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Hayley Mackenzie from Boilerguide.co.uk writes about a recent event which brought female plumbers and engineers together to challenge gender bias and celebrate their achievements in a male-dominated world.
Being a self-employed tradesperson offers plenty of benefits for working mothers, including flexible working hours and good rates of pay, yet it remains a male-dominated industry. According to the Gas Safe Register, only 500 of the 100,000 Gas Safe registered heating engineers in the UK are female.
Slowly but surely, changes are taking place in this area with more awareness about the gender pay gap, biased recruitment practices and the need for more gender neutrality in both our education system and in the careers advice young people receive. However, for those women who are fully qualified and established as tradespeople, they still face the adversity and stigma from employers and potential customers of being a woman in a typically male-dominated field.
How can those women challenge gender bias when they encounter it without being seen as combative or negative?
To find out more, I attended the Women Installers Together conference last week which brings female plumbers and heating engineers from all over the UK together. Being a self-employed tradesperson can be isolating for both men and women, but becomes even more so when you are a woman in what some still deem to be a ‘man’s job’. The event is run by Stopcocks Women Plumbers and gives women a sense of community, an opportunity to share both their good and bad experiences in the career and to discuss what changes are needed to encourage more women into the industry.
The conference was opened by the founder of Stopcocks, Hattie Hasan, with fascinating remarks on unconscious gender bias. In summary, she said most of us have pre-existing templates in our mind about gendered professions, whether conscious or unconscious. From childhood through to our education and what we see in the media we automatically picture female nurses, teachers and secretaries while we see male builders, doctors and leaders. When we’re confronted by someone who doesn’t fit that template, we feel the jolt of the unexpected. While many of us can process this with ease and recognise that our preconceived ideas are just that, ideas, others will find it uncomfortable and hard to accept.
The guest speaker at the event was Maggie Alphonsi MBE, the former England women’s rugby player. She spoke passionately about her own journey from being born with clubfoot on a ‘rough council estate’ in Edmonton in London, getting into fights and skipping lessons, to where she is today. Maggie represented her country 74 times and her achievements include a Rugby World Cup victory in 2014 as well as seven consecutive Six Nations crowns. In 2015 she became the first ever former female player to commentate on men’s international rugby for ITV.
Drawing on her own experiences of establishing herself as an authority in a sector dominated by men, Maggie focused on the need for self-belief, resilience, setting yourself new goals, having a support network and pushing yourself to be the best version of yourself you can be. It was an inspiring presentation which had a visible effect on the energy levels in the room – plumbers, engineers, journalists, sponsors, merchants, men and women.
During my time at the conference I also spoke to some tradeswomen* about whether or not they have encountered gender bias, and if so, how they have challenged it. Here’s what they had to say:
Kelly: “After qualifying I started out looking for jobs, but because I’m older and female almost every person I spoke to said, ‘Oh, what are you doing plumbing for?’ So I decided to do it on my own.”
Sarah: “I haven’t had any negative experiences in terms of sexism of bias, but that might be because I stand my ground. I’m too confident in my abilities and my knowledge and I don’t think I even give customers the opportunity to doubt me. I think the best way to challenge gender bias is to approach it head on. If you get into conversation with your customer or another engineer and actually find out what their views are, you can make them think about it. Talking about it naturally, positively and confidently before you join a company or start work on a job can help to remove any awkwardness.”
Laura: “I was working on an extension in a home as the plumber. When the builders came in they looked at me like they’d seen a ghost and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Laura, I’m the plumber’, and he said, ‘I thought you were the babysitter’. After that, he was very overbearing and kept suggesting how I should be doing my job. I was working for someone else at the time and I said to him that I refused to return to the job if that individual was still there. Thankfully, I was supported and he was moved to another assignment.”
Rose: “Most of my customers find me because I’ve been recommended by someone else, and several times the recommendation has come from someone who wasn’t confident in my ability at first. That’s a good feeling, because it feels like I’ve gone a little way to changing someone’s mind about female engineers.”
So, how do we challenge gender bias? The WIT conference brought a community of tradeswomen from all over the country together both to celebrate and to provoke conversation. From Hattie Hasan’s insights into unconscious gender bias and Maggie Alphonsi’s inspirational story to the infectious enthusiasm and passion I saw from the women already in the industry, the event was not about dwelling on negativity or any kind of gender war. These women are leading a movement which is relevant for any sector struggling with gender imbalance and the following ideas are what have stayed with me.
The first step towards challenging gender bias is to talk about it openly and bring the issues to the surface. It’s not about moaning or trying to cause controversy; it’s about starting conversations which will make people stop, think and challenge their own bias.
Women in the plumbing and heating industry are in the minority and, unfortunately, this often means that their knowledge, skills and experience are placed under greater scrutiny than their male counterparts. The positive aspect of this is that the women who are carving themselves a place in the industry are positive role models for both the younger generations and other women who may be considering following in their footsteps.
Far too often women stand back and hesitate to speak up when they should be loud and proud about their skills and achievements. Hold your posture, speak clearly and at your own pace. Put your professional achievements out there and celebrate and promote other women in the industry who inspire you.
Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. To effectively challenge gender bias in the industry, there needs to be a collaborative effort. Men and women, the industry, the government, schools and the media need to work together to make significant progress towards gender equality.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
**Hayley Mackenzie is a writer for Boiler Guide which provides free no-obligation quotes for a replacement boiler, service or repair.