Photos by Ben Thomson

Meet the Aussie Female Tradies Making Domestic Violence Victims Feel Safe

For some women, especially survivors of domestic violence, having tradesmen in their homes is deeply uncomfortable. That's where Australia's new generation of female "tradies" comes in.

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Feb 28 2017, 11:30pm

Photos by Ben Thomson

Amy Feyen walks into the warehouse with a toolbelt slung over her shoulder and bright magenta ear muffs around her neck. They're the heavy duty kind, designed for hearing protection from construction and electrical work, and they're hot pink.

"There's not many other workers with these on the sites," she says.

Amy is the sole owner and employee of Melba Electrical Services. She's been working as an electrician for seven years, and her business slogan is "Let me repair what your husband tried to fix."

In Australia, fewer than two percent of construction, automotive and electrical tradespeople are women. In 2011, there were just 676 female carpenters, 638 female plumbers and 1,432 female electricians nation-wide. The numbers have barely shifted in 25 years.

But it looks like the tide is finally beginning to turn. Female tradies are getting motivated and qualified, and helping to combat Australia's national trade skills shortage.

The women pictured here met on the job at the YWCA, Australia's oldest women's organisation. It offers housing, mentoring, training and advocacy for women in vulnerable situations, and in the state of Victoria alone provides 100,000 beds per year to women in need.

No woman-carpenter ever came out for careers day at school. They just didn't exist.

Most of the YWCA tenants have experienced trauma, and many are survivors of domestic violence. It's not an ideal place for strange men to come wandering through, but there has to be someone on hand for when the taps stop working or the light fixture breaks. That's where the likes of Amy step in, providing a friendly and non-threatening service to women living in temporary housing.

And they're networking in the meantime, Amy says. "Before I met these guys, I didn't know any other women doing what I do. Now, there's heaps more." She points to a Facebook group called Women in Trades, with over 150 women who operate in her local area. It's a place for the community to chat, ask for gear recommendations, find apprentices, commiserate about midnight call-outs, and post job listings.

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It's these kind of communities that weren't around 20 years ago, when Lyndal Hayes (below) first thought about becoming a carpenter, like her dad. "Growing up, I never thought I could be a carpenter because I was a female," she says.

"When I was in primary school or high school, there were no women doing [carpentry]; no-one wanted to be an apprentice; no woman carpenter ever came out for careers day at school. They just didn't exist."

Hayes only came to carpentry in her thirties, after arthritis in her hands forced her to give up furniture polishing. She started working in labour for her dad, and gained a carpentry qualification while working for the family business. Ten years on, she's still the only woman in her team, but she says she's seeing the industry change every day.

Plumber Kimberley Smyth (below) is part of that change. She started Hey Sista Plumbing, an entirely female owned and run company, in 2012, as a less daunting gateway into the industry for young women.

Smyth says she's been on the receiving end of sexist comments, all the way from trades school to job sites. "In the past I've had men tell me it's illegal and sexist to run a female plumbing company," she says, "which is amusing considering the tiny percentage of women in the industry.

"I have pointed out on occasion the stupidity of [this], and it has ended with people around that person laughing at them, causing them embarrassment."

I've had a lot of guys in my life making my living situation scary or uncomfortable, so I really like having female tradies.

Two years ago, the YWCA Victoria introduced a clear policy: they would only employ female trades workers to maintain all their owned and managed properties. It's a commitment that CEO of YWCA Victoria, Jan Berriman, feels strongly about.

"Getting more women into trades traditionally done by men, is crucial to addressing a number of inequities, including the 17.3 percent gender pay gap in Australia," Berriman says. "Our logic was to support the women in trades, provide continuous work that would support business growth, and allow young women to access apprenticeships with female-headed businesses."

Sally Liddell, from Right Connection Electrical.

Up to seventy percent of the women in YWCA housing have faced family violence or trauma in their lives, and having female tradies around make them feel more at ease.

"Feedback has indicated that the women living in our housing feel safer and more secure with the women tradies. From an organizational point of view, the quality, timeliness, and professionalism of our maintenance has improved," Berriman adds. "Inadvertently, the female tradies are great role models for the women in our properties; they represent strong, empowered women, which is everything the YWCA signifies and endorses."

For Roxy*, a resident of YWCA housing in Victoria, female tradies make a huge difference to how comfortable she feels at home, especially after leaving a violent relationship.

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"It doesn't sound like a huge thing, but I've had a lot of guys in my life making my living situation scary or uncomfortable, so I really like [having female tradies]. I don't really like people in my living space, especially in my bathroom and bedroom areas, because those spots are pretty personal," Roxy says.

"It's so much nicer if it's a lady. I'm going to be less embarrassed if I accidentally leave a pair of knickers on the floor or something."

According to plumber Kimberley Smyth, that's the best part of the job. "I enjoy those days when a tenant visibly lights up at finding the plumber is a women. Especially when it ends with them asking how they can start. It's women inspiring other women."

YWCA Victoria's annual Rack Off! music fundraiser is 4-5 March, at The Tote in Melbourne. Purchase your tickets here. The festival helps to raise funds for YWCA's housing initiatives.