Trades are not just jobs for the boys

Andrea Mara meets three women who are making strides in the construction industry.

PICTURE a painter, an electrician, an engineer, or a builder on a building site. Who do you see? If you’re imagining a man, that’s not surprising; that’s what we’re used to seeing. But women are doing this kind of work too, and here, three of them share their stories:

Jen Kelly: Industrial Abseiling

Abseiling down a building isn’t what most of us imagine as a career, but that’s exactly what Dublin-based Jen Kelly does for a living. It’s a means of access used in industries such as construction and energy, often elected when other means of reaching the work zone aren’t possible. It certainly makes practical sense, but most of us can’t imagine choosing to do it for a living. Does she get people asking her if she’s crazy?

“Yes, absolutely, but I think that’s a normal reaction. If something is so far removed from your comfort zone, you’re probably going to react like that!”

Jen Kelly, industrial abseiler, set up a network for women working in trades in Ireland. Picture: Morley Von Sternbergand and the NAWIC London project 'Image of Women in Construction

Typically, physical work in construction is seen as more suited to men, and it’s still rare to see women working on site. “The question comes up a lot around women’s physical capabilities,” says Kelly. “But physical fitness and strength are attainable. Most new apprentices, male or female, may not be as strong as their more experienced counterparts but this improves rapidly, working day in day out. Manual handling training is a given and with regards to health and safety lifting considerations, there are things in place to encourage people to work together and use the mechanical aids at their disposal to accomplish moving heavy or awkward objects. There’s also historical evidence of women doing what would be considered heavier work.”

Indeed, in 18th century Britain, there were female apprentices in a host of construction occupations, including bricklaying, carpentry, and joinery; and Waterloo Bridge is often called Ladies Bridge because of the contribution made by female workers during its construction.

But in Ireland just 8% of construction workers are women, and the figure is much lower for women working manually on site. Kelly searched for but couldn’t find an organisation specifically targeting women in the manual trades, so she set up the social enterprise, Women in Trades Network Ireland (WITNI.ie).

“Ireland has not been very active in encouraging women into non-traditional roles, including those in construction and manual trades.

“The idea in WITNI is to promote tradeswomen online and at events, to tell stories about them, and so introduce our local role models, and women that have paved the way. We also ‘bridge the gap’ by working alongside industry and employers to improve their reach to female applicants. It’s a very stimulating experience to be part of progress in industry and it’s heartening to see the positive response. We have incredible architects and engineers as well as carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, welders, abseilers, scaffolders, auto mechanics, aviation mechanics and more. I either know personally, or am aware of women nailing it in all types of construction work.”

Krystyna Linkowska: Engineering

In her role as associate director with LMC Group, Krystyna Linkowska is mostly office-based, travelling between the firm’s Limerick and Dublin offices, but prior to this, she worked on various projects for which she was site-based. “I was often the only woman on site. You see more women on the architectural side than in engineering, but the most notable lack of women is among trades — electricians, plumbers, and carpentry workers.”

Linkowska, who is Polish, says that during her career in Ireland, she has only ever come across one tradeswoman onsite — an electrician. “That was it, until I met industrial abseiler Jen Kelly.”

Linkowska says while she’s conscious of being female in a male dominated industry, she has never experienced any discrimination.

Krystyna Linkowska

“It’s in my head that I’ll be treated differently because I’m a woman — that people might think I’m too weak or don’t know my stuff — but it doesn’t happen. The majority of my colleagues are men and I have a great respect for them and from them. They never undermine me. If you’re professional and driven and show your commitment, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”

She would like to see more gender diversity in construction, but for those who are truly interested in the field, and not just to even the ratio.

“I’m totally against bringing up the numbers because you’re this gender or that religion — we have to do what interests us. But yes, in the case of construction there’s a lot to be done via schools — letting girls know they can go into areas such as engineering. Young women should be made aware of the career options available: from trades-work to project management, estimation, quantity surveying, scheduling, and co-ordination. There are many roles girls may find attractive.”

Jenny Thompson: Painting and Decorating

For the last 30 years, Jenny Thompson has been running her own painting and decorating business, Kelly & Thompson Ltd. “I got into it by accident — I was studying environmental science and went on a J1 visa to San Francisco and started painting over there — it wasn’t unusual for women to paint in San Francisco. Then there was no work in Ireland when I came home, so I set up my own business.”

And were eyebrows ever raised when a female painter turned up? “As a woman, if I go to a site in civvies rather than overalls, people think I’m the client. And once I was up a ladder painting, with one of the guys holding the ladder, when someone passing asked him, ‘how do you find the women at the painting?’ and he said, ‘that’s my boss!’ But in some ways I could take advantage of being a woman — there was a novelty factor — people would remember you, you were different.”

Today she spends more time managing the business than on physical work, and she sometimes misses painting. “Painting is much easier — running the business is a different job. But if I don’t run the business, I won’t have one!”

She’s a firm advocate for gender diversity in construction and trades, and I asked her if it’s in order to pay it forward, or because she thinks the industry will benefit. “Both. Women make brilliant painters because they’ve really thought about it — if any woman goes into any trade, they’re brilliant because they’ve given it real consideration. They didn’t fall into it because their dad did it, or because some lad needed help on a job and they ended up staying with it. They’ve thought about it, they want to do it, and they value it. Also, if there are more women in trades, it normalises it, and then there’s less sexism overall.”

She takes practical steps to try to bring up the numbers. “When looking for apprentices I try to subtly positively discriminate — I’d say ‘Women are welcome to apply’ just to put it out there, and I’ve had three women apprentices who are now working for themselves as painters. If I had time, I’d spend it going around schools to try to get into the psyche at a young age. Even so that people out there who are considering it might think, ‘She did it, I can do it.’ I’d like to give something back if I can – it’s been good to me.”


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