When was the last time you spotted a woman on a building site, or a female plumber turned up during a boiler or blocked toilet emergency? Exactly.
It’s no secret that the construction industry is massively male-dominated. According to the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), only 14.5% of construction workers are female. And if you break that figure down even further, the proportion of women working in skilled manual trades is a disconcertingly low 2%. While the number of women in construction has grown since the recession, it’s not quite on the same scale as the US, where the number of women in construction trades increased by 17.6% between 2017 and 2018.
We might be post #MeToo but a survey last year found that more than half of women working in construction have experienced harassment or victimisation during their career. So an increase in women turning their hand to trades can only be a good thing, facilitating a change in attitudes in the long term.
According to the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), only 14.5% of construction workers are female.
"The issue needs to be addressed," confirms Caroline Gumble, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). "Increasing the number of women brings new ways of thinking and working, and expands the industry’s skills, insight and experience." Well, obviously – but there are encouraging signs on a local level. "The CIOB’s Novus network (young professionals) is formed of an all-female committee," adds Caroline. "Representation on our boards and committees has also seen increased diversity in membership over recent years. We’re expecting the number of women working in construction to rise going forward as there are concerted efforts in the overall industry to recruit and retain more of us."
Of course, there are many women who have already stepped into a trade and are smashing the stereotype. Here, four tradeswomen share their story, skills – and what it’s really like working on site.
The Crane Operator
Katie Kelleher, 34, from London, is a crane operator for Select/Laing O’Rourke
Growing up, I never looked wistfully at London’s skyline, dreaming of becoming a crane operator one day. I actually didn’t think women worked in construction, and at school we certainly weren’t told that the industry was a career option. After studying English literature at university, I got a job in sales before ending up as a recruitment consultant for the trade and labour sector.
I wasn’t happy. I saw how much tradespeople were getting paid and started to think about working in construction. I didn’t have the skills or experience but I wondered if someone would give me the chance to train.
I sent my CV to different construction companies and to my surprise, someone from Laing O’Rourke rang to say they had a lifting technician apprenticeship and would I be interested in operating a crane? It wasn’t a role I was expecting but I thought, Why not? At the interview, I was the only woman in a group of 15 men and felt totally out of my depth – but a few days later, I was offered the apprenticeship.
The hours are long – I work 7am to 7pm with two half-hour breaks, six days a week – but you can also take home about £1,000 a week as a crane operator.
On my first day in October 2014, I arrived early for my induction and walked into another room full of men who just stared at me for ages. I wanted the ground to swallow me up – it was so awkward and I remember thinking, What are you putting yourself through? You don’t fit in!
I’m sure they expected me to drive a crane down a hole or hit a building. During my first few weeks, I heard guys say things like: "Is that woman any good?" They’d never ask that if a man was driving the crane and it felt like they were waiting for me to mess up. I didn’t. I was fully supported by my company during my training but I also pushed myself hard to be good at my role.
The whole apprenticeship, which included three months learning how to operate crawler and tower cranes at a CITB college in Norfolk and working towards an NVQ at the company’s yards, took about two years. Since then, I’ve worked on major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and Tideway, where I was based on a barge on the Thames and found it really interesting.
Now my experience and confidence has grown, I talk publicly about what we can do to motivate women to work in construction – at schools, on radio, in parliament, and within my own company. The numbers are terrible: only 0.7% of people in the industry who operate in plants or work on the tools are women. We have five in our company but when you weigh it up against a total of 250, that’s a big imbalance.
I discussed with my manager how we could make things better for people on site. I mentioned my first day experience and that I probably wouldn’t have gone back if I was younger. We spoke about setting up a buddy system to avoid uncomfortable first day situations, as well as what we can do for pregnant crane operators or those who have family commitments, such as split shifts.
The hours can be long: some weeks you could do 12-hour days, with an additional Saturday, but it’s also possible to take home around £1000 a week as a crane operator – if you put the hours and hard work in.
It might not be for everyone but this job has completely changed my life. I think it’s so satisfying learning how to operate a huge piece of machinery – and to do it well. The world of construction is rife with opportunity and it's important that women realise that any industry and any position is open to them.
The Plastering Pair
Ella Butt, 34, and Kate Reading, 31, from Kent, are founders of EKRB Developments Ltd
Ella: Kate and I are sisters-in-law and had babies four months apart, three years ago. At the time, I was a nurse and Kate was a vet practice manager but we were both stuck in a rut and wanted a career change that could work more flexibly around our families in the future. I’ve always been interested in plastering – I was a labourer when I was younger – and Kate was keen on plumbing. When we both bought properties that needed doing up, it felt like the perfect opportunity to properly learn a trade.
Our husbands and friends encouraged us and we ended up booking onto a plastering course while still on maternity leave.
We were the only women in the group. At lunch we’d watch the guys eating while we hid in our cars expressing milk – but we were hooked on the precision and physical aspects of plastering straightaway. Shortly after the course we met a builder, Richard, who took us on different jobs where we got to hone our skills.
Then Kate and I decided to start our own plastering and property developing business. Now we’re so busy, we sometimes get Richard on board with our jobs!
At lunch we’d watch the guys eating while we hid in our cars expressing milk – but we were hooked on the precision and physical aspects of plastering straightaway.
We’ve never experienced sexism at work. Well, not to our faces – I think it helps that there’s two of us – but online we have had people tell us to "get back in the kitchen". A while ago the BBC filmed us about my career change and because we had to make a sloppier mix so that the cameraman could shoot us for longer, we got stick from men who thought we didn’t have a clue. But there’s always going to be keyboard warriors – and if anything, it makes us more determined.
I love what Kate and I have created. We work five days a week and make a conscious effort not to work weekends, evenings and school holidays. We didn’t go into this to make millions, we just wanted to have more control over our working lives – and that work/life balance is a great perk right now.
Kate: I was nervous going into plastering because construction is massively male-dominated but there’s never been any daunting macho vibes on the jobs we’ve worked on; most people are friendly. Of course, we’re proving ourselves every day – previously some male site managers said they weren’t sure about taking on two women because it’s such a physical job. But everyone we’ve worked for has said they’d have us back. Our bread and butter is covering Artex ceilings on house renovations – it’s amazing that there’s so many out there still – but we also do tacking, bonding out and skimming on various building sites.
For me, the best part of the job is getting to work with Ella, and the physical side means we don’t need a gym membership. But I also just love transforming something that’s old and tired into something aesthetically impressive. We have a Facebook page with about 250 likes but so far we’re lucky that we haven’t had to advertise; all our work comes through recommendations. We’ve also just been nominated for Plasterer of the Year for this year’s On The Tools Awards, which we never saw coming and are so shocked about – but we’re down to the final two.
Unfortunately, we’re yet to see another woman on site so recently we brought a woman who wants to learn about plastering onto our jobs. There’s more support out there than you’d think there would be – especially on Instagram. We talk to a lot of tradeswomen daily via DMs and, like many of them, we want to help spread the message and encourage more women into manual trades. If you’re interested, go for it – there’s nothing to lose and loads to gain, including proving (some) people wrong.
The Apprentice Electrician
Naomi Singer, 26, from London, is a Level 2 apprentice electrician working with A.Nissin Electrics
"I’ve always loved technology and gadgets but I didn’t fancy going into something like IT and working behind a desk. My grandpa owned an alarm company in Suffolk so at 23, after being a personal trainer for four years, I said to my mum: "What would you say if I switched jobs and became an electrician?" and she replied: "I think you’re mad – but this could be the best idea you’ve ever had."
I started self-funding my training, attending three evening classes a week at Southgate College. Then, in November 2017, my neighbour introduced me to his electrician who ran a business with his brother. We chatted about my career change and he asked if I wanted to shadow him for a few days. I jumped at the chance and after my first day, he offered to take me on full-time. I felt really lucky, especially as it was so early on in my training.
But when the guys were cutting their days short in order to get me back in time for college, they suggested I come on as an official apprentice via the government’s scheme. It meant they’d contribute 10% of the training and assessing costs (including my wages), and the government would fund the remaining 90% until I completed my apprenticeship.
I’m quite loud on site but, being 4ft 9, I have to make sure I’m seen: I’ve been whacked in the head by someone carrying a plank of wood before.
Now I study one day a week at West Herts College and work four days with the guys on residential and commercial jobs. It’s surreal being a mature student – most of the apprentices have just done their GCSEs – but I’ll finish my Level 3 this year, and after passing two further exams, I can go off and do my own jobs. The long-term goal is to run my own electrical business.
Sometimes I’ll walk on site and if there’s a load of builders, it can be intimidating. In general, the men are great – they see me grafting and being technical and are really encouraging – but then you meet an old-school arsehole who thinks this isn’t a women's sector and doubts your expertise and strength. Once, during a loft extension job, a builder said to me: "What are YOU doing here?" I like to think those attitudes will get stamped out as the next generation of tradesmen learn alongside women like me, but we’ve got a long way to go. I’m yet to meet another female electrician.
Sexism aside, I absolutely love my job. My specialism seems to be lighting; I’m the spotlight queen and I enjoy the banter with the boys. I’m quite loud on site but, being 4ft 9, I have to make sure I’m seen: I’ve been whacked in the head by someone carrying a plank of wood before. I thought my height was going to be a disadvantage but it’s a bonus when you need to get under houses or fit your arm in a hole to find a cable. I find restaurant jobs the most stressful as they’re on a tight timeframe and you have to concentrate in a hectic environment and keep your tools on you the whole time. Sometimes I think I don’t know what I’m doing but being an electrician isn’t rocket science – it’s all about how you execute the task.
When I turn up to a job, clients – especially the women – are always amazed to see me but they also say how great it is to see a female electrician, and that keeps me motivated. It might still be a niche but it feels like an exciting time right now as more of us are breaking the stereotypes of these manual trades. I really hope that one day, what I do for a living will be the norm, not a surprise.