Why More Women Are Pursuing Careers in the Manual Trades

09/08/2016 16:27 | Updated 09 August 2016

If your first reaction to having a female plumber or electrician turn up at your house is one of incredulity, you'd probably be forgiven. Manual trades such as construction, carpentry and plumbing have traditionally been viewed as a man's domain, and to this day they're some of the most gender-segregated professions in the world.

Times are changing, however, and in recent years there's been an increase in the number of women pursuing careers in male dominated fields. One survey of 10,000 trades people found that women now make up 6% of skilled trade workers in the UK.

Official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the percentage of women working in construction went from 11.7% in 1999 to 13.4% in 2014, and a poll of construction companies revealed that three quarters of employers in the construction sector have witnessed an increase in the number of women working in traditionally male jobs.

With the UK currently facing a skills shortage in key sectors including construction and engineering, this can only be a good thing, but what's driving this change?

Why more women are pursuing careers in the trades

The fact that more women are choosing to enter the trades can partly be explained by the increased demand for skilled tradespeople. According to a survey by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, sectors where employers have been unable to find workers with the required skills include construction and engineering.

Another report from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that school leavers may be better off studying for a trade than going to university due to the sharp rise in the projected number of medium and low-skilled jobs.

The report indicates that nearly two-thirds of newly-created jobs will be in medium and low-skilled industries, with some 3.6m jobs expected to open up in medium-level industries such as metal and electrical trades, construction and building and agriculture.

Skilled trades jobs also have the potential to be highly paid, with a survey of female employees working in construction and trades showing that 61% had chosen their current career path based on the earning potential associated with the industry.

Greater flexibility may be another reason trades jobs are appealing to women, with a survey of 10,000 trades people in the UK showing that 80% of female tradespeople are their own boss and employ two other people on average.

By creating their own companies and becoming their own bosses, women are able to achieve a better work-life balance, because they're delegating and planning work around their family commitments rather than the other way around.

Challenges faced by women in the trades

Despite the potential benefits, women who choose to pursue a career in a male dominated sector such as construction, plumbing or carpentry may still face significant challenges, especially when they're first starting out.

A survey by UCATT found that over half of women in construction believed they were treated unfairly at work because of their gender and 42% said they'd experienced bullying or harassment at work.

On the up side, 42% of the women surveyed also said they had noticed an improvement in their workplace as attitudes towards gender changed. Most felt that this was down to the fact that more women were beginning to work on construction sites, which helped break down scepticism and promote awareness of diversity issues.

Meg Solly, women's rights advocate and co-founder of non-traditional skills training organization She Skills, agrees that more awareness and visibility of women in trades is important, and points out in a recent interview that fostering more female role models in non-traditional trades is a vital first step.

"I think there are opportunities that women are missing out on, as trades can be particularly well-paying and interesting jobs," she said. "We're targeting [non-traditional] skills in the hope that we can increase the amount of female role models doing these things."

However, she also emphasised that it's not just the attitudes of male colleagues or customers that hold women back, but their own unconscious bias too.

"The truth is that I usually get really great responses to what we're doing at She Skills, particularly from men. So I think it's often a mindset and something that we women set ourselves up for," she explained.

"We might work ourselves up with the thought that everyone else is thinking we shouldn't be doing something, when in fact others might be thinking 'Oh, that's awesome, she wants to be a carpenter or she wants to be a plumber.'"

Her advice for women who are just starting out in a non-traditional trade is to find a supportive employer and work environment.

"Use your networks to find a supportive crew or a supportive tribe, and look for an employer where you feel you're likely to be successful," she advised. "Networking is really the key thing, because all of my roles have come about through networks."


Marianne Stenger is a writer and journalist with Open Colleges.