Raising the roof for more female trade apprentices

Dressed in high-vis and working on a roof, Meliha Birkett is the one per cent.

She is one of roughly 65 female roof tilers in Australia, among 6500 people employed in the trade.

Ms Birkett, 19, began working with her dad Paul to save up for an overseas trip, but loved the job so much she took on an apprenticeship last year.

“When I started, I looked at all the guys and thought ‘that’s not for me’,” she told AAP.

“But then you watch yourself get better, do all the things you never thought you would be able to do and you get stronger.”

The latest figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research show there were 128,125 women doing apprenticeships and traineeships in the June quarter last year, a yearly rise of 36 per cent.

The number of women starting trade apprenticeships has grown slowly over the last five years, averaging 14 per cent of tradies in training.

But the challenge is getting women onto work sites, as they represent only 11 per cent of those who complete their apprenticeships.

In some states, including NSW, as little as two per cent of tradespeople are women.

Industry groups and state governments are behind a renewed push to encourage women to work in traditionally male-dominated trades through grants programs and awareness campaigns, particularly as the nation deals with a prolonged skills shortage.

Regional training provider Verto found the growth of women starting apprenticeships is slow, but attitudes are shifting.

“There’s still a lack of awareness, especially for female students, that apprenticeships are a viable career,” chief executive Ron Maxwell said.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but barriers are starting to break down.”

Verto surveyed more than 1000 young women in 2020, finding sexism is a key concern for those who have taken up apprenticeships or are thinking about it.

Tradeswomen Australia, a not-for-profit organisation working on better gender representation in skilled trades, said the federal government’s jobs summit last year was a “watershed moment” in recognising women’s inequitable workplace participation.

In its submission on the federal government’s Employment White Paper, the group said the terms of reference should include the impact of gender inequity and discrimination in highly-gendered sectors like trades.

Mr Maxwell said along with concerns about discrimination, parents’ and teachers’ perceptions can hinder entry into trades.

“If they’ve got someone in their ear, saying, ‘you have to go to university’ … they won’t even consider a trade.

“It’s about keeping an open mind. Trades are a source of aspiration because you can go so far, it’s entirely up to you.”

Ms Birkett said her experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and some of her female friends have enjoyed their carpentry and electrical apprenticeships.

“It would be cool to see more women doing it, and also being in leadership roles in trades,” she said.

“They have a way of dealing with things that works really well.”


Stephanie Gardiner
(Australian Associated Press)


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