When last did you see a female plumber or electrician?

Published Jul 10, 2023


Donna Rachelson

In many South African offices, women make up almost half of the workforce. On the average construction site, however, you’re likely to only find one woman among 100 men.

South Africa needs to produce double the amount of skilled artisans to meet the labour demand for these skills per year.

Trades such as plumbing and electrical services are perfect for self-employment and considering the sky-high levels of unemployment in South Africa, they have staggering potential to provide jobs for young people.

What is behind the skills shortage? Why are women being excluded? And what can be done?

A growing sector

According to the Aspen Institute, in developing economies, artisans are the second-largest employer. The sector is crucial for strategic infrastructure projects, which we know are needed in South Africa, so there are great opportunities for enterprising artisans.

But women currently make up just 5.4% of plumbers and artisans in South Africa, according to recent surveys by the Institute of Plumbing SA and Statistics SA - despite the fact that almost half of SA households are women-led households.

The good news is that women are up to the challenge. Around 45% of students enrolled in artisan programmes at TVET colleges are women. Programmes include civil engineering, construction, electrical infrastructure, and mechatronics.

Women bring a valuable perspective as they often see things men don’t, just as men see things women don’t. For instance, single women homeowners feel more comfortable with women plumbers and other home service professionals.

Many single women feel uncomfortable with a man they don’t know coming into their home to work. A qualified woman can provide the same service without the stress for the customer.

Blue-collar sectors are less diverse

In the US, Canada and Europe, women occupy 10 to 12% of the roles in the construction sector. In South Africa, just 3% of construction workers are women, most of whom hold office jobs.

Study upon study has shown that companies with women leaders have a competitive edge, so it makes sense that construction companies that are gender diverse are also typically more profitable.

The continued marginalisation of women in employment across the board is detrimental to families and communities. Girls should not miss out on lucrative and exciting career options – plumbers and construction workers can earn good wages and hold recession-proof skills.

We should be creating opportunities for them to earn, provide for their families and grow businesses to employ more people.

Women necessity-driven entrepreneurship is high in South Africa. With support to grow and scale, they could shift from necessity entrepreneurs to drivers of growth.

What are the blockages in the system?

Barriers faced by female artisans are similar to those in other male-dominated industries - gender stereotypes, a lack of mentorship and career networks, and sexual harassment - but they’re more pronounced in the trades.

If we don’t address these barriers preventing women from entering the artisanal sector, the gender imbalance will remain skewed.

Imagine what benefits we could realise if we helped women succeed in this space instead of perpetuating the obstacles?

* Donna Rachelson is the director of Seed Academy.