March 6, 2023
Unearthing the truth about institutionalised sexism for women in trades
Sexism is a hot topic, especially given the fact that 1 in 7 Brits believe that gender inequality ‘doesn’t really exist.’ Women in trades know that this is not the case. Gender, sexism, and unconscious bias collide to create an unwelcoming environment for women who want to become plumbers, electricians, and any other skilled tradesperson.
Institutionalised sexism is not going anywhere, so it is up to us to understand the problem and be a beacon of light for disadvantaged women in skilled trades.
Systemic problems impact entire systems instead of individual parts. You might say that a disease is systemic rather than localised, or that classism is a systemic problem instead of a situational problem.
When we talk about systemic sexism, we are referring to patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system of gender-biased opinions and actions that form the basis for social, political, and economical structures. The bias is in favour of men, although it is important to remember that men are victims of patriarchy as well. Ultimately, the patriarchy presents a biased representation of males and females.
Symptoms of institutionalised sexism include gender binaries, pay disparity, and unequal representation of women in trades.
Gender binaries are one of the most well-known forms of sexism, but they are so ingrained in our society that few people recognise them. Binaries are exact opposites; two things that are undeniably different, conflicting, and incompatible in every way.
The patriarchy tells us that women are feminine and men are masculine. Labour-intensive jobs are reserved for men, whereas women undertake more nurturing roles. This social coding implies that female plumbers, female electricians, and female engineers are less capable.
Some might argue that the prefix ‘female’ feels unnecessary. The same people might book an electrician and feel surprised when they open the door to a tradeswoman. Systemic sexism is much more insidious than we think.
Rated People spoke to women in skilled trades about their experiences at work and found that approximately 10% of women in skilled trades have been turned away from a job because of their gender. Most of the women in that 10% have had a front door shut in their faces more than once.
Rated People also found that 15% of tradeswomen are concerned for their personal safety and 9% face social stigma from their friends and family.
In the same survey, Rated People found that there is a big difference between how much men and women earn in the same trade jobs.
Tradeswomen earn on average just 72% of what their male counterparts earn across all trades. Floorers and wall tilers, glaziers, window fabricators, and carpenters are just a few of the tradespeople impacted by institutionalised sexism.
To talk about sexism at work, we have to acknowledge the ratio of men and women who enter different industries.
In 2021, 2.5 million women held jobs in caring and leisure, which was the largest area of employment for women overall. This starkly contrasts the approximate half a million men who worked under the same umbrella in caring and leisure roles.
The same report found that less than half a million women worked in skilled trade jobs (think plant operatives, plumbers, and technical occupations), which pales in comparison to the 2.5 million men who occupied these kinds of roles. Additionally, women were ‘more likely than men to be working in administrative and secretarial occupations; caring, leisure, and other service occupations; and in sales and customer-service occupations.’
Systemic sexism tells us that different genders are innately more interested in different roles. Why does it matter if women prefer healthcare and men prefer manual jobs? This might be a convincing argument, but we have seen massive growth in other industries that suffered from gender-based bias.
In 2021, Go Compare found a 366% increase in females doing trade apprenticeships in the UK. If this is true, why did the CIOB find that only 1% of tradespeople working in construction (including plumbers, carpenters, builders, and electricians) are women in 2022?
If tradeswomen were on equal footing with tradesmen, we might see growth that is equal to the law industry. Like skilled trades, law has a history of everyday sexism.
Women were not allowed to practice law until 1919, when the Sex Disqualification Act was passed. Even then, women who tried to enter the law sector faced gender-based discrimination. In 1913, four early feminists attempted to take the Law Society examination but were banned on the basis of their gender. The resulting court case is one of the best-known examples of systematic sexism. Bebb v The Law Society ended when Judge Justice Joyce ruled that women didn’t classify as ‘persons’ within the Solicitors Act of 1843.
Regardless, the fight for equality marched on. By 1922, three women passed the Law Society examination and went on to achieve First Class Honours from Cambridge. College officials refused to give them formal degrees, and the struggle didn’t stop there. By 1931, only 100 women had qualified as solicitors. 36 years later in 1967, only 2.7% of qualified solicitors were women.
Female lawyers fought against institutionalised sexism and won, at least as far as ratios go. Now, 52% of lawyers are women.
When can women in trades expect to see this kind of growth?
The gender pay gap has been a hot topic for a few years now, and it is especially prominent when female electricians and female plumbers enter the conversation.
Critics of gender-based initiatives turn to reports to bolster their arguments. As we’ve discussed, Go Compare’s data might not be as simple as it seems. In 2021, Go Compare found that 33% of painters and decorators are women. That’s over a third, making it much closer to being an even split than any other trade job.
By focusing on painting and decorating, critics are skewing the statistics and creating a false perception of positive change. Of course, it is positive to see that more women are entering trade jobs, and even better to see that homeowners looked online for women painters more than other trade in 2021.
But painting and decorating has a lower barrier of entry than the mechanical trades (electrical, plumbing, and engineering). Go Compare’s findings do not reflect the roadblocks that stop women in trades from pursuing career paths that require qualifications. Women have to overcome far more barriers to become mechanical tradespeople than to become painters and decorators.
Anti-extremism charity Hope surveyed 2,076 men between the ages of 16 and 24 during COVID-19. Half of the participants believe that feminism has ‘gone too far.’ The same survey found that although the percentage of young people who align with and accept alternative backgrounds, cultures, and LGBT identities has increased, ‘young people have a less positive attitude of feminists, and many young men reject feminism as an ideology that displaces men.’
While other marginalised groups are becoming part of the mainstream, feminism is still treated with suspicion. Campaigns and initiatives that champion women in trades might be disregarded or even discouraged.
Growing distrust of feminism, social stigma, warped statistics, stagnant growth, and pay disparity; these are just a few of the symptoms of systemic sexism that women in trades experience. Institutionalised sexism halts women at the start of their trade careers, and it continues to hinder their progress every day of their working lives.
With so many social problems at play, it is difficult to know how to tackle the issue of systemic sexism. Gender biases and binaries are slippery concepts that go beyond the realms of the physical world. How can we change the gender biases that impact men and women?
The first step is acknowledging the problem. It might seem simple enough, but, as we have discovered, 15% of Britons don’t believe in gender inequality. You can lead the way for tradeswomen by talking about the issue and hiring women for your home repairs and replacements.
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