Back in 1980, Marie Beegan was conscious that she was the first female bus mechanic in Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ). But she didn’t expect to be the last.
She hadn’t been interested in the careers presented to her at her all-girls school in Greenhills, in nursing or teaching or the civil service.
“There were a couple of the lads on the road I grew up in, that were going on to become mechanics, and I thought that sounds like fun,” she says, a small lady with a light-brown bob.
The more her teachers hinted she should pick something else, something more “suitable” for women, the less she was inclined to do so.
“Because people were saying, no don’t go that way, I thought well definitely I’m going to prove them wrong,” she says.
She explored her options. The army or the Gardai, perhaps. But settled on becoming a bus mechanic.
Her father encouraged her. Her uncle dissuaded her. She and another girl, who also wanted to do an apprenticeship, tracked down the application forms themselves.
Thirty-seven years on, Beegan was surprised to hear recently that she is still the only female who has ever qualified as a heavy-vehicle motor mechanic within CIÉ, which encompasses Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus.
There are 11,000 craft apprentices in Ireland right now but just 29 of those are women, says Nikki Gallagher, communications officer at the further-education agency Solas. That’s an average of just seven in each year.
Gallagher has set herself a mission to find out why some jobs are still seen as “men’s work” and to ensure that young women are not missing out.
Gender stereotypes still prevail when it comes to some careers, says Jennifer Byrne is a cabinet-maker by trade and a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology.
She recently challenged a class of apprentices to solve a riddle. It goes like this: Gardai get a tip-off that a guy named John has murdered someone and is in a nearby house. They head there, and find inside a mechanic, a truck driver, a carpenter and a fireman.
Straight-away they arrest the fireman. But how, the riddle goes could they have known that the fireman was the murderer?
“I was getting all sorts of answers,” says Byrne. “The firemen had his name on his jacket, or there was blood on him.”
No-one, including one female apprentice, guessed that the truck driver, mechanic and carpenter were all women, she says.
Byrne says she was actively discouraged from pursuing a trade but not because of her gender. “They said, ‘No, you are an honours student, you are not doing an apprenticeship,’ ” she says.
She researched herself how to become a furniture maker, and at first applied to be a be a carpenter. Her interviewers had to explain that it was a cabinet-making apprenticeship she was after. “I had no career guidance whatsoever,” she says.
Others say similar. “Never did a guidance councillor talk to me about apprenticeships… schools now are literally college, college, college,” says Jessica Tallon, a third-year apprentice in wood manufacturing and finishing.
She excelled in woodwork and construction studies, but she started two college courses before finding the apprenticeship, she says.
If she had been male, perhaps it might have been mentioned – but regardless of gender, there was no focus on apprenticeships in her school, she says.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reported on Ireland earlier this year and referenced the issue of gender balance in trades, says Gallagher of Solas.
“We believe that everyone should consider their interests and aptitudes, we are not saying don’t go to college but look at all the options and pick the one you want,” she says.
Solas has recently done market research to find out why more women don’t enter trades. They talked to young women who had recently left school, and to parents, guidance counsellors and employers, says Gallagher.
Most said that they would recommend an apprenticeship to a female friend or relative. But girls themselves and guidance counsellors had little awareness of apprenticeship as an option, she says.
“They didn’t think it was for girls, they weren’t across it and they didn’t have the information,” says Gallagher.
Parents were not seen as a barrier; they just want a positive career path for their children and a job at the end of it, she says.
Solas has started to try to spread the word about apprenticeships among everybody, and also among women.
It has set up a website with information for employers, would-be apprentices and advice professionals. It’s working to make sure guidance councillors have information on apprenticeships, and that girls who want are taught the relevant subjects.
Some employers, like the Electricity Supply Board and the Construction Industry Federation, are encouraging more women to apply, says Gallagher.
Beegan says that, even in the early 1980s, she doesn’t think employers were an obstacle to women entering trades. There were no major problems being accepted as a tradesperson, she says.
Back at the Dublin Bus centre on Constitution Hill, behind a large desk, Marie Beegan now works as the training manager. So she, too, is trying to increase recruitment of female bus drivers.
They have 95 women employed as drivers, just 3.7 percent of all those behind the wheel, says Carol Donohue, communications officer at Dublin Bus. Over the last couple of years they hosted open days aimed at women.
They recruited 27 female drivers through this. Last year, they had their first ever all-female class of drivers. “We are trying everything,” says Beegan.
Says Gallagher of Solas: employers should aim to “hire the best candidate and fish in the widest pool – which is men and women”.