Australia's 'Sparkettes' are passionate about their trade. And South Australian CEPU Industrial Officer Jess Rogers is working hard to give women a greater say.
The Electrical Trades Union National Women’s Conference will kick off in Canberra this June with the aim of giving women sparkies the “right tools” to help them drive change in their union and industry.
“It’s to collaborate with women to hear what they want to see in their union and what role are they willing to play in that structure,” said Jess Rogers, an industrial officer with the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union in South Australia.
“We want to hear about the work they have done, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” Rogers said about the need to build strong connections among women in the trade so they can share ideas and success stories from job sites and working with the union.
With a passion for engaging more women’s participation in the union movement, Rogers said one of the key takeaways from the conference will be the connections made between fellow female union members and discussing what’s working for them in their own backyards.
“It’s a good opportunity to lay the ground work for the movement going forward,” she said.
While women makeup 2.2 per cent of electrical trades people, they account for only 1.72 per cent of union members.
Rogers is working on changing that, but she does not see success lying in simply telling others what to do.
“There’s no point talking to members and telling them ‘you must fit into our way of doing things,’” Rogers said. Instead, she wants to empower her fellow members to be the change.
One initiative that has taken off is the ‘Sparkettes’; a group that started in Darwin and has since expanded to Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia.
As these sparkie sisterhoods show, Rogers said there are plenty of women “who are really passionate about the trade” but get few chances to speak with other women at work.
The women’s conference is a “chance for women sparkies to come together and meet other women in the trade when they might not ever get to do that in their daily interactions”, Rogers said.
Groups like SALT (Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen) and WIMDOI (Women In Male Dominated Occupations and Industries) are great for making connections between women workers, but Rogers said a bigger challenge was getting male tradies to better understand what it’s like to be the “token woman” on a job site.
“Women have to prove themselves, to show they are better than their workmates just to get the respect of the men on site,” she said. “It’s hard.”
Rogers said that although the apprentice system “weeds out” people who can’t do the job, many women are met with the assumption that “you’re weak and need a hand” doing the work you’re qualified for.
“It’s still as prevalent as ever,” she said, adding that while it’s often not ill-intentioned, it’s still the “same fight women have been having for 20 years”.
With women in the CEPU now given a voice and a vote through the Affirmative Action position on the national council, Rogers said it was crucial for all female tradies across the union to stand up and be counted.
“The purpose is to ensure that women have a voice in our union movement,” she said.
“I don’t want it to be there as a token gesture. I want it there to be a voice for women.”
The National Women’s Conference be held in Canberra in June, kicking off on the 18th ahead of the National Officers' Conference.