What’s stopping displaced female JobKeeper workers from entering an industry that’s desperate for skilled labour?
It’s 6:30am when the tradies arrive at the Chisolm Rd Prison Project. They’ll relax and have breakfast on-site, kind of a thing in the construction industry. Looking out from their compound where the boss will brief the crew on the work for the day, you can count nearly 20 different cranes towering above. The massive site will be swarming with tradies as things kick off, most of them men, but not all.
Shaylen Wellington, 19-year-old apprentice plumber with CDC Plumbing and Drainage, is one of just 2 percent of the women “on the tools” in major areas of trades in Australia. Shay will be working in the visitors building doing high level copper work. She has her “scissor ticket”, so she’s licenced to be up and down the cherry picker all day hanging copper, putting clips up, and doing some welding, which she loves doing on a cold day.
Shay is the first female plumber CDC has ever hired. While most of the CDC blokes were supportive and accepting of her, some were a bit iffy about her at first. But after they saw she was there to work as hard as any of the men, they were more than happy to have her on the team. Shay says it’s the men from other companies that give her weird looks and stares.
“It can be very intimidating at first, especially when you’re working alone and you’re not near people from the company, people you know, and there’s just all these random guys, and they give you a funny look and you’re like ‘urgh okay, this is a bit weird, I might just work somewhere else for a bit’,” she tells The Junction.
The value of total building work done in Australia rose 0.1 percent to $29.4b in the December quarter of 2020, helped along by a “shovel-led” economic recovery. These schemes saw multi-million-dollar government investments into the building and construction industry, one of the three highest creators of economic value and the second biggest employer in the Australian economy. But analysis by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that only 12 percent of the industry’s workforce are women.
Master Builders Victoria has urged displaced Victorian workers to consider a new career in building and construction, following the Federal Treasury’s speculation that up to 150,000 jobs could be lost after the $90 billion JobKeeper subsidy ended on 28 March 2021.
The lack of women in the construction industry will likely be felt as Australia’s population ages and the demand for construction services outpaces growth in the industry’s workforce. According to Master Builders Victoria CEO, Rebecca Casson, the industry needs 300,000 people in the next decade, and “women represent an essential resource that we cannot afford to ignore,” she says.
Master Builders Australia launched a mentoring program in 2020 to attract women into trades to fill the serious skill shortages in key areas of trades. But researchers at Charles Sturt University found that women simply don’t consider manual trades as a career; a “cultural shift” is required industrially and culturally before the female recruitment pool will rise.
For Tradie break up day at the end of last year, Shay and the boys from CDC all went out and started drinking at 8am, and “because they’re construction workers, they like to have a ‘bit of fun’”, her boss booked out the rooftop of a pub and they were there for hours.
“My boss hired some topless barmaids to come, and he came up to me before they got there and said, ‘if you don’t feel comfortable at all then just tell me and I will send them away’. So that was really nice, but I don’t care, maybe I want to see some titties too, like come on?” she says.
“I felt safe actually having a few drinks with them, a lot of girls probably wouldn’t feel safe being around a whole heap of older men and getting drunk, but I felt safe enough to be able to do that.”
“And when I went to catch a train home by myself, three of the other guys left with me and made sure that I got to the train okay, before continuing on where they were going.”
That’s the strange duality of a tradesman, on the one hand you’ve got that potentially sleazy, sexist bloke catcalling and wolf-whistling at women walking past the job site. But at the same time, they can be the most loyal group of people in Australia. Operating on verbal contracts and strict honour systems, a simple handshake as binding as a legal contract. But that traditionally-masculine culture can also harbour chauvinism.
When Shay was working on-site, one tradie from another company would come and stand over her and stare at her while she worked, which made her really uncomfortable. She repeatedly asked, “can I help you?”, but he didn’t get the hint.
“It went on for a few weeks and I told one of our guys about it from CDC, and he full-on went up to this guy and said, ‘you stop watching her!’ and yelled at him … so it’s nice to know that the other guys from my company are really supportive,” she says.
Shay’s experience highlights the barriers identified by the Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy that stop women entering trades. Industry women report being excluded and made to feel unwelcome. Rigid work practices, a traditionally masculine or sexist culture, gendered violence, and informal recruitment processes have all contributed to the low numbers of women working in construction.
“There will be some things that I’ll ignore, like comments made about other women. I feel bad doing that, but at the same time I don’t want to change their way they might have been plumbing, for what, 30 years?” Shay says.
“They’ve always bantered about that sort of stuff with their mates, like it’s nothing serious so I kind of keep my mouth shut with some of that stuff. But if it’s something serious I’ll be like ‘watch your mouth’.”
“Women do not get, or keep the jobs”, according to the Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy, partly because they’re guided away from trades from a young age. Consequently, they aren’t exposed to the same networking opportunities young men are – Shay says it’s all about who you know in construction – making it difficult for women to compete in the industry’s informal hiring process.
Discrimination in recruitment is only compounded by the motherhood penalty; management don’t want employees that will go on maternity leave. This leads to limited career progression potential, and when a woman does get the job, they’re relegated to low-paying, insecure roles with inflexible work arrangements.
Many women are subsequently forced out of the labour market in gender segregated industries because of their unpaid domestic and caring responsibilities of children and the elderly. The Victorian Government’s Office for Women reported that unpaid work and care in Victoria was worth $206 billion in 2017-18, equivalent to half of Victoria’s total Gross State Product.
Despite these challenges, women are slowly becoming a growing presence on construction sites in Australia. The ABC reported that In December 2020, the number of female construction apprentices was 2,929, compared to 1,361 in 2010, an increase of 115 percent. The overall number of women in construction roles increased by 34 per cent in five years, from 44,583 in 2015 to 59,587 in 2020.
Sharon Micallef, spray painter at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions, says her job gives her a break from the parental duties she has at home. She started her apprenticeship in February 1993 as an aircraft spray painter at Australian Airlines and through her persistence and strength, she carved a place for herself in her industry.
“Back then, one major barrier that I had to face was the fact that the men I had to work with didn’t think I belonged in the trade. I had to continuously prove to them that I was fully capable of doing the same work that they did and to their standards. But once they knew I had what it took to be a spray painter, I was more included and appreciated as an asset to the team,” she tells The Junction.
“At the end of every shift, my mum would ask if I was ready to quit yet. After a couple of weeks, I told my mum to stop asking me that question as I was never going to quit … I would never look back on my decision in joining the industry.”
Article: Gianni Francis is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications student majoring in journalism at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @giannifrancis6