When in 2014 Derby's only female welding apprentice Kirsten Gorton addressed the Conservative Party Conference, it raised important questions about why more women were not being encouraged to take up careers in welding. With a reported shortage of skilled welders worldwide, could the answer be found within the gender divide?
Welding the Pay Divide
According to the National Careers Service, women still only account for 4% of applicants for welding jobs in the UK. For a long time this could be accounted for by unequal pay conditions; just three years ago male welders received on average 10% higher pay than their female counterparts. However, the Daily Telegraph reported last year that the gender pay gap within the welding industry has now largely closed, with an average difference of only £1,000 per year between male and female welders' salaries. So why is the industry not yet attracting more female apprentices?
Time and PlaceOne explanation could be be one of time and location. With only 5% of welders working part-time, and many of the best paid jobs being located offshore (The Fabricator, 2014), the job is not always particularly compatible with family life. However, the most likely factor discouraging women from careers in welding is simply one of perception.
Can Welding Change its Spots?
Many female school leavers still see welding as a male profession. Even though more and more girls now gain qualifications in maths, science and technical subjects, which are the basic requirements for the job, they are not being encouraged into careers within the engineering sector. This is partly due to a tradition of negativity towards female welders from male company bosses and foremen. Welding forums on job sites continually report stories of sexual harassment, and in some cases, actual sexual assault, towards women welders from their male counterparts. Qualified female welders also frequently discuss the difficulty they've encountered in gaining employment due to male hierarchies being unwilling to employ them. Sexism has always been seen as an intrinsic part of the industry. One American site providng careers advice for women welders even tells them to expect sexism in the workplace, with one woman actually being advised to move states in order to find work within the industry, as sexism was so rife in her home town. With this state of affairs, where skilled workers are being overlooked due to their gender, increasingly being seen as unacceptable by both men and women, questions are now frequently being asked about what can be done to redress the balance within the welding industry. The results are proving extremely positive.
Taking the Initiative
On both sides of the Atlantic, initiatives are now in place encouraging women to pursue careers in welding. In the USA, a company in Ohio offered a group of Girl Scouts the opportunity to visit the workplace and learn welding skills, which generated great publicity throughout the US, and gave the girls knowledge and enthusiasm about the welding industry. Another initiative in Michigan offers a girls-only summer camp, teaching welding and improving their skills in maths, computing and other subjects essential to the job. Meanwhile, here in the UK, more information about engineering careers is available to women through initiatives such as the Women in Engineering Day. As a result, more female school leavers are taking up apprenticeships in welding, and their male colleagues are encouraging them, often expressing surprise that more women are not yet choosing to become welders. The female apprentices are finding the career rewarding, and are reporting that they have encountered very little sexism.
A Changing, Growing Welding Industry
The University of Michigan recently reported that conditions for female welders need to be improved before large numbers of women can be targeted successfully to enter the welding industry. From small but essential details such as the provision of ladies' toilets on site, through to market research asking women what changes they would appreciate most in the workplace, and implementing those changes, there is still much work to be done. However, the industry is unarguably redressing the balance, and we are likely to see a great many more women welders in the years to come.