Undervaluing women and TAFE


13 June 2023

There’s no question that building and investing in the skills and capacity of Australia’s national labour market is critical to creating greater economic and social opportunity in Australia, but is there really a skills shortage or are we ignoring the elephant in every single room?

“Women are underutilised in the Australian economy” emerged as an unofficial catchphrase from the 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit. It has continued to evolve as a theme in the design of policy architecture for the Australia’s future labour market. Yet, it irks. Every woman is working as hard as they ever have. At home, in their community, and at work.

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey confirms what we know from our day to day lives: women do about double the hours of unpaid labour compared to men. At the same time, men do more paid work than women.

The gender pay gap sits at 22.8 per cent nationally across all industries, exacerbated and accelerated by the pandemic. The real problem is women’s work is underpaid and undervalued.

As Minister for Women Katy Gallagher rightly pointed out, economic participation of women is severely lacking in Australia due to policy failure, lack of accommodations and outdated practices – both in terms of support (systems, structures, childcare, education and workplace safety) and fair remuneration.

Underutilisation misses the point. There is no shortage of skills. It is a shortage of government action to support women to win well paid and rewarding jobs and careers.

Inadequate initiatives

Initiatives to support women to achieve higher paying careers via vocational education and training (VET) pathways is excellent political theatre, but what is being done to support women’s participation beyond the shiny marketing campaign for women to enter traditionally male-dominated trades?

Consider the construction industry; one of the top five industries for the future projected jobs growth.

Construction has the highest gender pay gap of any industry in Australia: sitting at 29 per cent.

The legacy impact of a male-dominated trade is that classes are taught exclusively by male teachers in most likely all male classes, meaning a woman student may be the only woman in her class.

Management is dominated by men, who may not have the training to think outside their personal experience. Women working in construction have little to no say into the decisions impacting their working lives.

The ground-breaking Respect@Work report by the Humans Right Commission found male-dominated workplace settings, such as construction and mining, present a higher risk for sexual harassment.

And there’s also day-to-day issues, such as access to clean bathroom on a worksite. A report by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) highlights the substandard or non-existent toilet facilities for women on construction sites. This exposes women to a range of hazards, including greater risks of harassment and violence at work. It also fails to accommodate expressing milk for new mothers, sanitary needs, or the like.

It is consistently workers, via their unions, raising these issues with employers and governments. It is worker led initiatives, such as WIMDOI, that are driving change in supporting women to enter and thrive in male-dominated industries.

Valuing the social contract

Funding cuts and contestable funding has seen the relationship between schools and TAFE damaged. Many communities have a learning hub instead of TAFE campus, or worse a new private for-profit provider with no connection to community. This means transition support, pre-apprenticeships and foundation programs are virtually non-existent for students.

Governments have a responsibility to ensure vocational education is culturally safe. This includes dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander centres with First Nations support officers. A fully funded TAFE can collaborate with communities to deliver programs that are relevant for students locally and engage community elders and members in the course delivery in their region.

Teaching and learning materials are typically only in English, and without TAFE, there are no support services available to learners. Access to IT infrastructure and support is limited on campus, yet there is an assumed high level of digital literacy required to complete study.

Worse still, regional students have significant travel time or are compelled to move away from established family and friends support network to access vocational education. Students bear the financial costs of relocating and lose access to community support that makes study possible.

Any students that are parents, or care for aging family members, or are domestic violence victims typically also have interrupted study patterns that make it impossible to complete qualifications within the specified timeframes. This predominately impacts women and this lack of flexibility forces students to complete additional units at further cost and time to obtain their qualification. Or abandon study.

Strategic policy gaps

But if these barriers are not present or are overcome to achieve a qualification, then once women reach the workplace, there’s even more to navigate.

Current strategies that encourage women to take up careers through VET, and then fails to provide a safe and inclusive education experience and workplace is doomed. Furthermore, it risks a churn effect of women entering and abruptly exiting careers through VET.

Any paid parenting leave (PPL) beyond the woefully inadequate government PPL is rare. And upon returning to work, rosters and work practices are not family friendly. The lack of provision to affordable and accessible early childhood education and care services compounds this further. Resulting in many women not able to return to work at all, or only in limited capacity. Thus, compounding the gender and superannuation pay gap.

What will it take?

Government must restore, support, and strengthen the social contract embedded in TAFE.

Fully funded TAFE, in contrast to private providers, has a social contract to communities, and the capacity to ensure equity of access for women to vocational education. Only TAFE institutes can build relationships with schools to enable transition from school to VET. Comprehensive support services in TAFE such as libraries, IT services and support for on-campus and at home, work, counselling, mental health, welfare services and career guidance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, on-site childcare, disability services and more, which support women’s participation in VET, and of which are typically absent in private providers.

Inextricably linked to the provision of education is the resourcing of support networks for women in male-dominated industries. This enables connection within industry and reduces the risk of isolation. Communities of practice based on mentoring and relationships have shown to result in high completion rates, particularly for those students more vulnerable or historically excluded.

Across every step from application to vocational education to entering the workforce, there must be a genuine resourced commitment to equity.

It is fundamental that governments fund TAFE institutes and workplaces to be respectful and culturally safe for all because every employee and student has the right to be safe from gendered violence, sexual harassment, and racism whilst at work and study.

And this starts with each of us. Start the conversation at your TAFE workplace with your delegate:

  • What does equity look like here?
  • Who is currently included and who is excluded?
  • What will it take for our employer to deliver on equity?

Emma Lowe [Emma is the AEU Federal Women’s Officer.]

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2023