WIT conversation – Women, the skills gap and moving the industry forward

The third annual Women Installers Together (WIT) conference is set to take place on 4 July in London at The Building Center. Hattie Hasan, the founder of Stopcocks Women Plumbers, established the WIT conference in a bid to rise the profile of women in the trade and provide a space for women’s voices. 

What follows is a conversation between Hattie and Becky Appleyard-Kelly, Channel Marketing Manager at Polypipe, the event partner of the conference for the third year running. 

Hattie: Why have Polypipe decided to champion women installers and engineers?

Becky: I think the lack of women in the plumbing and heating industry affects all of us in it, and this conference is the only thing taking steps to encourage women to enter and stay in it, in a measurable way.

Why is having more women in the industry is a good thing? The average age of a plumber in the UK is 56 so we’re heading towards a skills gap. There’s going to be far more demand for plumbers than there are plumbers available. The industry would benefit from having more dedicated, skilled qualified individuals and women are the biggest untapped resource for new recruits.

According to the last UK census, 51% of the population is female, so we have this huge swathe of the population that is currently unutilised in our industry.

Hattie: The other day I was on a discussion panel with someone from JTL Training, which has 300 trainees through its doors every year. We asked how many of them are female this time around, and she said none.

Becky: Wow, that’s like last year you asked Gas Safe how many registered installers are women and they estimated that out of 100,000 registered gas engineers only 500 are women.

If that’s replicated across the industry like it looks as though it is, that’s quite a poor state of affairs.

Hattie: I’ve got to say that the panel and whole audience was very receptive to our discussion.

One of the things I want us to talk about is about  the mental health state of the industry. I wonder if you can address that in any way.

The state of the mental health of the industry is pretty bad and suicide is very high in this industry. One of the things we believe is that to improve the industry to encourage women in it would be just as good for the men in it.

Becky: I think that holds true for almost every industry. I think a far better route for development is to have a better representation of the people you’re serving.

To borrow an example from another sector – construction – when more female architects were recruited into city design, they suddenly found that the cities being developed were a lot more accessible! Bigger parking spaces, more ramps, fewer stairs so women with small children who navigated these spaces more because they could get their children out of cars, push buggies around and this also increased the use of the spaces by disabled people and the elderly who’d been unable to use them! The women were addressing problems the designers didn’t know they had. Without that female perspective, they didn’t know there was a problem to address.

Hattie: That’s something Monument Tools said on the panel the other day, that when they started talking to women about their tools and using tools they started realising that all tools were designed for men.

They found that when they adapted tools for women to use more easily, men found them easier to use too. So that was something they didn’t even realise was an issue until they talked to female installers at WIT last year who had that input.

That leads on to policies. Where are Polypipe on policies?

Becky: We’re one step removed, but we have some similar problems in that we need skilled individuals to come into our industry and work on developing the products we’re making.

Within Polypipe we have an equality and diversity policy designed to ensure people are treated as individuals, not by any other defining characteristic. Our pay policy is designed to give equal pay for equal work and because we’re a FTSE 250 company, we’re required by law to produce a pay report every year which gives us a baseline to monitor improvements and set specific targets for improving and reducing gaps – we improved on last year but we still have a way to go.

The reality is we’re a 40 year old company working in construction.

The bulk of our staff have been with us a long time, often 20-30 years, and people have progressed through the business into Director and Executive roles, so we’re currently very male-heavy at the top, but we’ve had big strides in that recently. In the last two years we’ve appointed two female directors and we have our first external female sales staff who’ve gone out  on the road in the last two years. Our office and operational staff are much closer to gender parity.

Polypipe is absolutely typical of a construction industry company, but the fact that we’re being required to measure and set goals for improvement I think is only a good thing.

Hattie: Yeah. I think that you’re underselling the company a bit. I think that Polypipe are forward thinking and ahead of the curve.

Becky: Thank you, I think we’re a step ahead in that we recognise that we need to do better. I think some companies might have their heads in the sand, but they reflect an industry that’s predominantly male. Recognising that and saying it needs to be different, they’re different things.

Just a step removed from plumbing and heating, we have a leadership and development team at Polypipe who do a lot of work with schools, so we have a STEM outreach programme and we attend Big Bang Science Fairs, we are very much trying to talk to the next generation about what a career in plumbing or engineering or heating can hold for them.

Hattie: Since you’re a manufacturer I wondered if there is anything in the design regarding the products you make, innovations there. I have used many of your products and the ones I use are very compatible with my hand size.

I just brought that up, thinking about Monument redesigning some of their tools, I wondered if there’s room or need for that in product development?

Becky: In terms of plumbing and heating, we’re  limited by the UK standard sizings that we have to make everything in. In terms of making products simple to use and quick use, user friendliness is always at the centre of our product design, we always want them to be easy to use, quick and secure so you can move quickly on to your next job.

That being said I don’t think it’s ever been asked ‘would this be easy for a woman to use?’ when products are designed.

I don’t know whether it needs to be part of our conversation going forward – it’s absolutely up for discussion.

Hattie: I only just thought about it. On the stand, the new bottle trap, I found that really easy to use and have used it.

Becky: Well fantastic! Having something there that takes away the need for hand-eye coordination, because when you’re under a sink you often can’t see what you’re doing. But the feedback has been some like it and some don’t, but it depends what kind of a system you’re using. That’s why we made it removable if you want to, there’s no need to cut it out. It’s to fit the job in front of you.

Hattie: I  love the flexibility of one thing that’s able to do more than one thing.

Let’s get back to  the event.

We’ve got a brilliant speaker provided by yourselves, Maggie Alphonsi, who we’re very excited about.

I wondered what you feel a speaker from Rugby can bring to the event?

Becky: We looked at a few speakers but Maggie stood head and shoulders above the rest, to be the first female pundit on rugby on TV, she’s clearing hurdles, smashing ceilings and she’s doing it in a sport that’s traditionally claimed and watched by men, so the transfer to plumbing and heating was quite clear us. To break into and wildly succeed in an industry that’s not designed for you, there are lessons we can all learn there, and then to forge a second career in an industry that was similarly male dominated. I think she’s going to be a real inspiration story!

Hattie: We can’t wait to meet her. We changed our agenda around so we could accommodate her because we really wanted to hear her. She’s since been in contact and says she’s really looking forward to the event, so that’s really wonderful.

I’m wondering, Becky, have you noticed anything since we started the conference that’s changed in the industry and perhaps, attitudes changing? What advice would you give women who want to enter the industry?

Becky: I think there’s been an awful lot more attention by the editors of the trade magazines.

When we first started it was a bit untried and untested to put this concept forward and no one was really sure what it meant. But now with two successful years under your belt and the third coming up the editors really understand better what we’re trying to achieve, it’s not to the exclusion of men, it’s not a bra burning exercise. It’s very much ‘we’re here, we’re working in it, we need you to consider our wants and needs’, which is what you’re asking really.

What I found really interesting from the event last year was hearing the five minutes of fame – people stood up and told us their personal stories and journeys of getting where they were and I’m really excited about the round tables that are going to be part of the event and I’m really interested to hear more of those stories and to see if we can draw out the common themes.

The one that struck me last year was the lady who’d worked on a construction site and had to highlight to her employers that there weren’t separate shower facilities. Which meant that she had to lock the door, to prevent the men coming in and changing at the same time which angered them because they wanted to get on and get off the site. A pretty hostile working environment to be honest*. Probably just overlooked because there generally aren’t women working on those sites. If we can draw out themes like that we could create out a voluntary code of conduct for situations like that. I think it’d be great.

Advice for women wanting to enter the industry, I know it can be challenging. It’s a technical, skilled career and there are certain qualifications you need to do it, but the rewards are almost limitless. You can choose your own hours, your rates of pay, you can specialise in something quite niche or be a master of lots of services.

I mean how often do you get to shape a career to suit you and really provide actual benefit to the people you’re servicing?

Hattie: I couldn’t have put it better myself!

So thank you for that.

So, I had one last thing, I want to say thank you to you personally for being our main support from Polypipe, it’s been fantastic having you on our team.

I don’t know if you know but Monument Tools have committed to three years of sponsoring the WIT event and that means that for the next two years at least we know we can run the event which will bring us to five years!

We’ve been approached by many people in the last few days asking how they can contribute towards this sea change and I actually wrote to some companies and I want to express a personal thank you. Because without you and I’m going to name Vaillant as well for taking the chance and backing this movement when it was just an idea, without you we may well have been looking at a very different landscape.

I want to express my personal thanks and just acknowledge the difference that we’re all making.

Becky: Well thank you, it’s been really rewarding to see it take on a life of its own as it’s grown beyond us year on year and we keep having to rise to the challenge to make sure we’re worthy of the event. It’s been a privilege to be part of it from the beginning.

Thank you.

*which lead to her employers employing a security guard to guard the door,  which can’t have been pleasant or economic

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