Anything you Can Do I Can Do Too

Kaitlin Dryburgh

So you’ve got a leak, or your heating has packed in or maybe you need a new shower fitted, you phone up your local plumbing centre and they send someone out. It’s a man. It’s probably what you expected, and fair enough you’ve probably not experienced anything different. What though if it was a women?  

This week The Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employer’s Federation (SNIPEF) released a report In honour of Scottish apprenticeship week (6-10 March) and international women’s day (8th March) exploring the barriers facing women in the plumbing industry. Of the 674 people to respond they identified the two most pressing barriers to be stereotypes and poor career advice. It seems that outdated and sexist stereotypes are still prevalent in the plumbing industry and still cause issues for women trying to break into the profession. Additionally it seems that women are less likely to be advised a career as a plumber, even if it is something they could enjoy and show aptitude for. Disappointing to hear. However, SNIPEF have seen progress in the uptake of female apprentices in the industry with an overall 50% rise, which is great to see and hopefully will only continue to rise.

This report raises some serious questions though. We currently have a skills shortage in industries such as plumbing, thanks to a myriad of reasons helping to exacerbate the situation it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Knowing that sexism and stereotypes are putting off so many women will never help us plug the skills gap. That’s also not to mention that there could be so many women who would really enjoy a career in plumbing and may be very good at it.

However, how are we ever to undertake the work that needs to be done in Scotland if we don’t have enough tradespeople.

In Common Weal’s Our Common Home Plan (which still remains the only fully costed Green New Deal) if we are to undertake the vast amount of work that needs doing to ensure our homes aren’t leaking heat, and we have sustainable heating systems, Scotland will need to establish a National Housing Company. To undertake this amount of work we need to seriously increase the volume of trades people we have, Our Common Home estimates that Scotland will need 4,000 more skilled tradespeople. With the serious shortfall in skilled people already this number most likely has increased in the face of growing issues like an aging construction industry, Brexit and Covid. In preparation of Scotland becoming independent attention should be paid to the learning and skills missing.

Scotland has the mammoth task of retrofitting 60,000 homes, modifying and creating new heating systems such as District Heating and changing gas boilers to a heat exchanger fed with hot water, we will without doubt will need to train and employ more people and this will never be achieved without encouraging more women.

Apprenticeships are one of the best ways to lessen this overwhelming gap. The current curriculum in schools is geared towards university or further education in general. Yet this fails to cater to those who may not want or need to go to university, or address the skills shortage in Scotland. It’s great the higher education is free in Scotland but it’s not for everyone and perhaps it’s gone too far the other way. Scotland is one of the most educated countries in the world and has the most higher educated population in Europe, yet you may struggle to get a plasterer or plumber. There has been a continuing decline of available apprenticeships in Scotland, even though they are seen as a valuable asset for employers. Unfortunately the onus seems to have fallen on the shoulders of private business to ensure apprenticeships are still offered. Last year £3.4 billion was allocated by the Scottish government for education and skills, yet only £100 million of this was committed to apprenticeships, which equates to less than 3% of the budget. Private businesses are currently investing ten fold more than the Scottish government in apprenticeships, and yet it is still very competitive to gain an apprenticeship. A further shift towards a skills system as well as a change in the way investment is allocated would greatly improve the apprenticeships available, not to mention the knock-on effect this would have on the trades sector.

If Scotland was to adopt a more skills approach to education this should be coupled with an inclusive approach to recruiting, by starting at the grassroots level this could make a significant difference to women entering the trades and construction industries.

Although the SNIPEF survey used five case studies to showcase the positive experiences some young women had found working in the plumbing industry, there are still plenty who have not had the same experience.

Unfortunately 1 in 3 female tradespeople have experienced gender discrimination in their job and have often found their ability repeatedly being questioned by customers, with many believing this wouldn’t happen as often if they were men. Although numbers are slowly creeping up the trades and construction industry still have the lowest representation of women in all of the industries. And no wonder, a recent survey by Rated People found that 1 in 10 trades women have experienced a customer refusing to let them do a job after finding out they were a women.

However, very much on the flipside of this is a large amount of customers calling out for more female tradespeople. With searches for female plumbers, electricians, gardeners and painters and decorators continually rising. There are indeed some people who would not only be fine with hiring a tradeswoman but would actually prefer it.

It’s an issue that should be urgently addressed, as a few bad experiences can be enough to deter women from joining a sector. If Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK are to going to address the shortages this industry needs to encourage women. Secondary schools should be seeing the value in becoming a trades person and ensuring it is offered a viable career option for both girls and boys. Gender biases are put to the test everyday when a female plumber walks in the door, but thankfully this industry keeps on pushing forward for more inclusivity.

5 thoughts on “Anything you Can Do I Can Do Too”

  1. Kaitlin,

    Excellent overview of the current skill shortage for women within the trades. I think the issue is most females students in secondary schools are not exposed properly to the idea of apprenticeships as a valid way of progressing towards a rewarding career.

    College and university entry is greatly pushed as they progress through school. You only have to look at the promotional materials most colleges and universities produce to see that they cater heavily towards female candidates, with female students more prevalent on the covers of nearly all prospectuses. Nearly all promotional material for apprenticeships that I have seen do have women portrayed in their specific field, but often they are dressed in full H&S gear wearing a hard hat, holding something that’s meant to represent blueprints. To a teenage female secondary school student, seeing female students standing laughing in front of a beautiful university, having ‘fun’ frankly looks far more inviting than a female engineering apprentice covered head to toe in safety gear. I’m not saying these female students are shallow, I think these are advertising psychological ‘hooks’ that the colleges and universities are using to bring in female students are manifest. Regardless of how much a female secondary school student may have an innate aptitude for a trade and would flourish in it, they still get pushed towards university or college as the next step. In these days when a single bad selfie can ruin a person’s day on social media, we have to be very aware that the initial looks of promotional material are incredibly important, both for men and women. Unfortunately many people and institutions still have these inbuilt biases where jobs are seen as ‘male’ and ‘female’, which is reflected in much of the promotional material.

  2. Campbell Anderson

    Hi Kaitlin,

    Good article.

    Our alarm system was recently repaired by a woman and before that our heating was serviced by a woman. Both excellent jobs.


  3. Ian Davidson

    100%. No brainer. Should happen, must happen. Requires a new Social curriculum in secondary schools teaching basic life skills: money, diy, house work era to all pupils. If necessary, bring in “instructors” and offer classes after school day, holidays, weekends etc. Female only classes if requested. Then develop specific skills based learning as you suggest. Of course there is and will be gender resistance but just keep pushing.

  4. I think it is unfair to criticise schools as the reality is that boys and girls follow an equal broad general curriculum until the end of second year with all pupils experiencing the traditionally male dominated subjects as well as the traditionally female dominated subjects. During these courses, schools deliberately use materials with images or examples that challenge traditional stereotypes. Schools also run specific courses such as ‘Girls into Energy’ to try to motivate girls to explore options they may not have considered. Despite this, sex differences in subject choice uptake and eventual career destinations continue. I would suggest that is too easy just to blame gender stereotyping in schools or inadequate careers’ advice, when the reality is that influences from pupils’ homes and friendship groups are much more likely to have a greater influence on final choices.

    1. Should have been clearer – …boys and girls follow an equal broad general curriculum until the end of second year of secondary school…this is 9 years of boys and girls all following the courses.

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