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Lady tradies: the good and the bad in a male-dominated industry

Considering how much time women spend in bathrooms, it is surprising how few actually design and build them...

'It can still be a daunting task to walk onto that job site.'

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says Australia 'has a revenue problem'. Photo: Chris Pearce

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Trades are for ladies, too.

The reasons Elissa, Jemma and Michelle pursued male-dominated trades, which they have each won awards for.

When Elissa Pirotta​ first embarked on her career as a plumber, she had no idea of the challenges she would face entering a male-dominated industry.

Unexpected obstacles ranged from a lack of women's work clothes and suitable toilets to sexist comments and condescending tones.

"Even now, you go into a job site and there is a lot of men and depending on how you're feeling on that day it can still be a daunting task to walk onto that job site with all the guys," Ms Pirotta said.

While more women are entering the construction industry in Australia, they still make up just 11 per cent.


And although they just want to be treated as equals, it doesn't always happen.

Project manager for Manteena​ construction company, Jemma Butt, knows this all too well.

'It's like being in a zoo.'

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says Australia 'has a revenue problem'. Photo: Chris Pearce

"When I was on Christmas Island it was initially a shock to some of the community. I had a couple of people drive up to the construction site and say 'I heard there was a chick and I wanted to come and check it out'," Ms Butt said.

"It's like being in a zoo."

But three of the nine workers in her current team are women, so she believes the industry is making progress. 

The cadets that do come through are often "the most driven and committed", she said, because they have to work that little bit harder each day to prove they have an equal right to be there.

Society is slowly beginning to bridge that gender gap, 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison believes.

Mr Morrison advocated strongly for gender equality throughout his time as chief of the Australian Army.

"I think that we're seeing in our schools at the moment, including our trade schools, more awareness about the need to be less focused on gender with regard to attracting the best people," he said.

"That reinforcement of stereotypical careers is still prevalent in many of our schools and indeed within our society, but they are breaking down and I do think there is a spotlight now starting to shine on this area in a pretty significant way."

He has seen a rise in the military of women doing blue collar jobs such as vehicle apprenticeships, engineering and artillery work. But he said we still have a long way to go.

"I think we still stereotype both our girls and our boys too much and we should be – in schools and the groups that support our schools- open to the ideas of women adopting a career or examining a career in areas that have been traditionally male-dominated."

"When we do that we realise have missed opportunities for too long and we make great strides."

'It makes them feel like they've got a sister or a mother or a wife around'

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says Australia 'has a revenue problem'. Photo: Chris Pearce

Electrician Michelle Tifan​ is involved in the CIT's Women in Trades ambassador program, with Ms Pirotta, to support women interested in the construction industry.

She had also noticed a positive shift in attitudes towards women from most men in her profession. However, she said a minority feel they have to change their behaviour when a woman is around, making them feel uncomfortable.

"I think it makes them feel like they've got a sister or a mother or a wife around, which is the last thing they want to have when they are at work in such a male-dominated industry," she said.

But all three women agreed that most men they came across on the job were supportive and respectful.

"These types of issues happen in most professions," Ms Pirotta said.

"Like with every job, if it's something that you want to do and you've got your mind set on it, it's not something that's going to bother you," she said.

Women also account for just 11 per cent of enrolments in ACT vocational training courses.

However, co-director of the trade skills and vocational learning college at CIT, Fiona Mitchell, said more females were teaching trades at CIT.

"I know for me, passion was the driver," Ms Mitchell said.

"It's about having a supportive environment and the confidence - regardless of your gender - in believing in yourself and maximising your potential.

"That's the key to success."

So there you have it. These women are clearly in the industry to stay - and to show other ladies that trades are not male territory.