Department of Family and Community Services

Focus Topic: Women in trades and technical occupations

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In NSW, fewer than two percent of each of the trades groups, construction, automotive and electrical trades, were women in 2011. There were just 200 female carpenters, 260 female motor mechanics, 170 female plumbers and 380 female electricians within a total technicians and trades workforce of nearly 415,000 people, just over 13 percent of the workforce.1 In the largest single trade occupation in NSW – that of electrician – women were just 1.1 percent of total workers.

Despite awareness of the issue and government and non-government initiatives since the 1980s, women today have a substantial foothold in only a handful of trade and technical occupations. These include hairdressing and cooking (both trades associated with women’s traditional domestic roles), medical technicians, and animal care roles such as veterinary nurse and animal attendant. Of the 62,600 women in trades and technical jobs in NSW, some 13,850 are hairdressers and nearly 14,000 are cooks or chefs.2

How did this degree of male domination within the trades workforce develop? How has it been sustained, given women’s entry into so many other areas of social life, and over three decades of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws and policies?

Women’s share of some technician and trades occupations has increased a little over time (see Table 4.9).

Since the late 1980s, there has been a strong and growing presence of women in:

* the skilled animal and horticultural trades (where women are mainly veterinary nurses, animal attendants and trainers, and florists)

* food trades (as cooks and to a lesser extent chefs)

* engineering, information technology and science technicians (where women are mainly medical and ICT support technicians, occupations previously classified as ‘para-professional’).

However, gender segregation has remained extreme in the construction, automotive and electrotechnology trades where women have been the ‘missing 48 percent’ – less than 2 percent of the workforce – for the last 25 years. In 1971, women made up 3.4 percent of ‘trade-dominated occupational groups’ as they were then called; 40 years later, in 2011, Women NSW has calculated that women comprised 1.8 percent of a similar grouping of occupations.3

What do we know about non-traditional tradeswomen?

In order to investigate the experiences of this tiny group of women further, Women NSW commissioned analysis of longitudinal HILDA survey data. Examining women who have left the trades can give us clues about tradeswomen’s pay and also their perceptions about this important aspect of employment. Watson 20124 reports on the fortunes of a sample group of women and men who were working in trades and technical occupations in 2001, following the same people through the labour market until 2010.

The first point to note is that retention in trades employment is relatively low for all age groups and both sexes. Only around one-third of people working in the trades in 2001 were still working in the trades nine years later in 2010. This high drop-out rate explains in part the skill shortages experienced by employers. The replacement demand for tradespeople is high because of turnover, although there has been little growth in overall numbers required in the workforce.

In the HILDA sample, women were less likely to stay in a trade than men. Of those who were in a trade in 2001, women were less likely than men to be in a trade 10 years later.

Only 17 percent (33/197) of the women who were tradeswomen in 2001 were in a trade in 2010 compared to 38 percent of the 2001 male cohort (366/966) (Table 4.10).

Within this general picture, women in non-traditional trades were more likely to stay than those in the traditional female trades. Roughly a quarter of non-traditional tradeswomen were still in a trade in 2010, working as safety inspectors, chefs and draftspeople, compared to one-seventh of traditional tradeswomen, who worked as cooks, veterinary nurses, printers and agricultural, medical and science technicians (Watson 2012:27). As would be expected, the total numbers of men (stayers and leavers) were far greater than the total numbers of women.

Tracking the HILDA sample suggests that women in non-traditional trades are at least as likely, and perhaps more likely, to remain working in their trade over a 10 year period as women in the traditional trades such as hairdressing, cookery and floristry.

What else do we know about tradeswomen and non-traditional tradeswomen in particular? Census 2011 data tells something about their background, pay and working arrangements.

Country of birth

While some 15 percent of all NSW technicians and tradespeople in 2011 were women, in some overseas-born groups, the percentages of tradeswomen were higher. For example, around a quarter of Japanese and Korean, South-East Asian and North American tradespeople in NSW in 2011 were women.

Among all overseas-born people, 18 percent of technicians and tradespeople were women, possibly reflecting immigration selection criteria, downward mobility for immigrant women in Australia and the structure of women’s employment profile in some overseas countries.

Pay and working arrangements

In terms of pay and working arrangements the following observations stand out:

* Women have a lower earnings profile than men within technical and trades jobs, even when the low-paid female-dominated trades of hairdressing and cooking are excluded (see Women NSW and Watson 2012)

* Women working in non-traditional trades experienced a considerable pay premium over their counterparts in traditional female trades at every age and stage of their working life.

* The gap was slightly greater for annual wages than for hourly rates.

* Women in non-traditional trades expressed high levels of satisfaction with the work itself and the job overall. However, they expressed relatively low levels of satisfaction with the hours of work. Women who left non-traditional trades expressed more satisfaction with work-life balance than those who stayed.


Women do well in non-traditional trades but are likely to leave because of hours (unlike men who do not leave as frequently). They are less likely to leave than traditional tradeswomen, who earn less.

1ABS Census of Population and Housing 2011, figures generated using ABS TableBuilder and rounded.

2While women outnumber men in the trade of ‘cook’, in the separate trade of ‘chef’, only 29 per cent or 4,250 are women. Bakers and pastry-cooks are also included in the figures.

3Women NSW (2013) Women in the trades: the missing 48 percent, Women NSW Occasional Paper, March 2013, available at The change since 1971 is discussed in this paper.

4Watson (2012) Qualitative career paths of women in the trades 2001 to 2010, Report for NSW CWEO, available at The data used is the population of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey which is a representative longitudinal household survey. The geographical coverage is Australia. Note that because of the small number of tradeswomen in the HILDA sample (49 women were employed in a non-traditional trade in the 2001 sample) the findings are not representative of the total population but can be used indicatively.

Table 4.9 Women in technicians and trades subgroups, NSW

Occupational subgroup

1996-97 %

2006-07 %

2011-12 %

Other technicians and trades (incl. hairdressers, wood and printing trades workers)




Skilled animal and horticultural trades




Food trades




Engineering, ICT and science technicians




Electrotechnology and telecommunications trades




Construction trades




Automotive and engineering trades




Technicians and trades nfd*




Total technicians and trades workers




Note: *The nfd sub-group is technicians and trades workers not further defined.
Population: Employed people aged 15 years and over.
Source: ABS Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly. Cat no. 6291.0.55.003. SuperTABLE E08.

Table 4.10 Tradespeople in the HILDA survey sample, 2001 to 2010

2001 Number

2010* Number and %

Employed in a trade (total)



366 (38%)



33 (17%)

Employed in their non-traditional trade



70 (31%)



12 (24%)

Employed in their traditional trade



269 (36%)



21 (14%)

Note: *Employed in a trade in 2010 includes those who left but subsequently returned to a trade.
Source: Data sourced from Watson 2012.
Population: Women and men in the HILDA survey sample in 2001.