Jen Kelly had an unusual route into construction. Working as an Industrial Abseiler led to international travel opportunities – and the chance to compare cultures when it came to equal opportunities and gender balance. Jen tells Construction how her experiences here led to her establishing the Women in Trades network Ireland (WITnI).
Industrial Abseilers, also known as Rope Access Technicians, are a multi-skilled bunch. Our work can be on construction sites, oil and gas, onshore or offshore, windfarms, telecommunication towers, geotechnical and more.
The common thread, is that the task we are set is usually something that needs to be performed in an awkward or hard-to-reach place. The work can be anywhere from 2-200+ metres up in the air.
Because of the nature of abseiling work I ended up in many different countries. Here, I found that there were resources missing – for myself and other women – ones which existed in most other Western nations. All the other places I worked in either had more women on site, or at least had active campaigns to increase the female percentage. This was the impetus to start WITNI.
WITNI generates awareness about life on the tools, and acts as a bridge to bring women and these job roles together. We celebrate and promote the tradeswomen who currently exist here and, in turn, try to inspire others to consider a similar path. We have a number of exceptional tradeswomen across the country already and the feedback from employers and colleagues is rich with praise.
So what are some of the things that we can do, to not only attract, but retain women who work on the tools?
There’s plenty of scope for us to encourage young women to expand their subject choice at school. We have heard numerous stories of female students being dissuaded from pursuing more technical careers after Junior Cert. We now at least have the economic growth to justify training more young people in these areas. I have mixed feelings about the “female bursary”. On one hand it was a relief to see people realise that we needed to act to increase the female presence in the industry. On the other, it seemed like a compensation for hiring a woman. It’s not always the employer that needs convincing.
We have much to do to persuade women that they are genuinely welcome on site. An aspect of this is the use of “gendered wording”. Not just terms such as “handyperson” vs “handyman,” but others that more subtly reinforce stereotypes. Extensive research over the last few decades on this subject highlights that different genders tend to use different ranges of language.
Evidence has shown that maledominated jobs tend to employ more masculine wording in their recruitment materials. The result? The message was conveyed to women that they did not “belong” on the job. There are also online tools we can use to gauge if our language makes a work environment attractive to others.
Another area we are all focussing on is reframing the esteem of apprenticeships. There’s an urgency to increase construction employment. Part of encouraging and maintaining this growing workforce, for all genders, simply has to be reflected in an improvement in pay.
EARN AS YOU LEARN
This is a wonderful incentive to undertake an apprenticeship, but perhaps we can make it more attractive if we have a higher rate available for mature-aged apprentices, similar to other places such as Australia and the UK.
|"This is a wonderful incentive to undertake an apprenticeship, but perhaps we can make it more attractive if we have a higher rate available for mature-aged apprentices"|
Every conversation I have lately around improving equality at work, inevitably leads to the question of childcare. Unfortunately there are reports of a stigma amongst men who take the current two weeks paid parental leave. Additionally, with an increasing gender pay gap, women’s careers risk being abandoned during long-term domestic financial decision-making.
To achieve fairness in this way, it’s essential for employers to actively support a culture of shared care-giving. I was in conversation with some women who work at Mercury Engineering. They described their roles that had evolved from earlier electrical apprenticeships. They emphasised how they were supported during their pregnancies and beyond. The result? They have stayed with the company for the last 20+ years, and are happy still.
Right now, more than half the Irish population is female. It would be an error not to consider this in our recruitment campaigns. But there is work to be done if we are genuine about creating an inclusive environment on site. It’s a great time to drop our preconceived, speculative ideas about gender jobworthiness. Fortunately we have a wealth of examples from overseas, and enough will and drive at home.
Since starting the WITNI project I have been met with encouragement and goodwill across the board. There is a fresh perspective being actively shared now within construction. It runs industry-wide and it predicts diversity within the workforce. Together we are stronger. Let’s be ambitious with our goals.