We hear a lot about the gender pay gap.
We know that when it comes to paying women fairly, Australia ranks 36th in the world. We know that at the current rate of change, women will have to wait until 2133 to receive equal pay.
We know that women are underrepresented in board rooms and in cabinet.
But what we don’t hear about enough is what this inequality looks like at a grass roots level.
For women who work in trades, inequality is the absence of a female toilet in your workplace. Inequality is having to wear a uniform that doesn’t fit. Inequality is sexual harassment, and the absence of effective policies to deal with it.
Inequality is being a female in a career so profoundly male-dominated that you seem innately out of place.
Most of us, regardless of how progressive our ideas about gender are, would take notice of the presence of a female plumber, female construction worker, or a female automotive engineer. Not because we would doubt their skills, but simply because they’re so rare.
And the appearance of a woman in a construction vest is statistically unusual.
Less than 10% of applicants for trade apprentices are women. But it’s curious that in 2016, a time when we are so adamant on telling girls they can do anything, learning a non-traditional trade still doesn’t feature as a prospect.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, there’s a lack of opportunity for girls to take technical or trade subjects at school, and they’re not encouraged to undertake school based apprenticeships.
Then there’s the “dirty” image of trades, which is culturally perceived as “unfeminine”. Thus, parents are far more likely to encourage their daughters to choose hairdressing, nursing or childcare over mining or motor mechanics.
But even women who do choose to take up a trade apprenticeship face significant barriers.
As a result, the rates of drop-out for female apprentices are disproportionately high. So in NSW we have women who want to take up a trade, but ultimately leave, because the issues in their workplace seem insurmountable.
Watch the Hon. Pru Howard (former Minister for Women) discuss women in trades. Post continues after video.
This needs to change. Our young women deserve better than this.
A research report entitled ‘Ducks on the Pond’ published late last year, outlines the hardships experienced by women in NSW who take up trade apprenticeships.
The report said that there are two critical reasons why women are dropping out prematurely. The first is practical, and the second is cultural.
On the practical side, there’s the lack of toilets, and the problem of uniforms that aren’t designed for women.
One woman explained: “Even at TAFE, we don’t have a women’s toilet. We are the only women in the class and we have to walk across the campus to use the female staff toilet.”
In addition, 78% of apprentices said that uniforms need essential improvements. Wearing gloves that are too big for one’s hand, or helmets that don’t fit one’s head, or safety glasses that are too loose, is a significant and pressing safety issue
Culturally, trade professions are thought of as a man’s domain, and there are serious consequences when a woman imposes. A quarter of female apprentices reported a lack of respect or fair treatment from their boss, and generally negative attitudes in the workplace. One woman described: “Guys come up and tell you that you belong in an office job, not a trade. When someone says you don’t belong, it’s horrible.”
Bullying and sexual harassment is a key issue. Every woman who participated in the research reported bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment.
Female apprentices know that if they want to survive in a trade, they have to make their gender and their sexuality a non-issue. This is incredibly difficult, and these women report struggling to identify when something goes “too far”, and what to do about it when it does. There are lots of jokes about sex, and a lot of flirtation. One woman explained: “There is a huge undertone about sex, lots of sexual tension..but you can’t care about it. If you complain, you get on their wrong side”. Another said, “If you speak out, you have to leave. You’re a trouble maker.”
Because of these barriers, women leave.
This is a clear example of how the gender pay gap works at a grass-roots level: women leave engaging, rewarding, and highly paid work because the workplace isn’t designed for them.
So what can we do?
First of all, we can get excited about the fact that in spite of these barriers, the presence of women in these male-dominated trades is experiencing growth. The next step is to harness this growth.
We need more awareness and visibility of women in trades. We need to challenge feminine stereotypes, and address myths about the capability of women in trade based work. We need more opportunities at school for girls to take technical classes, and we need education for teachers and parents about opportunities in trades for women.
We need to start seeing non-traditional trades as viable career options for women. Because they are.
As one employer put it: “We have flexible working, part time work, paid maternity leave, nine day fortnights, study leave programs, post qualification study support…”
An essential part of closing the gender pay gap is broadening women’s field of options when it comes to their careers. This will benefit not only women individually, but the workforce more generally.
‘Ducks on the Pond’ is the warning we all needed to hear. Despite many advances when it comes to gender equality, at the grass-roots level, women are still not being treated fairly.
It’s only by starting a conversation about these issues, that we can move towards addressing them.
You can read the full ‘Ducks on the Pond’ report here.