by Katherine Post

Attracting women to traditional trade apprenticeships is tough according to those employers who want to recruit female apprentices. The pool of potential female recruits is small, less than 10% of total applicants.

Despite the fact that skilled tradespeople are in short supply, research shows only small numbers of women are applying for apprenticeships in a traditional trade and few employers consider employing a female apprentice.

So why are these numbers so small? We know from the research that workplace discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and a feeling that the workplace is not designed for them, are key issues discouraging women from seeking apprenticeships in male- dominated trades. There may also be a reluctance from businesses to hire women – in research commissioned by the NSW Skills Board,  almost 10% of employers in small businesses and 22% in medium sized companies said that they would prefer not to recruit any female apprentices.

While many employers may be open to recruiting women in these trades, a key challenge is that they lack understanding about how to create an enabling environment for women tradespeople.

Very few employers have a stated policy of recruiting female apprentices; those that do are likely to be running large companies but even among the larger organisations only around 6% have a formal policy and only 19% have expressed a preference for having at least one female apprentice on board.

A survey showed the vast majority of employers (80%) had no policy and no preference when it came to female apprentices; most have just never considered it.

The impact of workplace culture and the uncertainty about dealing with harassment and bullying is a clear factor for those women in trade apprenticeships. Almost half of those apprentices who had experienced harassment left their apprenticeship and they were women who had experienced harassment or discrimination from the outset.

Workplace culture presents the most complex challenge for employers and female apprentices in traditional trades.

Employers are very positive about female apprentices who get through to qualification, often describing them as above the average in skill, attention to detail and attitude to the job. But a significant number of female apprentices will leave before completion and a further percentage will seriously consider quitting at some point.

The research indicates that a number of factors have a negative impact on experience during an apprenticeship and on the likelihood that female apprentices will make it through to qualification. These include:

  • The male culture in trades – the language, jokes, sexism
  • Persistent ‘testing’ of women, the need for female apprentices to keep proving themselves to male colleagues
  • Bullying and sexual harassment and ineffective workplace policies
  • Lack of female role models and peers
  • Lack of attention to female facilities, unnecessary discomfort for women
  • Supervisors who are not equipped or skilled at dealing with gender diversity in the workplace.

In order to really effect change, organisations need to take an in-depth look at factors that may be pushing women out of their workforce. Common factors are inflexible workplace conditions that may be incompatible with caring responsibilities, ineffective complaints management processes, and a male-dominated culture.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2015 ̶ 16,  44% of women who worked were employed on a part time basis. But the proportion of part-time employees in male-dominated organisations was only 5%.

We know that male-dominated workplaces tend to offer less flexibility and their full-time employees tend to work longer hours. This can mean that women with families and caring responsibilities often have to gravitate to lower-paying female dominated industries because they offer the highest proportion of flexible work— particularly part-time and casual work.

But we also know there are significant potential benefits for employers offering flexible conditions. These employers become much more attractive to a larger section of the potential workforce. In addition to this, research has shown that there are productivity benefits –  for example we know that women working part-time waste the least amount of time at work.

Establishing and maintaining an attractive workplace culture that embraces diversity and is truly inclusive can be one of the most difficult challenges faced by organisations. We know that effective culture change is predicated on commitment from leadership and takes time. But the potential rewards are great, both in terms of an organisation’s bottom line, and its alignment with contemporary community values.

Rapid Connect can help, by supporting women apprentices to thrive in their workplace while at the same time helping the organisations that employ and train them evolve to become employers of choice. Get in touch at connect@rapidcontext.com.au to find out more.

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