WITH her sleeves rolled up, standing at the sink turning on and off the tap, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hana Kubacoba was at home in her kitchen washing dishes.
But Hana is not washing dishes. She is a self-employed plumber, fixing a faulty knob on a tap. A woman plumber? Yes – and she’s incredibly proud of it. An ambassador for the female tradesperson you might say.
“There is a huge, huge section of the market that actually prefer a woman,” she says.
“And also there are people who just want a good plumber. But they don’t mind if it’s a man or a woman.”
Hana, 33, originally from the Czech Republic, has been plumbing for four years having started out in psychology. She studied in Manchester and ended up working in mental health, never thinking that a trade job would be something she could do as a job.
“When I was young, I was always fixing things with my dad,” Hana recalls.
“Ever since I was a child I wanted to have a work table with a vice where I could just work and make things.
“But it was never offered to me that I could be doing that, or learn something practical and make a living that way.”
Perhaps that’s why only 10 per cent of the female workforce in the UK are in the skilled trades industry.
Hana says while it may not be a job girls want to do, having the option offered at a young age could be the difference: “If it’s not offered then they don’t get that opportunity to do something they could be good at.”
This is something Professor Haifa Takruri, a lecturer in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) at the University of Salford, agrees with.
The professor (pictured below), who received an MBE for her services to ‘Women, Black and Minority Ethnic people in SET Education’ in 2009, says:
“When I started my lecturing job here at Salford I was standing in front of a class of 150 students and I look in the lecture theatre – there is this one girl in the front row.”
Having done a lot of research on the lack of women in the SET industry, the lecturer has started many initiatives to change this. She visits schools, delivers lectures and organises summer camps for girls to encourage them into the sector.
“I think with new generations and awareness of parents, awareness of schools, of career teachers,” Takruri reflects.
“Slowly it’s moving towards the right direction. You’ll find more girls wanting to do more science and engineering.”
But unfortunately, she does feel that while the number studying in the field is increasing, it’s not necessarily an industry they want to stay in. Perhaps that’s why there are still only 21 per cent of women in this industry.
“More girls are going into SET but the industry is putting them off staying in it,” says the professor.
“We see many women entering the industry and because of the culture and workplace practices they decide to leave.”
She adds that because it was an industry “created by men for men”, how women would fit in wasn’t taken into consideration.
One woman who is just starting her career in Information Technology (IT) is Lizzy Hamer.
Lizzy, 22, is a graduate of the University of Manchester and now travels around the country working for a global IT company as a Technology Solutions Specialist.
She feels the number of women in the industry is increasing but they are still a minority – and with less than 20 per cent of women in the global IT workforce, it would seem there’s still a way to go.
However, for Lizzy, being a woman is a way of standing out when applying for a job in this field: “I was definitely treated fairly and I think in a way you can use it to work in your favour.
“If there aren’t many women applying for the same job, it can help you get noticed. It can help you stand out a bit more.”
Like Professor Takruri, Lizzy is someone who was encouraged at school and university to continue studying and carving out a career where there aren’t many women.
She doesn’t see the gender issue getting in her way of progressing either: “You have to deal with the fact that sometimes you are surrounded by more males than females.
“But I would say that in terms of once you get into the industry, into that position, I wouldn’t say there are any barriers as such in how you can move forward.”
Lizzy doesn’t just leave being in the so-called ‘man’s world’ from Monday to Friday – she also plays football with men at the weekend.
She used to play for Rochdale AFC women’s team in Manchester but because of frequent travel with work, she couldn’t commit as much. However, she didn’t want to stop it completely so she now plays five-a-side with her dad and his friends on Saturdays.
Smiling, remembering when she first started playing with them, she says: “They probably did treat me a little differently because I was a girl playing.
“I think though once you can prove to them you can play football and earn your place, it changes. Now they treat me like everyone else on the pitch.”
Even Hana says that when she was studying to be a plumber, she didn’t have any problems with being the only female in the class: “It is a very ‘blokey’ environment but what I found was that all the men I came across on the course didn’t make a fuss that I was the only girl on the course.”
Laughing, she adds: “You know they didn’t stop swearing or anything like that because I was there!”
So possibly there is no issue with what is an assumption in life; that there is a negative male attitude with women working in male-dominated jobs. Maybe it’s a society issue.
From her research, Professor Takruri thinks the reason can be from when we are all born.
“The colour of clothes, the toys – these are for girls, these are for boys,” she says gesturing to both sides of the room we’re in, “when they go to school, again it’s girls play in the ‘home’ corner, boys play with machine guns or action men. It’s sort of the gendering of everything really.”
Another point each of the women make is that inspiring from ‘the top, down’ is essential for getting women into these particular industries.
Lizzy had encouragement at school and university and Professor Takruri is using her senior and influential position to motivate young people to get into SET. But what about the most male-dominated career of trade?
Hana’s partner, Joana, joins us as we talk about this very topic. She makes the plumber blush as she boasts about how inspiring her girlfriend is, allowing other women to work with her for experience.
“She has provided a safe environment for women to come and try these things out,” beams Joana, “doing a bit of plumbing or DIY, and Hana has given them an opportunity.
“She has taken on a few helpers and delivered workshops around Manchester on, for example, how to drill into bricks. It’s powerful.”
“I have a few friends that have also started jobs in the trades – a washing-machine repair-woman,” she chuckles, “also a person who used to have a business as a translator and is now a tiler.”
She also mentions another woman who was training to be an electrician when she was at college and a number of female painter and decorators she knows.
It almost sounds like they have their own gang and they’re going to take over the world. It’s not a bad goal to have.
Indeed, it’s never been an industry that’s had a big portion of female workers, so it has some way to go before that 10 per cent of tradeswomen grows.
Joana feels that with more people like Hana this could change in the future: “Trying to inspire from the top. Maybe that’s what’s missing in the trade industry. She’s (Hana) a pioneer, has her own business and takes pride in her work. She sets the standard for plumbers in the area.”
On that point, Hana admits that where she lives could have a lot to do with how well she is doing in her career. There are stay-at-home dads whose wives are at work and residents that are “open to people who are different.”
With a grin, and maybe feeling lucky to be where she is, she says: “It’s not a very gender stereotypical area. I don’t get judged and I get plenty of work.”
Without wanting to brag, she shyly adds: “It’s so easy to be a good plumber because plumbers have a bad reputation. Turn up for your job, do it well, charge accurately, add a bit of person to person skills and that’s it.”
And being humble helps Hana too.
By: Siobhan Maguire