Why aren’t more women in trades?

To mark International Women’s Day, Karen Sloan, Managing Director – gas maintenance at national property services business Liberty, discusses why attracting more woman into the sector is key to its long-term future

More women are in work than ever before. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed a record 72.1% of UK women aged over 16 were in employment between May and July last year. The ONS report also found the gap between employment rates of men and women is steadily closing, with the genders separated by just 8.5% this quarter.

Obviously, this must be welcomed. It is an incredible achievement and testament to the progress women – and society as a whole – have made over the last 50 years. Women CEOs, investors, influencers and political leaders are now rightfully accepted, respected and expected in equal measure.

But what about women working in the trades?

Breaking down barriers

It’s no secret that women working in the trades has traditionally been viewed as something of a taboo subject. For centuries, jobs in construction, plumbing and engineering have been dominated by men. Property services has particularly been viewed as a ‘male-dominated industry’. Manual tasks such as boiler repairs, roof maintenance and insulation have been seen as ‘jobs for the boys’.

According to a report by the Institute of Engineering and Technology (ICT), just 11% of heating engineers in the UK are female, with just 1% across the skilled trades workforce. What’s more, just 12% of all UK businesses – slightly more than one in 10 – had taken steps to make their engineering and technical departments more diverse.

Add to that an ever-growing skills gap in these sectors and it becomes clear innovative approaches to redress this imbalance are desperately needed.

From revolution to evolution

Half a century ago, the landscape was very different. Women were hugely underrepresented in the workplace. In 1969, when Liberty, then known as Booth Mechanical Services Ltd, opened for business for the first time, just 19% of UK women were employed.

The dawn of the 1970s heralded new legislation designed to improve workplace equality. The Equal Pay Act, for example, prohibited less favourable treatment between men and women in terms of pay. Five years later, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act further promoted equality, including the introduction of statutory maternity provision.

In 1971, 52% of women were employed. By the end of the 70s, that figure had increased to 57%. However, these roles were predominantly as secretaries, teachers, bookkeepers, waitresses and nurses. I myself started out as a typist – it was what all my friends were doing after school, and it seemed like it was the route that was expected for me.

During the decades that followed, employment rates for women have continued to grow. Sadly, female representation in the trades has remained at less than 2%. But change is coming.

Plugging the skills gap

The growing skills and labour shortages, for example, simply cannot be ignored. The government’s latest Employer Skills Survey warned £3.3 billion could be wiped off the UK economy over the next five years if the skills gap isn’t closed.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus leading the way with a 30% female workforce.

Here at Liberty, we want to change that. We are proud of the diversity of the business and how inclusive it is. But we want to do more. We are especially keen to promote trades as a career option open to everyone. It is clear property services businesses would benefit significantly from a more diverse workforce, and routes like apprenticeships mean that careers in the sector are open to everyone.

Diversity leads to greater inclusivity, improving a business’ culture through embracing differing opinions, viewpoints and preferences.  We must banish the stigma against women in the trades. We need to support schools and training programmes for girls to increase interest in trade careers.

The future

While the sector is constantly changing and developing, this is still a really challenging time for woman wanting to breakthrough in property services.

Throughout my early career, I didn’t see female operations managers and it’s taken a strong personal drive and determination to show that I have the right skills take on operational management roles.

I’ve always felt I had to be better, faster and push myself harder, I’ve felt I had to work twice as hard to get to where I am and prove that I was in the role on merit, and not tokenism. Both personally and at Liberty as a business we’re passionate about redressing this balance in the future.

To do this, it is vital that we have more female operatives coming into the property services industry and being given the opportunities to progress if they want to. We all want to work somewhere that we feel we fit in and having more representation will help females considering a career in the sector to feel like it is a viable option for them.

We want to open avenues and be more visible to inspire young girls to consider engineering and trades roles when they are looking at their options for the future. I am proud to be a mentor for other woman looking to progress in their careers, because I want to give something back and show that anyone can get there and achieve. I’m committed to ensuring that we have genuine diversity of people coming through into our sector, regardless of gender and background.

Ultimately, we must end stereotypes and barriers for all for the long-term survival of our sector.

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