‘Atrocious’: How ‘lady tradies’ push has blown up
Women are being encouraged to enter male-dominated trades, only to face sexism on a depressingly regular basis, warns an employment lawyer for a major compensation firm.
While industry campaigns have spent years enticing "lady tradies" to pick up the tools in a male-dominated trade, sexual harassment and discrimination are too often the ugly reality of workplaces who pay lip service to boosting diversity while failing to "meaningfully confront" the power imbalance faced by women on the job, warns Maurice Blackburn principal Giri Sivaraman.
Mr Sivaraman, who heads the firm's employment law division in Brisbane, said the reality undermined glossy industry campaigns to promote gender diversity in male-dominated workplaces, and was exposing bosses to the risk of costly legal action for discrimination.
"Sexual harassment and discrimination continue to occur on a depressingly regular basis because of structures of power that allow it to occur," he said.
"It's not enough to just pay lip service to the rights of women in the workplace.
"You have to address the structural issues that lead to gender inequity.
"It's vital that women feel they can speak up about discrimination and harassment without fear of victimisation."
Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union executive director Ann-Marie Allan has called on the Queensland Government to quickly push ahead with a compulsory code of conduct for workplaces with financial penalties - currently being drafted by the state.
She said she hoped it would help end the "shocking" behaviour toward apprentices generally, saying the argument it was the same "initiation" experienced by the apprentices' now-bosses no longer flew as an excuse for the "atrocious" bullying and intimidation the vulnerable workers faced.
"Just because it went on when you were an apprentice doesn't mean it should flow on to the 21st century," she said.
The comments come as discrimination accusations are levelled against two major employers - Iveco Trucks, the Australian arm of the multinational industrial vehicle manufacturer, and the training arm of peak employer body Ai Group - by a young female apprentice mechanic from Queensland.
The woman, who has asked not to be identified, has penned an angry letter to the companies' senior executives detailing claims she was sacked after reporting inappropriate behaviour by her superiors.
Sarah (not her real name) has spoken about her experience to the newspaper, telling how she was forced to complete stereotypically female jobs such as cleaning and filing paperwork over other male apprentices, had her biceps squeezed by a manager to check how strong she was, questioned whether she was pregnant, asked if she was in a relationship and hugged tightly by a manager after becoming upset about criticism she was too reserved.
Documents show Sarah was signed up to a four-year heavy commercial vehicle mechanical technology apprenticeship last year by Ai Group Apprentice and Trainee Centre at host workplace Iveco Trucks Australia.
She said she thought it was bizarre when an Iveco employee put her on the spot during her initial job interview by saying: "I shouldn't be asking this, but what is your relationship status and age?"
Sarah said she was the only woman working in Iveco's workshop, and was picked out over the other male apprentices for tasks such as filing and cleaning.
"I was told to clean like you're cleaning your mother's loungeroom," she said.
She said she had overtightened the threading on a handbrake cable one day when a male manager squeezed her bicep, saying, with a straight face, he just wanted to see how strong she was.
Sarah claims he repeated the action on another occasion, suggesting she go to the gym. "I was a bit confused about what was going on," she said.
Weeks into the apprenticeship, she claims a manager told her he wanted to take her out and get her drunk so she would more openly communicate.
She said she was also told she stood back with her arms crossed too much when she asked for feedback, then told to "man up" after becoming upset and told to sit in the training room.
Sarah said a manager then stood in the doorway of the training room and hugged her tightly.
"At the time I was definitely not OK with being hugged, and found the behaviour inappropriate for a workplace," she said.
She said she reported her claims of inappropriate conduct to Ai Group, but was forced to attend meetings, including with a manager subject to the accusations, before the concerns were dismissed.
Sarah said she felt traumatised during the meeting and mentioned she had anxiety, which was then used to discredit her concerns.
She claims she was terminated by Ai Group days later, while she was still on probation, on the grounds she had anxiety, was distracted from the job and could present a workplace safety risk.
An Ai Group spokesman refused to respond to a detailed list of questions from the newspaper, saying: "We don't comment on personal staffing matters."
Iveco also refused to comment.
Minister for Women Shannon Fentiman said in the past year there had been a 13 per cent rise in female automotive apprentices, and a 22 per cent rise in female engineering apprentices.
She said while it was great to see, it was important women, particularly young women, were encouraged and supported to bring about a cultural shift to safer and more inclusive workplaces.
Mr Sivaraman said basic measures including not forcing a woman to confront an alleged perpetrator, providing psychological support for the woman, having matters investigated externally, making sure the complainant had someone they could speak comfortably with and making it clear there was to be no victimisation of a person speaking up.
He said sacking someone because they have raised a mental health condition could become a discrimination or unfair dismissal issue.
Originally published as 'Atrocious': How 'lady tradies' push has blown up