Image: Apprentice carpenter Georgie Young
Be honest, if you ordered a drain layer to come around to your house to do some work and a 25 year old woman knocked on your door, would you do a double take?
According to a report by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, half the working age population is female, but only 1% of plumbers, electricians and carpenters/joiners are women.
Furthermore, of the 9,599 young tradies that are going through BCITO, who manage building and construction apprenticeships, only 270 are women. That’s less than 3%.
Why is that? Is there any real reason why women can’t do these jobs?
None of these women think so.
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Beth Pike was a stay at home mum with a little girl and a background in office work, but hated being cooped up indoors.
“I really wanted to do something practical but needed still to be able to do a lot of thinking, so plumbing and drainage ended up being the path I chose.”
3 years later and the West Aucklander is still in the thick of it, but does recall some nerves when getting into the industry.
“I was a little apprehensive before I started, especially with the light hearted 'abuse' apprentices are known to get, but after having started I got to know my colleagues and other tradesmen and are yet to encounter negativity.”
However she does recall one instance where she was turned down for an apprenticeship based in part to her gender.
“They didn't think it was a good idea to have a girl on their team,” she says. “I was told that it would be distracting.
“That was a little disappointing but I did see his point. I took that on board and take care to dress appropriately on site and always behave in a friendly and professional manner.”
But despite this, Beth strongly believes that if it’s a path you want to take, she says to go for it,
So long as you’re willing to put in the time to gain the proper qualifications.
“If you find that it’s right for you I recommend you do whatever it takes to get there. I did with my career and I absolutely love it!”
Farming in the blood
Karla Frost’s path to becoming a top dairy farm manager was much more organic.
“Both my Grandparents and my parents were dairy farmers, so it’s in my blood. I grew up on my parent’s dairy farm in Towai half an hour north of Whangarei, and was involved with the day to day running of the farm from a very early age.
“I loved every minute of it, especially the chance to work with animals and the outdoors.”
Now the Farm Manager at the Northland Agricultural research farm, Karla milks 250 cows on an 84ha platform, and her efforts have been recognised being named Northland Regional Dairy Farm Manager of the Year for 2014.
And while she says any fears she had around joining a “boy’s club” were mostly unfounded, there are still some who have trouble grasping the concept of a young woman managing a dairy farm.
“Some people won’t believe me when I say I am the farm manager and the person they need to talk with. I still receive strange looks when I am purchasing farm supplies, and often on the phone people ask to speak to a ‘partner’ or even my ‘father’ as they presume I couldn’t possibly be in charge.
“On several face-to-face occasions people have asked to speak to the ‘actual person in charge, my partner or the owner’ over speaking to me.
“It’s like they presume that it’s impossible for me to be the one making all the decisions.”
Giving as good as you get
Growing up with a large number of male friends, apprentice carpenter Georgie Young learnt long ago to take it all in stride.
“When I started I wasn't worried so much about the stigma of construction being a boy’s club. Most of my life the majority of my friends were guys so that aspect of building was second nature to me. I know who I am so I don't fuss much over what people that don't know me think.”
Based on Waiheke Island, Georgie’s path to a career in carpentry “just sort of happened”.
“My best friend was dating a guy that owned a construction company. He needed a spare pair of hands and I needed a job. It certainly wasn’t my intention at first to do an apprenticeship, I just wanted to save enough money to take off overseas again.
“After starting I was hooked, I just couldn’t get enough. I also knew that I was learning from an amazing builder and teacher and to walk away from such a life changing opportunity I’d be mad.
“It still took me a while to commit to an apprenticeship, but I haven’t looked back and it’s just flying past.”
A long way to go
Ruma Karaitiana, Chief Executive of BCITO, says he is seeing a growth in the numbers of women coming through his doors, but it’s still small.
“The heavy outdoor trades such as brick and blocklaying, carpentry, and cement and concrete show the smallest growth patterns, although we have good growth in the finishing trades such as interior systems (gib fixing and finishing) as well as painting and decorating”
He puts this down to a noticeable shift in ideology, breaking away from the stereotypical “macho” image of construction.
“The industry is getting less hung up by its self-perpetuating macho image. On the part of prospective employees it is partly the ‘girls can do anything’ message and the emergence of some good role models of females in the industry.
“From the perspective of employers there is a reality message that they will simply run out of prospective employees and negatively impact their productivity unless they start to hire more Maori, Pasifika, Asian, and, yes, women.”
With current health and safety regulations meaning brute strength is no longer required in the trades, it seems the only reasons women may feel out of place are purely historical.
As Georgie sums it up, “The only real difference between me and a bloke is a bit less muscle, a bit less hair and a bit more brain.”
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