When last did you see a female plumber or electrician?


Wednesday, 29 March 2023: In many South African offices, women make up almost half 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 staggeringpotential to provide jobs for young people.

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

Seed Academy director, Donna Rachelson, unpacks the opportunities and barriers for female artisans.
“We have seen that there are opportunities for women entrepreneurs and we are stepping in to help close sector-based gender gaps in South African entrepreneurship,” she says.

A growing sector

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

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 Stats SA, despite the fact that almost half of SA households are female-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 female homeowners feel more comfortable with women plumbers and other home service professionals. Many unpartnered 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 – 12% of roles in the construction sector. In SA, just 3% of construction workers are female, most of whom hold office jobs. “Study upon study has shown that companies with female leadership have a competitive edge, so it makes sense that construction companies that are gender diverse are also typically more profitable,” says Rachelson.

The continued marginalisation of women in employment across the board is detrimental to families and communities. “Girls shouldn’t 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.”

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

“This is why we created the AccelerateHer programmes, to empower women to disrupt traditionally male-dominated sectors. At the same time, corporates can transform their supply chains and gain enterprise and supplier development (ESD) points recognition,” she says.

The intervention takes a holistic approach to the development of women entrepreneurs – building business skills alongside technical and social skills, while addressing psycho-social issues and the challenges faced by women in business.

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?” says Rachelson.