenty-four, 40 per cent of trained men have also moved away from the trades. It seems that a high proportion of men prefer to 'do their time', do not challenge the system and use the trades as a stepping-stone to other careers. My experience and research showed that the few women who were making it through were generally very high achievers.

The lack of policy in Australia to promote inclusiveness and equity in the workforce sectors has attracted international attention. The Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum of 2011 gave Australian women's workforce participation a ranking of 44th in the world, and, in March 2011, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women expressed concern that women in Australia continue to face serious and persistent obstacles in many areas, including employment. Since 2011, public debate has increasingly highlighted that, in non-traditional areas, Australian women are achieving less now than twenty or thirty years ago. Initiatives and gains made in the 1980s and 1990s have been generally forgotten and are little known even among tradeswomen and advocates working for change today.

The current emphasis in Vocational Education and Training (VET) reform on contestable funding, which allows federal government funding for training organisations to be directed to employers, is raising alarm bells for advocates in this area. As the employers are a part and product of the unwelcoming trade culture, this further limits women's ability to gain apprenticeships. Currently, a few very determined and persistent women pay their way through trade training as non-apprentices and can gain licences in some states. A small number of highly motivated women have achieved this against terrible odds, generally only with some type of support and mentoring such as the Outreach Painting and Decorating course in Wollongong. This positive, independent pathway has great potential as it is not reliant on sanctioning by employers, but contestable funding is likely to close this alternative avenue.

So where to from this?

In 2009, my work in Australia won me a research scholarship to the United States of America, financed by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). I found an extraordinary depth and breadth of support for, and many pathways into, trades for women in the United States. This included over fifty support groups, a large number of specifically tailored pre-apprenticeship programs and active union support. These were programs run by tradeswomen for tradeswomen.

On my return to Australia I set up Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen (SALT), which began in 2009 in a Wollongong pub: We began with a small group of tradeswomen from multiple trades, including construction, manufacturing trades such as fitting and machining, and auto trades. Not only did women come but men came too. Many of the women's partners were also tradespeople and very supportive of their partners. On a couple of occasions, there were more men than women at our monthly meetings in Wollongong.

We decided that this was the way forward. Women were not setting themselves up as rivals or as better than men, but we would work together as skilled and qualified people asking for diversity and acceptance in the trades. SALT is still primarily a women's group but men are encouraged to join and participate. A two-tier membership structure developed with tradeswomen as well as other interested people who want to find out more and show their support. In 2011, a second SALT group began in Sydney and, in 2012, the Canberra SALT group commenced.

Social networking technologies have quickly extended our reach-Facebook, followed by Twitter-and have helped us connect with tradeswomen across Australia and internationally. Facebook has provided particularly lively social interaction, which is 24/7, versatile and easily accessible. We also use Skype to include members who are not able to attend meetings. Conversations on line and at meetings are wide ranging but very often cover topics that are helpful for dealing with work issues. Among them are: how to get an apprenticeship; how to get back into your trade after a break; and possible career steps once you are starting to think of moving on from the basic trade occupation. Individual women also contact SALT to ask for advice specific to their situation, including help in compiling CVs and information on apprenticeships and support networks. Interstate women are helped via email and/or phone and then passed on to tradeswomen in their state for further support.

One of SALT's recent campaigns has been particularly successful in attracting media attention. American and Australian research showed that well over half of women succeeding in the trades had been taught to use basic hand tools between the ages of five and twelve years old, usually by their fathers. SALT put out a call to fathers in 2011, asking them to teach their primary school age daughters to use hand tools in exactly the same way that boys are taught these skills. This formed part of the media coverage for the conference on 'Women in Industry' and received an overwhelming response. We conducted twenty-four radio interviews across Australia and received an enthusiastic response from both fathers and daughters. It was particularly gratifying to see our campaign enter men's internet forums, as it indicated that men felt our point was valid.

SALT's intention is to provide a sustainable base of young women who would consider the trades as a career. We believe that giving them the same basic hand skills that young men have is an important step forward. The early age is crucial because young girls are interested in learning different skills and are not as susceptible as their older sisters to society and peer pressure to conform to traditional stereotypes. SALT also argues that such skills would benefit all women, making them more independent and raising self-esteem. We have successfully gained funding from the NSW government department, Women NSW, to purchase a custom-built trailer. The try-a-trade trailer will be filled with tools and driven to any suitable venue to teach groups of women to use basic hand tools through short, practical workshops. Launched at the end of August 2012, the trailer was booked out until November, even without advertising.

SALT is run by volunteers and has been entirely self-supporting. It has taken time and effort to achieve most things as members are normally working in full-time jobs. The SALT website has been a major effort but is finally available after much support. The webpage includes not only information about SALT, but also a synopsis of different trades, advice on applying for an apprenticeship and links to other groups, research papers, articles and historical information. In the process, we have been shocked to discover how much advocacy had been done before in this area before us, and how little knowledge of this has been carried forward to new generations. We hope to ensure that this does not remain the case by providing access to the past campaigns and highlighting personal stories.

Our future plans include the continuing use of the trailer; project workshops for women's groups; mentoring apprentices; a children's colouring book; a book that tells the stories of women in non-traditional trades, past and present, and compiling a tradeswomen's archive for future research. There is still a long way to go and the current gender segregation of the work force in Australia is unlikely to change quickly. Most government policies continue the status quo by default, and far-reaching change in the nature of women's participation in the whole workforce will need to occur if our efforts are to be sustainable. SALT and other advocacy groups and individuals will continue to work for change, ever hopeful that with the passion of the past and the tools of today we can start moving forward, even if it is only one step at a time

Published Resources


  • Pyke, Joanne, Women in Building: The Missing 51%, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1992. Details
  • Shewring, Fiona, The Future's Rosie: Initiatives and Pathways for Tradeswomen in the United States of America-an Australian Perspective, National Association of Women in Construction, Sydney, New South Wales, 2010. Details


  • Carlson, Elle, Women in Apprenticeships: Sources of Data, Technical Paper, vol. 26, Bureau of Labour Market Research, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1985. Details
  • Hausmann R. ; Tyson, L. ; and Zahidi, S., Global Gender Gap Report: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland, 2010. Details
  • Shewring, Fiona, The Female Tradie: Challenging Employment Perspectives in Non-traditional Trades for Women, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide, South Australia, 2009. Details

Online Resources