When Amanda Hewer was in high school and still figuring out what she wanted to do with her life, trades never felt like an option. 

She went to an academically focused, all-girls private school which didn’t offer any technical subjects or training.

After initially taking the route to university that was encouraged by her teachers, she realised it wasn’t a good fit for her. 

It would take a few more years and a conversation with a like-minded friend for her to be made aware of the career options for women that existed outside gender stereotypes. 

Amanda Hewer started an electrical apprenticeship after finding that university wasn’t a good fit.(Supplied: Amanda Hewer)

“Her boyfriend was a boilermaker – I didn’t even know what that meant — [but] she had an office job,” Mrs Hewer recalled. 

“She said, ‘I don’t want to work in an office anymore, I don’t enjoy this. I want to be a tradie, why can’t we do it?'”

It was a good question, and one Mrs Hewer began investigating.

After some research into the various trades, she came across electrical work and took on an apprenticeship.

“It was probably pretty brave to have done it because I was the only female on all the sites that I was in [and] at trade school,” she said.

“There was a bit of a misconception that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the boys.”

Mrs Hewer now promotes the industry to students as part of her role with the Master Builders Association of South Australia (MBASA)’s Born to Build program.

Still ‘frustrating’ attitudes in 2024

While attitudes towards female tradies are changing, women make up only 3 per cent of the construction industry, according to the MBASA.

And even in 2024, Mrs Hewer said she still encounters employers who wouldn’t consider giving a female apprentice a chance.

“Unfortunately, there’s still some people with that common misconception that girls aren’t cut out for work in this industry,” she said.

“You don’t have to be [physically] massive to get a good job done.”

She recounted the story of one plumber she recently met who told her that he only wanted applicants who were boys who were good at sport, claiming girls wouldn’t fit in on his site.

Coming up against sexist attitudes like this after 18 years in the industry is “super frustrating”, but she is hopeful for the future.

“We’ve got so many people in this industry who are supportive of females in construction,” Mrs Hewer said.

“They’re proving that females are here, that we do exist and that we are absolutely smashing it.”

The electrician’s advice to students considering a trade is to talk to the people in their lives about what they do and try to get work experience on a building site.

“If they don’t like it, they can cross it off the list,” she said.

Mrs Hewer was glad she herself had found the industry and a job she loved, although it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“I’ve had some pretty tough days. I’ve had a bit of mistreatment but it’s all about [having] that support network,” she said

“I’ve had a really good support network behind me the whole way through. I can talk things out and that’s been massive for me.

“I want to stay in this industry for my entire career. I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere else now. I love it.”

Still the only woman on site

Almost two decades after Mrs Hewer first picked up a multimeter, third year apprentice bricklayer Elizabeth Briggs is also the only woman in her trade classes at Tonsley TAFE in Adelaide’s south.

Bricklayer apprentice Elizabeth Briggs says she likes having an outdoor, physical job.(Supplied: Elizabeth Briggs)

“It would be nice to have some other female students, but the boys are really nice and I catch up with them outside of trade school,” she said.

Ms Briggs said while the work is physically demanding she loves being active, and has a very supportive host employer.

Ms Briggs used to work in the fitness industry but wanted to find a more secure, full-time career.

“I was like, ‘Might as well just give that a crack’ and yeah, [I’m] loving it,” she said.

“You’ll rock up to site, you’ll get a couple of mixers out and start laying and that’s pretty much it. Just on the tools all day.”

Ms Briggs had been weightlifting for about five years before starting her apprenticeship and said that helped her to cope with the demands of the job.

“It was definitely a rude shock to the system. It takes a while to build up into it,” she said.

Elizabeth Briggs is about to start the third year of her bricklaying apprenticeship.(ABC South East SA: Caroline Horn)

She said she hasn’t encountered any sexist behaviour in the workplace, but has had the odd derogatory comment online.

Absolutely recommend it (toilets aside)

Despite describing herself as “completely lost” as to what to do after graduation, Kalani Bates still managed to graduate as the dux of her college in the town of Victor Harbor, south of Adelaide.

Kalani Bates was the dux of her year 12 class. (ABC South East SA: Caroline Horn)

After a trial with a building company she started as an apprentice carpenter late last year, taking up a hybrid role, spending three days in the office and two on site.

She was the only woman when out on site but said that it didn’t bother her.

“I grew up playing footy with boys so it’s not new to me just being one of the only girls, but they didn’t treat me any differently to how they’d treat any of the other employees,” she said.

Although Ms Bates has now decided to go to university and learn project management, she said she would “highly recommend” getting a trade to other women like her. 

“A lot of my girlfriends who are in trades are absolutely loving it,” she said.

And the only downside to working on a building site? The portable toilets.

“I adored everything else, but the toilets were pretty rank.”

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