• "I had achieved something. Now I know I can put a photo up using a drill without calling my kids over," says Janet O'Connor. (She Skills)
Female and handy may not be two words you often hear together, but a Brisbane start-up, She Skills, is empowering young and old women alike with practical life skills, giving them confidence in traditionally male-dominated industries.
By
Claire Connelly

8 Mar 2016 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2016 - 4:15 PM

An Australian couple has launched a start-up, She Skills, that offers practical short-courses designed to increase female participation in male-dominated industries while providing women with practical life skills.

SheSkills was launched late last year by Queenslander Meg Solly and her husband Clint, offering courses which include woodworking and power tools skills. The co-founders hope to add skills like tiling, welding and building with pallets.

"I spent eight years working in oil and gas and construction and then moved into a teaching role in vocational education," says Meg. While the majority of my experience working in male-dominated industries was really good, there were a few episodes that left me feeling like it wasn't my place to be there because I was a woman. So I decided to build my own place and invite other women to join me."

Having taken time off from her profession as a trainer, Meg set about “making things and building stuff which made me feel really good about myself” but found some neighbours didn't really like it when people in the apartment complex used power tools, so she and Clint set about trying to find a space to rent where they could make and sell timber products.

“The only place we could find was the Men’s Shed which has a great mental health element to their organisation but unfortunately many of the sheds don't allow women,” says Meg.

“But when I lost my husband 12 years ago, I was useless, I couldn’t fix anything. I had to depend on the kids coming to visit. It started me thinking that we should be teaching women how to do this on their own.”

The pair found a maker space, in Brisbane, that offered access to a wood shop and metal shop and used it to run a pilot program for their friends. They taught woodwork and power tool skills, utilising these to construct shadow boxes and hanging planters.

“We found a few female tradies and women who teach woodworking and other skills," says Meg. "We discovered this great little underground community of really clever women that don’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight,” says Meg. “They just want to get on with with the job and not have people patronise them.”

The program quickly “snowballed” and in January this year the pair raised $5,000 via crowd-sourcing, which was used to secure a venue at Construction Skills Training Centre in Brisbane, a not-for-profit training organisation that has been extremely supportive of their new venture.

Meg and Clint have already booked out four classes this month.

Participants in the classes include Meg’s 70-year-old widowed mother Janet O'Connor.

“When I married my husband he was very handy, he did all the handy jobs around the house,” says O'Connor. “But when I lost my husband 12 years ago, I was useless, I couldn’t fix anything. I had to depend on the kids coming to visit. It started me thinking that we should be teaching women how to do this on their own.”

O'Connor says the success of her daughter’s course was in the non-threatening instruction.

“I didn’t feel nervous,” she says.  “They taught us about all the tools; they talked about safety first. We all had to wear boots - something I’ve never had on in my life. I learned how to use a sander, drill holes and how to use a timber cutter. The really good thing is they didn’t do it for you, you had to do it yourself.

“I came home with this lovely shadow box and I felt really good, I had achieved something. Now I know I can put a photo up using a drill without calling my kids over.”

While there are some workshops that might teach you how to change a tyre or tune your car, the marketing seems to target women in a way that tells them they’re not capable.

As of November last year, the ABS recorded 1,743,000 “technicians and trades workers” employed in Australia. Of that figure only 257,000 were women.

Radmila Desic, field operations manager for Australian Apprenticeship Support Network, Busy At Work and a carpenter/joiner of 20 years tells SBS that while there are some workshops available at various organisations and hardware stores that might teach you how to change a tyre or tune your car, “the marketing seems to target women in a way that tells them they’re not capable”.

“What SheSkills will do for women is build confidence that ensures they can develop problem-solving skills,” Desic says. “What comes from that is a level of self-respect that they are able to rely on themselves rather than call someone every time they need to put up a curtain rod, for example”.

As for women hoping to break into male-dominated trades, Desic says it’s really important for women to “stay true to themselves”.

“As a lot of women get into trades, they tend to emulate the men they work with,” she says.

OHS and HR policies means that the brute strength required in tradeswork even 20 years ago has either been replaced by machinery or lighter tools, meaning there’s no reason to act tough to ensure employers know women are just as capable as the blokes on site.

“Most of the work can be done in a safe way, so long as they give it a go. They might find they surprise themselves,” she says.

“One of the things successful tradeswomen seem to have done is hold on to their own authenticity.

“Women bring a different set of skills to the workplace and those skills are in demand: attention to detail, making sure the finished product stands out.”

 

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