From as early as I can remember, I had always wanted to do something useful with my hands. I was fascinated by how things worked.
As a child, I wanted to be a surgeon. I read anatomy books for fun and, at one point, could name every bone in the human body! When I discovered that I was squeamish at the thought of cutting into flesh, I knew I’d never study medicine. But this fascination about how things work extended into many things.
Don’t let anything hold you back
I had a curiosity for engineering and metalwork but going into school in the 70s I was told: “those subjects are for boys; you have to choose subjects suited to girls.”
But I was determined to learn my way into being independent. So when my school told me that they couldn’t accommodate me to study ‘O’ levels in biology, physics and chemistry, I studied alone. I sat the exams and passed these with very little support from the teachers, although a couple of dedicated teachers saw I had potential in maths and English and so picked me out to do ‘A’ levels. It meant I would get the results I needed to go to university. There, I majored in psychology.
I followed this up with a post-graduate degree in education and came back to London to work as a primary school teacher in some of the most deprived areas in the city. Coming from a poor working-class family myself and being the oldest girl, I had had the weight of helping my mother bring up my siblings, which forced me to grow up early. But I believed (and still do) that if you give children enriching experiences from a very young age, they can aspire to be anything they want to be and reach their true potential.
Changing my path
My greatest challenge was leaving home. I had to flee the prospect of an arranged marriage and a life of anonymity, unable to make my own choices. I knew I didn’t want that, so I plotted an escape and went missing for a time. Whenever I face a new challenge, I always remind myself of that time and say: “if you can do that and survive and thrive, you can do anything.”
When I left teaching, I took the opportunity to pursue something I had always wanted to do: a plumbing course. I loved it. I took a massive career pivot and, thereafter, ran a successful plumbing business as a sole trader (Stopcocks Woman Plumber) for 17 years.
Of course, at the start of my plumbing career, I faced many obstacles. When I first qualified, I wrote to every company I could find and followed up my application with phone calls (there were no emails or mobile phones in 1990). I was rejected by everyone. So I became self-employed.
Becoming a plumber
Customers loved me and because I always marketed myself as a woman plumber, I attracted business because some people were attracted by the novelty. But in many cases (and people told me this) people were choosing me because they believed they’d receive a better service from a woman plumber.
The sexism I experienced was mainly from merchants, suppliers and some other plumbers who treated me like I didn’t know what I was doing. As I grew in confidence I felt I was able to go anywhere and deal with any off-colour remarks with my usual humour.
Starting my own business
I eventually decided to combine my teaching and my plumbing skills to start Stopcocks Women Plumbers. This came as a result of women contacting me and asking for help and advice about how to become a plumber. Because the requests were coming in from all over the country, I had to devise a way in which to help as many women gain support in achieving the right qualifications.
So I created the Stopcocks Women Plumbers brand as a national company of women plumbers. The main problem I faced at this stage was finding enough women to make a sustainable business.
The plumbing trade has changed, but we still have an awfully long way to go. Despite policy changes that purportedly ‘welcome’ women, there doesn’t seem to be enough joined-up thinking to attract a wide range of people and then, importantly, to retain talent.
Making a change
Our own annual Women Installers Together conference has brought attention to the lack of women in our industry. Companies who support this event are constantly held to account, and we have seen a change as a direct result of our involvement where a plumber’s merchant has provided proper toilet facilities for women who come into their shops. This might seem like a ‘small’ achievement but it’s hugely symbolic of a change in a sector that has historically always excluded women. Yet it’s simple economics: better facilities for all mean that merchants attract more business, and therefore more female traders.
Currently, we are working towards building a Register of Tradeswomen launching in March 2021 in order to count the actual numbers of women in the sector.
Hopefully, this information will drive positive change. We are actively seeking tradeswomen and are being quite vocal about it. This sometimes attracts animosity from tradesmen who feel that they are being left out. We have experienced trolling on social media, and some of our supporters have received awful, sexual and personal comments. Social media has its pros and cons, but we use this mixed experience as a means of growing stronger.
At many key junctures of my life, I have faced obstacles – from teachers, my own parents, and also within the industry – that have discouraged or tried to sabotage me from pursuing particular ambitions and desires because I’m the ‘wrong’ gender. So I’m an ardent advocate of pursuing that dream, whatever it may be. I also believe that you can’t be what you can’t see, so being a role model has always been a highlight for me. I am committed to driving inclusivity in trades.
This process, however, does start at the earliest of stages. When I was a child at school, there were clearly defined ‘roles’ and subjects for girls to assume. Today, things have moved on. Yet we all must be aware of the unconscious biases that create set ideals in young minds of what constitutes a ‘man’s job’ and what constitutes a ‘woman’s job’.
Challenging gendered narratives
Given my experience as a teacher too, I felt it was important to work with Butterfly Books, an independent book publisher that creates picture books targeting children aged 4 to 7 years old. Its narratives address some of the gender misconceptions about careers typically and predominately held by men or women. Working on My Mummy Is A Plumber is an important step in resetting often gendered narratives that form some of children’s earliest diet of literature – with Dad pottering around in the shed or going off to work and Mum preparing things in the kitchen.
In my opinion, I believe school libraries should be filled with many stories of inspirational people breaking norms and barriers in order to achieve great things for the wider community as well as for equality. It all starts from the grassroots. What an enormous disservice we’d be doing to our children if we set ideals that they cannot pursue a passion because they’re the ‘wrong’ sex.