Meet the women who are fighting sexist DIY myths

Almost half of all women now say they enjoy DIY, but with some hardware stores still bastions of old-fashioned sexism, has the DIY trade cottoned on to the changing times? Ellie O’Byrne meets the sisters who are DIYing for themselves.

Meet the women who are fighting sexist DIY myths

Almost half of all women now say they enjoy DIY, but with some hardware stores still bastions of old-fashioned sexism, has the DIY trade cottoned on to the changing times? Ellie O’Byrne meets the sisters who are DIYing for themselves.

As a single mother, you have to take on a whole range of the invariably unglamorous and thankless jobs that have traditionally fallen on the male side of the gender divide in household duties.

I’ve fixed toilet cisterns, unblocked drains, repaired cupboard doors, assembled shelving units, and climbed into the attic to find out where that leak was coming from...all with a vocabulary of rich and satisfying expletives to hand. 

But I wouldn’t say I’m a DIY enthusiast. I do those things out of begrudging necessity, not as a hobby.

But for a growing number of Irish women, it appears, DIY is an enjoyable pastime. 

Sisters are indeed doing it for themselves: a recent study carried out by the Hardware Association of Ireland (HAI) found that 49% of women said they really enjoyed DIY, but 57% reported feeling that sales staff thought they weren’t up to the job.

“The myth of DIY being for men is just that, a myth”, commented Annemarie Harte, CEO of Hardware Association Ireland. “These research findings indicate that the propensity to carry out and enjoy DIY projects is almost equal across the genders. 

"Furthermore, women clearly enjoy collaborating on projects more than men. There is a missed opportunity for retailers to market and promote to women and they could be losing business as a result.

"Forty per cent of women respondents said they weren’t taken seriously by sales people when shopping for hardware or tools while only 20% of men felt the same way.” 

Some hardware stores can certainly feel like the last bastions of old-school sexism: I’ve been there, running the gauntlet of a long counter manned by Walter Matthau lookalikes in overalls at a builder’s providers on a Saturday morning. 

Even when you know what you’re looking for, you’ll often be treated to a raised eyebrow or a smirk, or a question phrased in such a way that it makes you feel suddenly unsure of yourself.

Rachel Reddin of Kelly's Homevalue Hardware, in Dublin's North Strand. Pics: Moya Nolan
Rachel Reddin of Kelly's Homevalue Hardware, in Dublin's North Strand. Pics: Moya Nolan

Crafty past-time

Enda Sheridan says that nothing gets on her nerves more. Enda, who has owned a house in Waterford City for the past 12 years, is very definitely a DIY enthusiast and tackles everything from paint jobs to plastering repairs and grouting herself. 

“You’ll go in and you’ll know exactly what you’re after, and you’ll be second-guessed,” she says.

“It’s hilarious; numerous times I’ve gone in to a DIY place and asked for things, and been looked at as though I had 10 heads. The attitude is still very much ‘of course you wouldn’t have a clue, because you’re a woman.’”

Although Enda says her DIY projects are now partly driven by the practical aspects of home ownership, they started in childhood and are part of a general interest in crafts and all kinds of making.

“When my grandfather passed away, I asked for his hammer,” she says. “I was always interested, and I’d chop wood with my dad and help out with things, so I was never scared to just tackle something. 

"Being encouraged at a young age is a huge part of it, because people think they can’t do something because they don’t have training.” 

Nowadays, Enda finds the old DIY cliché of “if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself” is true; negative experiences with tradesmen, combined with their cost, mean that she often finds it’s both an enjoyable and practical past-time. 

A photographer and set-designer, she has a keen eye for aesthetics too; painting, plastering and grouting allow her to give her home, which she shares with husband John Loftus and their five-month-old little boy, Ruben, the finish she wants.

“I’m a bit OCD too, so that’s part of it,” she laughs. “It’s not that I want things to be flawless, but when you own a house, if things aren’t maintained, you feel like the whole house is coming down around you. 

"But most of the time, if I get someone in to do something, they don’t finish it properly. When we got new windows a few years ago, they weren’t sealed properly. So I resealed them.” 

It’s an empowering feeling when you finish a job, Enda says, and one that comes with a sense of pride and achievement: “When someone calls over and says, ‘who did you get to do that?’ and you say, ‘I did it’? That’s really nice.” 

Although YouTube is her best friend for brushing up on specific skills, Enda says that in future, she’d love to upskill further with the help of classes. 

“I’ll definitely learn other things,” she says. “I’d love to do some sort of intensive course in tiling and plastering. I wouldn’t touch water or electricity, but it would be great to learn some woodwork too, because there’s an element of woodwork in so much DIY.” 

Enda’s desire to learn more is reflected in the research conducted by the HAI, where 40% of female respondents said they’d avail of classes in their local DIY store if they could.

Low vis: where were the woman?

Hardware store owner Rachel Reddin’s family have been running Kelly’s on the North Strand in Dublin for four generations, but she’s the first woman to have filled the role. 

She was particularly interested in the results of the HAI survey, and especially the demand for classes for her female customers, of which she says there’s a growing number since she took the helm five years ago, taking over a business that was very much a traditional builder’s providers.

“Imagine builders coming in and cutting their toast on the counter with a handsaw, this kind of man’s world,” she says. “I don’t recall ever having seen a woman in the store. We revamped completely three years ago: we put in brighter colours, signage, proper staff uniforms.

“The shop became much brighter, more open and retail-oriented. Since then, the number of female customers has grown exponentially.

"I think it’s because the shop has become a lot more welcoming, and our trade counter staff are 50-50 male female too. Now, depending on the month, 15-20% of our customers are women.” 

A statement from the HAI accompanying their findings, saying retailers need to “adapt to cater for change” in response to the 49% of DIY-loving women, though, smacks of pink tax, surely? 

Why would hardware stores need to “adapt” to be able sell products to women? Are we only capable of buying screws or sandpaper in some kind of value-added, aesthetically pleasing, frivolous environment?

Rachel believes there is an element of this in the retail-oriented approach taken in big chains, where homewares and soft furnishings vie with washers and power tools. 

“You’re looking at tubes of silicone where the market price is €3.50 and they’re selling for €8 or €9,” she says.

“It’s because it’s a segment of the market that would never think to argue the price, whereas builders would have you up half the night over the price of a box of screws.” 

But there’s a balance to be struck, she believes: in adopting a more welcoming and informative approach, first-time DIYers of both genders will feel comfortable, without the business losing its brass-tacks, traditional customer base of builders.

There’s still an unavoidable gender divide in the types of DIY tasks women like, though, with a leaning towards more aesthetic jobs like painting and furniture restoration. 

Although Rachel has a soft spot for one particular customer who has tackled the complete refurbishment of her downstairs loo alone:

“She’s brilliant. She watches her YouTube videos at night-time and comes in the next day with her hand-written list, and she’s doing the whole thing herself: she’s done half the bathroom in interlocking timber panelling, and she’s looking for recommendations on a nice trim to finish that off. 

"Now she’s tiling the rest, so she’s done all the tile spacing and adhesive and placed the tiles in the patterns she wants and the last time I saw her, she was tackling the grouting.” 

A recent visit Rachel paid to another builder’s yard confirmed for her that there are still stores out there, though, that haven’t cottoned on. 

“Even though I can discuss every single product in the shop, I felt uncomfortable,” she says. “I poked my head into the yard and I ended up not even going in, I felt so out of place.” 

“I don’t want to cast stones, but it’s something other stores should start addressing. 49%: that’s a huge market section if you’re not targeting these people. And women are perfectly capable of doing these things and figuring it out for themselves.”

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