How women can be inspired to
enter the industry
Mandy Reynolds, Chair of the Management Committee at Women in
Construction, Arts & Technology
How women can be inspired to enter the industry
We have all seen the figures. Women represent around 11 percent of the construction
workforce and as little as two percent in the manual trades. According to the National
Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting or NICEIC, fewer than one
in every thousand electrical contractors are female. To address the situation, many
positive steps are being taken, such as expanding teachers’ knowledge of non-traditional
occupations so that they can better advise pupils on future career options, and exposing
girls to female role models. This will work – eventually.
In several years’ time, the few girls now serving trades apprenticeships will have
qualified, transformed into confident tradeswomen and be accepted as the norm in
their communities. They will become the role models for their friends’ and neighbours’
daughters, be conspicuous by their increased numbers and thereby change public
perceptions about “the right job for a girl”. There will come a day when girls routinely
apply for apprenticeships in the trades; but the process is extremely slow. Can we afford
to wait long enough to turn this particular cruise ship? I will explain why I think existing
strategies are not capable of achieving the objective within an acceptable timeframe.
The current approach to the problem is aimed largely at teenagers. However, both boys
and girls between the ages of 16 and 18 are ill equipped to decide where their future
career lies, even with guidance from parents and schools.
Academic children are not going to consider the trades, though they may enter the
construction industry via further education and university, as architects or engineers.
However, a not insignificant number of those drop out when they realise it is really “not
for them”. Un-academic boys will readily apply for an apprenticeship in one of the trades,
but deeply entrenched stereotypes and immaturity ensure that most girls will reject even
the suggestion of doing this themselves. It is more comfortable to conform than to differ
and, at 16, who is interested in breaking down barriers anyway?
Those girls being pitched directly into the job market are scarcely able to exercise
any preference at all, in the face of stiff competition for every vacancy. If they have
developed an interest in a particular career, the requirements of jobseeker’s allowance
eligibility discourage them from holding out for the job of their dreams and encourage
them to take whatever they can get. So these girls find themselves well into adulthood,
often parenthood too, before they can give proper consideration to their suitability for
a particular career.
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As an example, when looking to take on my first apprentice I was over the moon to be
offered a 16-year-old girl for interview. She was smart, healthy and extraordinarily keen
to be a “sparky”. But after a year, the reality of clambering in loft spaces and getting
covered in insulating material, or standing on the spot in a freezing cold cellar helping
me change a fuse board, proved too much. She left, muttering about the superior wages
available working alongside her friend in a chicken-packaging factory.
I doubt this story would have ended any differently had she been a boy. Boys too will do
what young people will do, but there are so many of them entering construction that the
sector can easily absorb the wastage.
I believe the way the sector can inspire females to enter the industry is by concentrating
its energies on the adult new entrant. Females not only perform construction tasks as well
as males, they can bring to their employment many soft skills recognised as important
by other industries: communication, ability to empathise with the customer, attention
to detail, and so on. Once they are in the 26-35 age group, they also have experience
of the job market and, more importantly, life. They want to be able to provide more for
their family, overcome socioeconomic barriers and even plan for old age. Because they
have acquired these values, adult learners are more driven and resilient. They have more
at stake and so exercise tenacity and a work ethic. These women can more than fill the
gap while we wait for our school leavers to grow up. However, at present the deck is
so stacked against them that only the most indefatigable will enter and remain in the
trades. My own story might better illustrate this.
When surviving a potentially fatal illness made me realise my 20-year career in
financial services was probably killing me, I resolved in 2005 to get out – and hang the
consequences. Making the pragmatic decision to retrain in one of the trades (people
will always want something done to their house, I thought), I enquired about electrical
courses. Stumbling block number one was that at 49, I was too ridiculously old to obtain
an apprenticeship. Never mind, I would enrol at my local college in Sheffield and survive
on a low income by working part-time stacking shelves somewhere. Stumbling block
number two was that the college was not accepting new entrants over the age of 16
onto the electrical installation course. Okay, fine; I would go for a private training course.
Stumbling block number three was that the (female) enrolment officer at the training
school told me I should think again. Being an electrician was frankly too much hard
work for a woman and I simply wouldn’t make it. So I took out a loan to cover the fees,
enrolled on the course and resigned from my job. I completed my technical training as an
electrician at the end of 2006.
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Emerging from the course with the exact same qualifications as the rest of my (otherwise
all-male) class, I started to apply for jobs. Stumbling blocks number four through 500
were that nobody wanted a middle-aged, female, inexperienced electrician – not even
one who was prepared to work for no wages, just to get that experience. Especially not
one particular lady, who did the admin and fielded phone calls for her one-man-band
electrician husband; she was not going to countenance another female sitting in the van
sharing a flask and eating her sandwiches with him!
I did the only thing left for me to do (giving up never crossed my mind); I set up my own
self-employed business. Seven years later, I employ an apprentice (19 years old, male)
and have enough work for one self-employed trainee (27 years old, female) and a regular
subcontractor (32 years old, also female).
At a NICEIC members’ event a couple of years ago, I met other successful female electrical
contractors and swapped stories of our journeys to date. I was astonished to hear how
similar our experiences were. Apart from the obvious fact of us all being women, the
common threads were: having to fund our own, high-cost training; a willingness to
work for no pay in order to gain vital hands-on experience; feeling isolated and alone,
without industry advisers or mentors; and feeling we have to work harder than our male
counterparts just to prove we are as competent as them. There is little support that such
women can tap into: one exception is WiCAT.
Women in Construction, Arts & Technology is a not-for-profit organisation whose
main purpose is to empower, support and promote women in these male-dominated
occupations. Our workshops and offices are based in the Women’s Construction Centre in
Burngreave, Sheffield. Here, over many years, and through several incarnations, a group
of dedicated women has worked to achieve these aims through providing activities
focused largely on “the trades”. Any woman is welcome to get involved, and we do not
ask for subscriptions. I am proud to be the current chair of the management committee
We run very basic courses at WiCAT. We are not offering trade-level training, but hope
to inspire and inform women who may never have considered construction as a career.
Most of our students live in Sheffield, but they have been known to travel from the other
end of the country, so unique is WiCAT.
Our short introductory courses cover skills such as plastering, wall and floor tiling, basic
electrics, painting and decorating, plumbing, bricklaying, dry stone walling, working with
lime in plaster and mortar, block paving, car maintenance, computer-aided design, Excel
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book keeping and general DIY. Some courses are held for men and women, but all classes
are taught by skilled and qualified women who have construction industry experience.
The comments proffered by the students are, almost predictably, wildly enthusiastic.
The centre not only allows women to train in the workshop but also, where safety allows,
gives them the opportunity to undertake real jobs in the development and maintenance
of the centre. This is immensely helpful when a woman may be considering pursuing
formal training in, say, plumbing. How heavy are those tools to carry upstairs? Will I enjoy
being up a ladder in the winter, fixing a pipe to an outside wall? The answers to such
questions cannot be fully ascertained in the classroom.
If our participants want to learn more, they will need to sign up with a vocational furthereducation
provider. This is a massive leap. While girls in the 16-24 age group are able
to apply for an apprenticeship, with all the benefits of guided training and on-the-job
experience while receiving at least the minimum wage, women of 25 and over are on their
own. There is no help out there to facilitate our participants to make this jump without
At WiCAT we play our part in trying to chip away the cultural barriers to women entering
construction, especially among black and minority ethnic communities, by providing
opportunities for women from such communities to train in an all-female environment.
In 2010 our tutors delivered informal learning activities for the Sheffield Hallam University
project, DIY Your Future. The project was funded by the Transformation Fund and supported
women from two areas of Sheffield, largely from the Pakistani community, to develop their
confidence and self-advocacy skills. Building on popular interest in “home makeovers”, the
project focused on maintenance, saving energy and DIY. Through developing practical skills in
an informal setting, 30 women from the Fir Vale area of schools were supported to re-engage
with learning. During the course, some of them went on a media course at the university to
record some of the sessions, putting together a film documenting the women’s progress.1
It is worth watching this film to see two women discussing their experience and saying
they feel empowered … and that they could now move on to studying for a formal
Community-based learning also has a role to play, and in 2013 WiCAT was very active in
the community. We took a stand at an International Women’s Day event in March and,
in April, took part in a Girl Guides’ careers event, talking to the girls specifically about
1 Which you can see at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDT2LVwJ3hQ&feature=share
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our day-to-day lives as tradeswomen. August saw us play host to the ladies of the Seven
Hills Women’s Institute. The evening was both informative and great fun, with our guests
getting to try taster sessions of paint techniques, how to isolate and take a radiator off
the wall when you’re decorating, how to change a lighting pendant, cutting tiles and
even a little bricklaying. The women’s institute later commented on their blog: “WiCAT
we salute you for inspiring us to take on jobs that are traditionally seen as man’s work.”
We hold regular volunteer weeks, when women can take part in a selection of different
projects at the Women’s Construction Centre. Two highly successful weekends took place
at WiCAT recently, when volunteers came to learn and put into practice the skills of
bricklaying. More than a dozen women took part to help build a wall in the garden that
the centre shares with our landlords, the Hindu Samaj. The project, funded by Sheffield
City Council, entailed the volunteers preparing the site, laying the foundations and
constructing the low wall in the garden, improving access and safety.
Other facilities we offer include a tool library for women who have done courses, allowing
them to borrow tools. We also share information and generate mutual encouragement
among tradeswomen and those in training, by holding regular networking events to
meet and support one another.
You may wonder how all this is paid for. In the past, WiCAT has survived on its course
fees and by attracting grant aid from a variety of public and private bodies. We also
benefit enormously from the goodwill of volunteers: people who give their time for no
pay, to help maintain the building or serve on our management committee. However, in
the current economic climate, funding is scarce and individuals are cutting back their
spending, particularly on such things as taking courses.
The self-employed tradeswomen who undertake the day-to-day running of the centre
are under pressure to maintain the profitability of their own businesses; yet they often
contribute more than their job specs call for, and work longer hours than they are paid
for – making their commitment to WiCAT’s aims a real labour of love.
In these straitened times, the work that WiCAT does is even more important and women
need us to flourish. Needless to say, there is not enough funding; but it’s not just about
grants for fees, though that would be infinitely better than women having to fund their
own training. It’s about enabling access to such training in the first place – childcare,
caring responsibilities, managing part-time work alongside learning – and supporting
women once they progress into the workplace. It’s also about doing enough of this to
create sufficient role models for our school leavers.
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The Jobs for the Girls campaign was launched on the initiative of NICEIC chief executive
officer Emma Clancey, who hosted two networking events last year, attracting a good mix
of experienced, just-starting-out and apprentice female electricians. Last year she also
launched the Jobs for the Girls Academy, kicking off with four sessions held over 2013/14
providing free technical, business and industry advice designed to add value to the careers
of female electricians. This is an example of a large trade body recognising the difficulties
facing the adult new entrant and taking a proactive approach to supporting them.
In October 2011 the Electrical Contractors’ Association launched its pilot scheme Wired for
Success: ECA Women into Electrical Contracting. The two-year initiative took 12 women
in the age group of 18-54 and trained them to be “Part P” qualified electricians, with the
aim that they would also be capable of setting up their own businesses or becoming fully
qualified commercial and industrial electricians. The pilot finished only a couple of months
ago and I haven’t seen any reports yet, but I’d like to bet it was a brilliant success.
Occupying as I do the dubious position of being one in a thousand electricians, I have
concluded that it is most definitely time to think differently. We should stop trying to
persuade young girls that they should take our word for it that they can succeed in
construction, when they cannot see any evidence of that. Instead we must give them the
evidence, by supporting and proliferating such programmes as those from the ECA, the
NICEIC and WiCAT.