Written by Mica May


A load of ballcocks

Women want to work in the trades, where there’s a recognised skills gap, and yet there’s no support when they do. Someone, somewhere isn’t doing the maths, says Mica May from Stopcocks Women Plumbers.

Happy female plumbers fixing a boiler

Stopcocks’ Hattie Hasan and Petra O’Brien getting to grips with a boiler.

Just the other day we got an email from a female plumbing apprentice who’s being bullied at work by the boss. She’d contacted her rep at the regulatory body and been dragged into a meeting, with him present, where she was berated for going to the regulatory body.

The rep took her to task for having a bad attitude and did nothing else. The thing she did wrong? Refusing to lift more than the recommended 70 kilos between just two people. Her (male) colleague also objected but only she was being reprimanded.

Sadly, this is far from the worst of the stories we hear from women in the construction industry. Many of them experience verbal abuse on a daily basis and some even physical and sexual assault.

One, training at a very well-known plumbing firm, was told not to bother coming to the boss complaining because she was only there to generate the firm publicity.

She also told us her co-worker used to wank in the car before she managed to get out. To stop him she finally took a large object and brandished it at him, along with heavy threats of what she’d do and she meant it.

But why should women have to go to these extremes? Why is our company, a small business run by and for women, their only recourse? Why are their complaints not taken seriously by their representative bodies? With the numbers of women at the dirty-hands end of construction sometimes less than two per cent (depending on the trade), why is this the case? There is a recognised skills gap but women who do want to do this work are not being supported.

Why, when we draw attention to this situation do we get hate mail? We’re tough. We can shrug it off but for more than 60 per cent of women entering construction (according to our own research) it is a very real threat to their livelihoods.

“Many women who decide to train in trades do so after realising they hate their office job or after having had work done in their home and suddenly thinking, ‘I could have done that, and more efficiently, tidier and without ripping anyone off.’”

The numbers of women doing these jobs is currently tiny, but since they’re blocked at every turn, that isn’t surprising. Peer pressure means young girls very rarely attempt to get into the trades and even when they do they often can’t get the all-important work placements they need to gain proper skills and fully qualify.

We’ve tried our hardest to change things. When we heard that the women’s group of a representative body here in England was closing we offered to take on organising it. We were told there was no need and no money for it. A couple of years later a businessman we know contacted that same body offering to fund it. He was told the real reason it was closed, “man-to-man”, was because some of the men didn’t like its existence.

Another of the representative bodies launched a Get Girls Plumbing campaign. Naturally, we took part in the launch and spoke on various radio stations all over the UK. Several months later, we contacted them to let them know the impact we’d experienced: a slight increase in the numbers of unsolicited emails asking for help. We asked what they’d done. They’d helped one girl to gain an apprenticeship in a large company and apparently had no plans to do anything else. So we came up with a strategy for them. But both they and the organisation that had closed the women’s group said there was no need because so much is being done elsewhere to increase apprenticeship numbers.

"Female plumbers? Do you know how hard it is to get a work placement if you're a cat?"

“Female plumbers? Do you know how hard it is to get a work placement if you’re a cat?”

Many women who decide to train in trades do so after realising they hate their office job or after having had work done in their home and suddenly thinking, “I could have done that, and more efficiently, tidier and without ripping anyone off.”

Several of the women who’ve come through Stopcocks have been ex-nurses, one an ex-doctor, one an engineer, one a buyer for one of the bigger clothing and furniture chains as well as a “drifter”, who, by her own admission, would probably have been in the gutter if she hadn’t come across us (now her business is thriving, she’s in love and she has two delightful children who are doing excellently at school).

But there is still no guidance or support for these women to gain training or work placements. In fact, a new training course has been created for people too old to get a traditional apprenticeship, but, since a work placement is necessary to become fully qualified, this actually seems more a way for colleges to continue to get bums on seats and the income this generates than a route for anyone over 24 to get jobs in construction.

There is still no funding available to create or provide information on how to go about becoming qualified, alternative ways of doing this, or even how to find your way through the maze of courses. There is no funding to support dedicated women trainees who might be one female among 200 young men.

Once again, it’s left to us. We don’t receive funding. We’re just easy to find at the top of Google. We are getting so many requests it is taking up more and more of our time, at least a third right now, to meet the need. And we help because, well, we want to. But why should we have to?

Mica May is director of Stopcocks Women Plumbers.


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Written by Mica May

Mica May worked as a therapist for more than 20 years before realising she’d done her time dealing with people's internal shit. Now at Stopcocks Women Plumbers she deals with the real thing instead.