Two trailblazers of women in plumbing: a conversation

The following is a transcript of an interview of two women plumbers on the  BBC World Service programme, The Conversation, hosted by Kim Chakanetsa. Hattie Hasan, a UK owner of Stopcocks Women Plumbers Franchise, and Judalinne Cassidy, a plumber in New York City, speak frankly about what it’s like to be a woman in the trade, whether in America or the UK.

This interview can be heard on the iPlayer by clicking here.

Presenter/Interviewer: Kim Chakanetsa

Guests:   Hattie Hasan (HH), owner of Stopcocks based in the UK (@Stopcocks )

                 Judaline Cassidy (JC), a plumber operating in New York City (@judaline6)

Interviewer: Welcome to The Conversation, the program about how women are redefining their place in the world.

Picture a plumber and you are probably envisioning a hulking man with a giant tool belt tinkering with the pipes in your kitchen or bathroom. And that image is partly accurate because plumbing is still very much a man’s world. But today on The Conversation you hear from two women that are passionate about plumbing, but why the profession remains so stubbornly male and how they are working to bring more women and girls into the trade.

Hattie Hasan has been a plumber for nearly thirty years. She started a network of female plumbers in the UK that has since become a franchise business trading under the name Stopcocks.

Judaline Cassidy has worked on the pipes in some of New York’s most iconic buildings in a career that spans two decades. Judaline is also the founder of ‘Tools and Tiaras’, an organisation dedicated to introducing young women and girls to trade professions. She is originally from Trinidad and Tobago.

Why has the plumbing industry remained so obstinately male when great strides have been made for women in other traditionally male industries – Hattie.

HH: It’s a very difficult question to answer because if you ask a male plumber, he will say ‘What’s the problem’, ‘Why do you have to say you’re a woman plumber’. I think they need to see the problem so that they can begin to address it rather than waiting for us as women in the industry, already as a tiny minority, fighting against the tide all the time. That’s a problem that we face.

JC: I think part of the problem is visibility. So as a young girl watching the television, or going to the movies, and there is a scene with a plumber or a commercial, they never use a woman in these roles. So you can’t be it if you don’t see it.

HH: Absolutely

JC: So I really believe we have to change that and I challenge people all the time when I speak to say, why can’t you envision a woman in that role in your movie that has a scene with a plumber. Why it has to be the guy with the crack, so I think that’s part of it. I also believe that a huge part is actually in the schools. Girls don’t tend to sign up, but a lot of guys, don’t tend to sign up for plumbing because society and the media and everything everybody always shows plumbers as beneath them and that is part of the things that need to change.

Interviewer: So Hattie when you decided to get into the field, why plumbing?

HH: Not the usual route. I was 27 when I was teaching and became a plumber. I wanted to do something with my hands I knew it was going to be a trade but I didn’t know which one. I thought about it for a bit and actually harked back to my schooldays. I went to the school in the 70s when I wasn’t allowed to do the subjects I wanted to do. I wanted to do engineering I wanted to do metal work. They wouldn’t allow me to do that. They said you are a girl, those subjects are for boys. You have to choose between cookery or needlework and all those things. Very traditional. So when I had the choice and I started thinking what I really wanted to do I remembered that I wanted to do engineering and I remembered that I wanted to do metal work. I have a great affinity with water, I am a water baby I love water. Plus it is the stuff of life isn’t it. And so when you put all those things together, it had to be plumbing. And as soon as  I started, immediately, the first minute I knew I had made the right decision.

Interviewer: Judaline, What compelled you to get into plumbing?

JC  So I originally grew up by thinking I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to be Wonder Woman. I grew up with my great grandmother, so after I finished secondary school I couldn’t afford to go to Law school like I wanted, because my grandmother passed away. The trades was the next best option. And similar to Hattie in school I actually ended up doing the boys classes because I was not good at the things she says, culinary all those things. So I was put into technical drawing, the stuff that the boys did. I was kicked out of typing I still cannot type. So I think in secondary school I was kind of already like in the trades although I didn’t know it, so I decided to apply for electrical or plumbing and in my mind I figured that electrical you get shocked, plumbing you get wet, plumbing here I come. And just like Hattie I almost instantly fell in love with it because it works to my strengths, I love using my hands, I love solving puzzles and plumbing is one of the biggest puzzles there is. It just works to the strengths that I have.

HH: And don’t you love water, don’t you love the autonomy, that it wants to do what it wants to do. To be able to control it is amazing, to get it to do the things you want it to do – it’s amazing

Interviewer: Judaline, you  trained at Trinidad and Tobago how did people respond to you as a trainee?

JC:  I was one of the first 3 women to actually get into the plumbing class. It was actually ok with the guys really took us on and they were ok with us being there. Fast forward I left Trinidad and Tobago and I came to the US. I didn’t get a job as a plumber right away. I worked as a babysitter, a nanny, a housekeeper, and my neighbour actually remembered that I did plumbing and I kind of got into it like that. But the passion and the joy, and the love of it really keeps me going.

Interviewer: I want to talk about all that, but Hattie, what were your experiences as a trainee?

HH: I started training in 1990. I was the only female trainee in the entire College. It was a building college so they didn’t have facilities for female students and I had to use the staff toilets.

There were calendars on the wall of naked women, all of that kind of thing, and I found myself saying to a tutor, look I’m not actually offended by this but if you want to attract more women you are going to have to do something about it. How do you think I feel coming in every day and seeing those pictures and all the boys here – because most of them were younger than me because I was 27 – all the boys knowing I’ve got some of those  under my t-shirt. And I just put it straight out there because I thought if you pussyfoot around they don’t get the message. So I put it straight out there. The next week when I went into college the calendars were gone.

Interviewer: And once you were done how hard was it to find a job?

HH: It was impossible to find a job. I didn’t find a job. I never had a job as a plumber. I immediately went into self-employment. I sent out a lot of CVs. 500 CVs.

Interviewer: 500 CVs? What did people say to you?

HH: Well they didn’t bother getting back to me.

Interviewer: At all?

HH: No, not at all. No. I followed up with phone calls. Remember back in the 90s there was no email and I would phone up and a lot of the people I spoke to would say things like, ‘are you ringing up for your husband’ and I would say ‘no I am ringing up for myself’ they would say there were no vacancies. So it was like that. It was constantly like that and I was like, well if nobody is going to employ me, I’ll employ myself.

Interviewer: And Judaline, in New York, how was that for you?

JC: My neighbour helped me get into that company. I’m a union plumber so it’s a little different.

Interviewer: Can you explain that to me – what does that mean?

JC: So when you’re a union plumber, the Union bargains your wages and get your jobs for you and you go to school for five years and you learn the craft well. You work on other job sites. So it is called Earn While You Learn. So during your apprenticeship, woman here in New York City that are part of the Union they tend to work. So it is after you journey out, it’s called becoming a journeyman or journey person, that’s when the difficulties for women to actually find employment begin. The great thing about being in a union, especially for women and why I advocate for it, being a black woman, immigrant woman with an accent in New York City, I get the same pay being 4 foot 11 and 7/8 as the guy who is 6 feet. So I don’t get 65 cents on the dollar as most black women get in comparison to a white male. Being part of a union, I get the exact same wage.

Interviewer: And, Hattie, can I ask about the pay, because there are also different things that I hear that it is a very lucrative profession, some say it’s not. What’s the truth?

HH: It can be very lucrative, particularly if you’re self employed, because we are very much in demand, and if you’re good, people will wait for you.

Interviewer: So in terms of money, can you give us a sense of how much you charge per hour?

HH: Well, Because we’ve got plumbers around the country, the rates are different. But in London, our London plumber charges £88 per hour.

Interviewer: So that is about $110 or thereabouts. Judaline, how does that compare with New York.

JC: As a plumber in New York City you can make over $130,000 a year. With the full package it’s about $100 an hour which will include medical benefits and the whole enchilada. So the take home in your envelope that you see is $72 an hour. So it is very lucrative plumbers are more demand than a lawyer. You will need a plumber much sooner than you will need a lawyer.

Interviewer: The job itself, what does it entail? Hattie, are you installing, repairing, unblocking ­– what are you doing?

HH: Unblocking is actually very minor I’m happy to say a very minor part of the job. Whenever anyone thinks about a plumber they think about a plunger in a toilet. We don’t do that most of the time. Most of the time we are repairing leaks and drips or installing heating systems and bathrooms and I am now, now that i am getting on a bit, I am moving more towards repairing boilers and heating systems, diagnosis and doing a lot of mentoring.

Interviewer: Judaline, I know that Hattie said blockages account for a very small part of the work you do. What are the main reasons that things get blocked?

JC: Because everybody now decided to use those wet wipes, and they actually are the worst thing for the sewer system, if you use it you should put it in the garbage, not the sewer system. So that is one of the big things. And people put feminine products in there, and you really shouldn’t do it. And really it’s 0% of what I do.

I work in brand new high rise buildings, in hospitals, schools, hotels. People don’t know that when you go to the hospital and you’re having surgery, all of those lines were done by plumbers, the vacuum, the air, the medical gas, that’s all done by plumbers.

HH: dentistry as well. It’s everything — we are everywhere.

JC: We protect the health of the nation.

Interviewer: I’m still going to stay on this line of questioning a little bit more. What was the worst job, Hattie, that you ever had to do?

Hattie: Obviously it has got to do with human waste products. There is something called a macerator. It’s basically a box with a blade inside that when you do your business it goes into this box and is smashed up buy blades and then pumped up so that it can drop down into a sewer.

Interviewer: Where would you find it?

Hattie: You would find it for example in a building where the bathroom facilities are in the basement and there are no drains and you have to pump the stuff up. Those things, they’re terrible, they’re absolutely terrible, especially if anybody uses a feminine product like a tampon because they go into the blade and they get stuck around the blade and then the thing doesn’t work. The only way to fix it is to take it out and open it and clean it and put it back together. That’s the only way. Those are the worst – that’s the worst and I try not to do it. I try to be too busy if I get the a call.

Interviewer: Judaline, can you match that?

JC: No. The worst is like you said – it always has to do with fecal matter. My nose is very sensitive, so tying into the New York City sewer, to tie a building into the sewer system, that was the worst, and the minute it comes up, the scent just hits you like somebody just slapped you in your face, like, Hey! Boom! I just started barfing.

Interviewer: So you started vomiting?

JC: Yeah. Even in my own house, I would pay a plumber to do my septic tank.

Interviewer: Now, Judaline, you have worked on some of the most iconic buildings in New York. How does it feel for you when you work across the city?

JC: That’s the amazing part of it. I can walk all around New York City and know that people are benefiting from the amazing plumbing that I did. So when I walk past the United Nations, I know that the delegates are getting hot water because I worked on the hot water unit. It just gives you the sense of pride that you know that you are helping build a city and keep the city going. It’s an amazing feeling.

Interviewer: Hattie, in terms of sexism, how has the industry changed since you first entered it 30 years ago?

HH:  I think it has changed, that’s the first thing to say. There is still a million miles to go, but it has changed. I have been banging on about women getting into plumbing for most of my career. But in the last couple of years we have been able to galvanise industry into helping us to put on events where we can gather women installers together.

We have done two conferences, and both of those were free for the delegates to attend, and they were both possible because we have managed to get ourselves noticed in the industry and there is a bit of a sea-change happening within the industry. I think a lot of that has got to do with women entering companies, both manufacturers and suppliers, at higher levels. When I speak to a marketing person it’s usually a woman. And they will be wanting their company to support women who are on the chalk face and on the ground level.

In this country we’ve got 100,000 Gas Safe registered engineers, but only 500 of them are women. So that’s like 0.05%. By doing all the things that we are doing and by what my company does, which is create self-employed women plumbers, they’re visible and we are working towards making that normal.

Interviewer: Judaline, what sort of issues have you faced working in this industry as a woman?

JC: It’s difficult sometimes because, being a black woman, sometimes we don’t get the opportunities to actually be leaders or be a foreman or a foreperson. That’s still very difficult. That’s one of the reasons I would love to open my own company to have women be leaders and to have their own destiny.

Even though I have built a reputation for myself –  lot of the men know that I’m a really good plumber – they would still say the things about women – [and qualify those remarks by saying to me] ‘But you’re not like that, you are different.’ Because now they see me as one of them – they just see me as a plumber, but they still view other women plumbers as a woman, so that is where the disconnect is. I really work hard to teach them in that if I’m ok then she [any other woman plumber] will be ok too. Just give her a chance in my union – we have 6000 plumbers and we only have 86 women.

Interviewer: Can you give us some examples of sexism you have experienced on the job?

JC: So it’s a little different working in a big construction site. As a woman you would be relegated to doing the menial tasks like fire stopping, chopping, the stuff that needs to get done, but as a woman they would put you on that so you don’t have the opportunity to really learn the craft.

So those things happened to me.

Or they will send you for fittings. ‘Go get a Y’, ‘go get an elbow’, stuff that they need, but just to make you go back and forth so that you couldn’t learn. They would do something like that. But I found ways to get around that, like if they sent me to get something and told me to get one elbow, I would get 3. But not tell them I have 3. So when they try to send me again, I’m like ‘hey, it’s over here’. So that is where the struggle is on a big construction site. You can get lost.

Interviewer: Judaline, was there ever a sense that you weren’t strong enough to be doing the jobs that you were doing?

JC: They probably – when they look at me they see this little frame of 4 foot 11 and 7/8 – you might assume. But even up yesterday, guys see me do the cast iron and cut it and snap it and they say ‘wow you are very strong’ and nobody messes with me. So I never had that problem about my strengths. It’s more sometimes – it’s more about the intellect, of thinking that women cannot handle [plumbing knowledge] that used to be the problem.

HH: Yeah. I’ve got some hair curling stories. This happened last year – not to me but to one of our plumbers. You have to do a certain number of hours to do your gas qualification, you need to do a certain number of hours with a journeyman, a journey person. She did some of hers with me and she did some of hers with another couple of Gas Safe registered plumber guys. You do the work, you take the photographs, you do the citation, and whoever your mentor was would sign it off. I signed off mine and she took to [a male plumber] to sign off work she had done for him, and he said, ‘if I can touch you I will sign off your work’. And she obviously didn’t let him. Phoned me up immediately and said this has happened. And I advised her to go to her college you’ve got to tell them.

But she handled it better than that. She went to the pub where he was drinking and his wife was there and she took the work there and she said ‘I brought this for you to sign’, and obviously because his wife was there he just meekly signed the paperwork. That was last year.

I’ve got stories of women who go out with men to get their experience and the man will expose himself in the van. Terrible stories. Horrible stories. And I don’t know how many stories like that it’s going to take for certain men to realise that those things put women off.

Interviewer: Judaline, some real horror stories from Hattie here. What is the best way to respond to sexist comments or people exposing themselves?

JC: I know earlier in my career I had stories like that. Like I had a guy who wanted me to give a pair of my underwear to him – stuff like that. But it changed when I started carrying myself differently. I walk around like I own everything, like this is my space and I belong here. As soon as I started doing that, physically my body changed, and the way I carry myself, my space has changed so I don’t have those sexual harassment comments. But for me what works now when people, the men, do the mansplaining and they do their little sexism, I use humour, so by using the thing that they use, I tend to use humour to produce the situation that could otherwise have been explosive.

Interviewer: Do you think the onus should be on women to change their behaviour?

JC: They should change their behaviour, but I believe as a woman that it doesn’t matter what space you’re in, I believe you should just own it.

Interviewer: You have both been trying to get more women in the industry and supporting them. Judaline, what made you start your non-profit Tools and Tiaras?

JC: I wanted to do this non-profit for a long time but I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Because I still work as a full-time plumber, but the universe kept pushing things, saying you have to do it, because I didn’t want any other girl to feel like she was not enough or she was not capable of doing the things she wanted to do as a little girl. That’s how I felt. Not having that confidence. And the moment that you own that power of, like, wow I am really an awesome plumber, I’m a plumbing goddess, the moment of that feeling, I wanted to pass that on to little girls and let them know that there is nothing more empowering than working with your hands and knowing you have mastered the tools, so I wanted to pass on pass that on.

Interviewer: What kind of work do you do in your workshop?

JC: What we do is expose, inspire and mentor young girls and women about construction. We have monthly workshops all over New York City and plumbing, electrical, sheet metal, carpentry, and the beauty of this is that it all taught by women. And we actually just had our first all-girls construction skills camp for a week, and we teach little girls from 6 years old to solder. I had 6-year-old girls soldering. You ask them what shop they like best and the little girls say plumbing. One said it was because she got to work with fire. And then the other little girls using the tools like the chop saw and the drills so at camp I would refer them as my Princess Warriors so we create a whole generation of Can-Do Princess Warriors.

Interviewer: Hattie, you founded a network of female plumbers called Stopcocks. What was its initial aim?

HH: Initially it was because I was the only woman in my college, and then I was planning pretty much being isolated as a female plumber, and I wondered if there are any more out there. Every time I went into a new town, I would go to the library and I would get the Yellow Pages and I would go to the plumber’s section and I would look at the names to look to see if any of them sounded female. So I manually collected people first of all and contacted them. Because I just wanted to end my own isolation I suppose, And hear some of their stories and see if their experiences were different to mine. But I found their experiences were exactly the same as mine. As soon as the onset of the internet and all of that, I got myself a website and I was very aware of women feeling like they were not worthy of being able to earn the same amount of money as a man.

It was very important to me that Stopcocks operated not as a not-for-profit, but as a business and as a lucrative business to show other women they could own a lucrative business themselves. So it’s started off as a network and it grew into what it is now, which is the franchise.

Interviewer: Judaline, what is the most important thing for women thinking of entering the industry?

JC: I really believe the most important thing is to just go for it. That’s first. Just go for it and step on the other side of fear and then really find your self a network of people. I think that’s what I’ve been doing and it’s been helping a lot of the younger women.  Find a mentor and find someone on the days that are going to get difficult and dark, as they are going to get difficult with being a woman in the trade – you have somebody to talk to and know that if they can do it you can definitely do it. If Judaline can do it and Hattie can do it, you can do it and it will change your lifestyle. Especially if you are a single mum – that pay that you will be able to have from being a plumber could be a generational change, so go for it. And don’t believe the hype that you have to have a certain amount of strength or anything like that. But make sure you have the grit, moxie and tenacity that nothing is going to stop you because you must have your compass as your driving force. For me it’s always been the dead presidents, just being real, and I love the money and the fact that I love what I do, so that keeps me going. So just go for it.

HH: Yep, 100% I totally agree with all of that. I’m not anything special. I just wanted to do it and I went and did it. Any woman who wants to be a plumber, a girl who wants to be a plumber, should be able to be one.

Interviewer: Hattie and Judaline, thank you so much for coming on The Conversation.


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