Anne is an Accredited Installer in Victoria. She shared some of her experiences as a women in a male-dominated industry and had some advice for ways to be inclusive and increase diversity.
I’m an accredited installer with The Green House Effect, Healesville VIC.
I started out as an electrical apprentice in 2007 with a small solar company in Melbourne.
I love the mix of being on the tools and doing design work. The best bit is the satisfaction of finishing the day with a system that works perfectly, looks good, and is helping to stop climate change.
The vast majority of people in renewables are respectful, inclusive and professional, and I really love working in this industry. However, the biggest challenges for me as a woman are being underestimated by people when they first meet me and feeling out of place in large groups of men. Based on conversations with friends who work in other industries, sexism is far more prevalent in the trades. Because we’re only about 1% of the electrical workforce, most people haven’t seen a female electrician/installer, so it’s only natural that they don’t fully understand that we can do our job just as well as a guy. There are pros and cons to this – on the plus side, some people are super impressed when you do the most mundane thing like lift a panel or a ladder. But even that gets tiresome after the 10th time. The negatives are when people assume that your male labourer is your boss and repeatedly directs their questions to him, or when they believe everything your male colleague says but challenge what you say.
Also, unfortunately sexual harassment is still a thing with some guys. It’s rare, but it’s a real pain when it does happen.
On the flip side, some people are actively supportive because they have strong respect for women, or have already worked with awesome female tradies. Others have specifically asked that I be on their job because they think I’ll be more careful, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a gender thing. And that’s the tricky thing about prejudice, positive and negative; it can be really subtle, and you’re left with this niggling doubt over whether it was sexism, or just personal.
For communications people: I think that the more people see women tradies, the more likely they are to accept that there’s nothing strange about it. This means more female representation in media (actual tradies, not models, and especially not models wearing bikinis).
For employers / supervisors: familiarise yourself with the specific benefits of a diverse workforce in terms of improved performance and efficiency. Added to that, based on my conversations with male workmates and tradie friends, mixed gender workplaces are more respectful and more safe.
Don’t assume that a woman will be less physically able to do the job – I haven’t come across a task in solar that I can’t do for lack of strength.
For co-workers: I’ve worked with a lot of awesome guys who’ve treated me like one of the crew right from the start. But even for you great blokes, please acknowledge that sexism still exists. I had a co-worker say recently that it’s a thing of the past. Then I gave him half a dozen specific examples of when people have assumed that I’m far less skilled/knowledgeable than I actually am, and to his credit he listened and acknowledged that he was wrong.
Some guys, especially in large-scale construction, feel uncomfortable with a woman around at first because they’re used to swearing and talking dirty with their workmates. Actually asking straight out what the boundaries are is a good move, but we might not know where they are until you cross them. Remember that everyone will have different boundaries, just as some guys don’t like swearing or dirty jokes.
Stand up to people who are being sexist – it’s much easier for you as a by-stander to do it than for the receiver to. Same goes for any prejudice. Also, if there’s a new woman on site and she comes across as a bit prickly, it may be because she’s copped a heap of crap in the past and has her guard up, so a bit of patience and friendliness will go a long way.
Oh, and a big shout out to everyone on the Solar Cutters Facebook page who starts their posts with inclusive terms like ‘hey people/cutters/boys and girls/guys/folks’. It’s a little thing, but every time I read ‘hey blokes/lads/fellas’ only, I feel like an outsider.
Link up with another female tradie - it’s so good to be able to share your trials and tribulations with someone who gets it and won’t judge you. I’m so grateful for working with Bella di Blasio in the early years! Or go one step further and find a mentor who has been around the traps and can give good advice. Aside from that, just be patient and understanding. Some co-workers and customers will be cool and see you for who you are straight up, and others will need some time to get their head around it and may take years. The more patient and chilled you are with them while they’re re-educating themselves the better. I find it useful to remember that prejudice is a natural human reaction and I myself have heaps of it I don’t often recognise.
With sexual harassment, remember that it’s 2020 and you don’t have to put up with it. I find that a short sharp come-back straight away lets a guy know he’s crossed the line and I won’t put up with it. If I’m so stunned that I can’t think of something witty on the spot, then even a pause, raised eyebrow and “what the hell?” will do. Then as soon as possible drop it and treat them as a professional.
Be yourself. You don’t have to act blokey in order to fit in. It’s proven that diversity in the workplace is a good thing, and you don’t have to apologise for upsetting a male-only culture. On a practical level, if you’re on a large construction site for a while and they don’t have a female toilet, just one where you have to walk past a urinal to get to a cubicle, ask for a separate portaloo. Seriously, it’s not just you who’ll feel more comfortable, the guys will too, and even if you’re the only one onsite at that moment, it’s likely there’ll be more women around later in the build. In general, construction is a lot blokier, so you might consider at least starting off in domestic, especially if you don’t have a thick skin.
Also, don’t forget that while you’ll always stand out from the crowd because of your gender, what you really want is to stand out because of your great quality of work.
So in a nutshell: relax, be true to yourself, be patient with those around you. The negatives wear off once people learn who you are and where the boundaries are, and it’s really something special to work as part of a solid crew doing something you love.