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Women tradies working to smash bias out of the construction industry

The days when women were rebuffed and discouraged from working in trades fortunately appear to be behind us, but there's still plenty of bias to break when it comes to females in the industry.

Despite companies working to get more women on board, the concept of a female tradie still comes as a surprise to many.

Women make up just two per cent of workers in the Australian construction industry.

Female employment rates slowly growing

"You're female. We can't risk having a lawsuit".

That's what Melbourne electrician Lani Verde was told by at least nine electrician companies when she tried to apply for her first gig as apprentice electrician in 2012.

Ms Verde, in her early 20s, couldn't believe what she was hearing after she went into the companies' offices to find out why she had been rejected for multiple roles.

She thought she was going to be told there was something wrong with her CV.

"I never thought they would turn around and say it was because I was female," she said.

"I told them, 'I'm not going to cause any trouble,' and they said, 'We just can't risk it.'"

When she finally found a job at a small company – because the boss' girlfriend encouraged him to give Ms Verde a go – she said she was treated "really badly".

She was left alone to do unsafe jobs as a first-year apprentice, but was too scared to leave the job, anxious that no one else would hire her.

"I thought all the signs are pointing to, 'You can't do it'".

But ten years on, Ms Verde says efforts to address the bias in the industry are largely starting to take effect in terms of employment rates.

Melbourne builder Oksana Katorjevskaya has also noticed an increase in the number of women tradies and increasing discussion about their representation.

Bowens, which supplies materials to the construction industry, is one of the companies working to up the number of women in its ranks.

The company employs 145 women, making up 23 per cent of the supplier's employees.

Pushes to drive the numbers up have seen the company employ 26 women in the past 12 months.

But Head of Human Resources Vesna Brown said while the company was proud that its ratios surpassed others in the industry, it wanted to do more.

"While we take the wins and we're proud of them, it doesn't feel like enough for us," she said,

"There's still quite a gap that we need to close."

The Victorian Government has also moved to get females into trades with its new Building Equality Policy, which mandates women occupy at least three per cent of trade roles and 35 per cent of management and supervisor roles in government projects worth over $20 million by 2024.

Need to normalise the concept of women in trades

However, the idea of women being tradies needs to become commonplace in society to get more females in trades, players in the construction industry agree.

"We need to change this surprise factor of, 'Oh wow a woman in trade'," Ms Verde said.

After struggling to break into the industry, she went on to launch her own electrician company, 'Lani the Sparky', in Melbourne's inner north as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in 2020.

Business has boomed, and she has hired another female A-Grade electrician and a female apprentice, but every day Ms Verde still comes across people who are surprised to see women tradies.

Ms Verde believes schools need to start teaching students that trades are a practical career path for women.

Executive Director Strategy People and Influence at Masters Building Association Michaela Lihou agrees that getting more women into the industry will 'break the bias'.

"It's about changing the conversations," she said.

"It starts from parents having conversations with their daughters, with their sons.

"It's about all of the players within the system having the conversation and making it aware that construction sites are safe places for women... and that there are a variety of roles."

Companies need to embrace women

To increase and maintain the number of women employed in the construction industry companies also need to make having women integral to their structure, Bowens' Vesna Brown said.

"A piece of paper does nothing, you've got to put something into action," she said.

Ms Brown said Bowens managed to have exceptional rates of female employees by not only having hiring practices targeted towards women, but also flexible working arrangements, awards for women and female ambassadors.

Ms Brown said the company had allowed her to have a meaningful career while being a mother of two.

"Being a female leader, especially in an industry like ours, I can say you really can have both in a really guilt-free way."

Women in the trade industry 'just makes sense'

Ms Katorjevskaya, who has been a licensed residential builder for more than eight years, is adamant women have different skills to offer the construction industry, just as men do.

She was dealing with her own residential build while working as a software consultant when her builder suggested that she become a professional builder herself.

Ms Katorjevskaya did just that, and has never looked back, urging other women to give it a go, "Be confident and we can make a difference".

Ms Verde couldn't agree more, saying she was better than most of her class when she was doing her pre-apprenticeship.

She said many of her female clients liked having female electricians in their homes, while women are indeed physically suited to working in trades.

"We are built to do this – crawling through roofs and sitting in tight spaces and thinking with your brain, problem-solving."

"We are absolutely made to do this."


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