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Why more women are becoming tradespeople

Shifting attitudes and working practices are driving changes, but barriers still remain

Woman plumber fixing waste pipe under sink

Like it or not, when the vast majority of us picture a person working in the trades – whether that’s an electrician, builder, plumber or locksmith – we are likely to imagine a man in that role.

This is undoubtedly influenced by long-standing stereotypes of men as being more ‘handy’, summoning sepia-toned visions of husbands working in the tool shed while the wife is in the kitchen. And of course, these kinds of careers have been dominated by men for a long time. But things are beginning to shift.

According to Direct Line, there were an estimated 15,000 tradeswomen working in 2009 compared to 33,000 in 2019 – an increase of 120% in ten years. While the industry remains dominated by men, more women are taking up tools. So what is causing these changes?

Shifting needs and expectations

It’s easy to forget how recently women won a place in the workplace at all. Many women during the First and Second World Wars took up jobs to keep economies and industries moving while men were fighting overseas – and then found themselves under pressure to give them up when the fighting ended.

These days, it is largely recognised that a person’s gender should not bar them from any but a very limited and specific set of jobs. There have been high profile pushes to encourage women to enter STEM jobs, and as attitudes continue to shift towards the enshrining of gender parity, there can be fewer excuses as to why women shouldn’t work in the trades.

Covid-19 has underlined the appeal of the industry for many women, with a growing understanding that these roles might offer job security and a source of reliable work in uncertain times. A study by Powered Now found that 21% of women in the UK considered a career in the trades during the first year of the pandemic. It also found that 15% of women who were already working within the trades saw record highs in demand during that time.

Interest is up, and the opportunities seem to be increasing. What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests that women have some advantages in trades over their male counterparts. According to Local Heroes – an organisation that helps put people in touch with trusted local tradespeople from electricians and plumbers to locksmiths and boiler technicians – female tradespeople report that they stand out from the crowd.

“It’s a bonus to be a girl in the industry – it’s more niche,” said heating engineer Natasha Clark-Withers. “Across the board, it’s not just women who are keen that you’re a woman. People trust me more and think my prices will be more reliable. It’s a great way of standing out – people are more likely to remember ‘Natasha the plumber’ than ‘Bob the plumber’.”

There is evidence that some people are more likely to be comfortable inviting a stranger to do work in their home if they are female – particularly if they are elderly or a woman too. “Single women are often relieved to see I’m a woman,” locksmith Pip Harris told Local Heroes, adding that this is especially the case when they have been locked out of their homes and are in a state of distress.

The ongoing challenges

While the opportunities are increasing, and women seem to be more interested in trades jobs, they still face challenges. We have already established a key challenge: that in the minds of many of us, these roles are still associated predominantly with men.

And it’s not just a case of older generations simply not getting with the times. A Local Heroes survey found that 44% of primary school children believed that working as a tradesperson is a “male job”. One in seven (14%) said that they don’t think a woman can work as a tradesperson because “they aren’t strong enough” or “it’s too dirty”.

Portrayals of women in trades roles in media remain rare, so there is still little to push back against these long-standing stereotypes. Local Heroes is trying to promote the trades for women and change attitudes among kids with its digital children’s book My Mum the Handyman. The story by Ros Asquith is written from the perspective of a young boy about life with his electrician mum, and is intended to give girls a role model to show them that a career in the trades is open to them.

A shift in public perception to seeing “tradesperson” as a gender-neutral role will take time, but growing numbers of women entering the industry is key to helping these changes happen.

To find trusted women in the trades in your area, visit Local Heroes

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