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Going against the grain

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Rebecca Mair regales Electrical Connection with the story of her her journey as a female electrician.

As I child I loved watching my Dad fixing things about the house; they’re some of my earliest and fondest memories. I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps, as I too loved using my hands to build and fix things.

Years later, when it became time for me to consider a career choice, I assumed I would enter a career fit for a woman – a ‘clean profession’ like administration, nursing, teaching, retail or child-care. As a teenager, the distinction between a ’woman’s job‘ and a ’man’s job‘ couldn’t have been any clearer.

And while we’d like to think the situation has changed since those days, the reality is this gender perception of jobs has prevailed. Indeed, stereotypes engrained in our children from a young age have a huge impact on our future perceptions. A study of teenagers between 14 and 19 showed that despite not knowing the responsibilities involved in a certain job nor the pay or lifestyle, they were able to easily identify ’girls’ jobs‘ from ’boys’ jobs’.

It’s no secret that trades are traditionally thought of as boys’ jobs. Even today, female apprenticeship numbers are less than 2% in areas like construction, electrical, automotive, carpentry and plumbing. Bearing this in mind, it really wasn’t much of a surprise that I didn’t follow my gut and pursue an electrical apprenticeship from the get-go.

Looking back on my career, I really am a prime example of how persuasive these gender stereotypes can be. Like many other young girls fresh out of school, I went straight into nursing. A hands-on role that involves plenty of problem-solving, I thought it would be the perfect fit. But it wasn’t to be – after just a couple of years I left and moved onto reception work, before I once again quit for what I thought was my dream job, working with pre-school children.

The stereotype that being a tradie was only for men meant I never really considered becoming an electrician. In fact, it was only when I met my now-husband, who is a qualified electrician, that it truly became a possibility. He encouraged me to really question the status quo – if I wanted to be an electrician, then what was stopping me? Coming to this realisation was like a light-bulb moment (pardon the pun!)

Today, women make up 46.2% of all employees in Australia. In a country where the demand for technical proficiency and manual dexterity is on the rise, it makes sense for the number of female electricians to grow with the industry and the good news is there are more opportunities than ever for women wanting to break into the field. Yet if we want to tap into one of the nation’s biggest assets, our female workforce, we need to close the gender gap; both the perceived and the actual.

By perceived I mean the mental barrier that women feel to entering an apprenticeship. If beginning a trade apprenticeship had been presented to me as a viable option, I would have jumped at it. As female electricians today we have a responsibility to young girls to not only be more visible but to be more vocal. Most young women don’t know a female electrician, which is a huge reason they don’t feel like they can be one. That’s one of the reasons why I became a brand ambassador for Clipsal – to raise awareness of my career as a female sparky in the hopes of inspiring the next generation. Also as a mother, I want to be able to set the best example for my daughter, demonstrating that no barriers should stop you from reaching your goals regardless of the career you choose to pursue.

In terms of the actual gender gap I mean the double standards women face in the workplace. Across the workforce full-time average weekly earnings for women are 16.2% less than for men and it’s only more pronounced for sparkies. In fact, the Electrical Distribution Trades industry has the third biggest pay gap between men and women with males on a salary of $93,377 and women $48,390. Women need to be treated equally in the workplace both in regards to the attitudes of their co-workers as well as numerically.

The truth is, despite having a foot in the door, I still faced resistance for being a woman. One of my early experiences of discrimination was as an apprentice when one company refused to have any females on site because it was ’too much hassle‘ or because someone might refuse to pay for the job. I also found that builders could get iffy about having a woman on site for no other reason than they weren’t used to it. This was difficult to face regularly, even if I was following my passion.

So what can we do about it? The reality is that men are crucial to the cause – without their support and willingness to adapt, female tradies like me will keep on telling the same story. As shown in a recent survey, men perceive the challenges of women in the workplace in a very different way to their female counterparts. Interestingly, men believe that a woman’s greatest challenges are feeling included, achieving work-life balance and dealing with childcare issues. Women, on the other hand, perceive promotions and pay as being the top obstacles they face.

There are many factors that contribute to this perception; namely the fact that women are outnumbered in many industries, such as the electrical industry, and that there’s an under representation of women in management positions. This perception misalignment is something that must be taken seriously; it can impact how male managers manage women or even how they interact with their female colleagues. Until we’re all on the same page, we will continue to have issues with gender stereotyping and equality.

It’s my hope that by sharing my story more women will feel empowered to undertake an electrical apprenticeship regardless of the adversity they might face. As you can see from my story, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. But after trying many different roles I knew where my interest lay and I had to get there. Unfortunately, gender stereotypes still exist today and while many in the industry are far more open-minded, it would be misleading to say you won’t face challenges because of your sex. As with any career, you will have times of hardship but it’s up to you to decide if you’ll struggle to feel engaged in a role you feel you should be in or if, like me, you’re willing to persevere for a career you’ll find rewarding.

I’ve faced many obstacles during my years as a sparky but do I regret pursuing the profession? Absolutely not! It’s a really rewarding job and I couldn’t be happier in my career. If you’re a woman who’s thought about a career in trade but quickly brushed it aside I want to encourage you to reconsider. If you’re a business who hasn’t been open to accepting female apprentices I want to encourage you to reconsider. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt from my experience is to put passion before gender and whether you’re a business or an individual I’d like to ask you to do the same.

About Rebecca Mair

Rebecca Mair

Rebecca 'Bec Sparky' Mair is a qualified electrician and renovation expert. Bec currently works as a Consumer Brand Ambassador at Clipsal by Schneider Electric where she is helping to demystify the electrical industry and share important tips on safety, energy saving and products.

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