Finance Work How clothing can change the way women work

How clothing can change the way women work

Women are on the back foot in trade industries – for one, it's hard to find workwear made for female bodies. Photo: SUK
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It’s one of the most basic workplace necessities, but it’s one that’s often overlooked for women in traditionally male-dominated trade industries: Clothing.

Women are estimated to make up just 2 per cent of workers in trades like electrical, construction and automotive, but there’s a concentrated push to funnel more women into the workforce as traditional gender norms are broken down.

But it’s hard to promote acceptance and diversity when all the signs point to ‘men-only welcome’, gender and work theorist Donna Bridges says.

Findings from a survey of female trades workers, released on Monday, revealed three out of five women have worn workwear designed for men.

Half of respondents said they have worn casual or non-safety clothing on work sites because there has been no other options available to them.

This is where it becomes a safety issue, Dr Bridges said.

Ill-fitting clothing is a physical hazard – large, baggy and ill-fitting clothes can get caught in equipment and cause accidents, she told The New Daily.

“Not having provision for the right equipment, uniforms and facilities is sending a message that the worksite is not safe,” she said.

Women working in labour trades are wearing ill-fitting or casual workwear, heightening their risk of workplace injuries. Photo: Getty

Paving the way

Mimosa Schmidt spent more than a decade in labour jobs – construction, farming, shipping – and a decade in ill-fitting, unsafe clothing before she decided to start the change she knew was needed in the industry.

In April last year, the Melbourne woman launched SÜK – workwear made specifically for women.

“Looking back when I was on the job and unable to find workwear to adequately accommodate my body, I did feel overlooked and unwelcome in the labour industry,” Ms Schmidt told The New Daily.

“I often found myself feeling unprofessional and out of place because I was wearing ill-fitting garments that chafed and didn’t allow me to move properly.”

Her range – pants, shorts, boiler suits and more – cater to the female figure.

“These garments are made for waists, thighs, hips and breasts,” Ms Schmidt said.

They’ve been picked up by all kinds of workers, not just tradies, and Ms Schmidt said the release has been met with support from women within and outside the labour industry.

SÜK is just one of the newest independent brands to launch in the space – horticulturalist Liv Thwaites started Green Hip, outdoor workwear for women, in 2007.

Mainstream brands are getting on board, too – Bisley is the latest to launch a women’s workwear range, off the back of surveying female tradies.

“When our research revealed that tradeswomen were feeling unsafe and uncomfortable on the worksite, we realised the need for a new industry-wide approach to women’s workwear,” company director David Gazal said.

Bisley has joined the movement, launching its female workwear range. Photo: Bisley

Dr Bridges, of Charles Sturt University, wrote in 2018 that boosting the number of women in the manual trades will require cultural shifts in wider society, not just within the industries.

Last year, she published the results of her research project Women in Regional Trades: Understanding Resilience, which identified workwear as one of the key barriers to encouraging women into trades.

It’s one of the cultural shifts that’s needed to foster an equal environment for all genders, the report says.

“Having the right equipment, uniforms and facilities to suit a person isn’t special treatment, it is equal treatment,” Dr Bridges told The New Daily.

“Women shouldn’t be expected to fit in to already established uniforms that have been designed to fit men.”

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