Preview Article: Women At Work

Why would a woman want to take on trade work in fields traditionally left up to males? Why do some clients specifically seek out female tradies and what do men think of women working in their domain? Janice Ryan meets two women who have the answers…

Penny Holyoak laughs (well, maybe it’s a well-meaning little snort) when asked why someone would call a woman rather than man for a maintenance job.

“Well, a woman listens, for a start,” says Penny. “I think a lot of people, particularly women, are a bit sick of calling in a tradesman and not getting the job done the way they want because the guy didn’t really listen. People are often surprised to find that they got what they actually wanted when I do the job because so often in the past, that hasn’t been their experience. I’m also really fussy about cleaning up after the job – that’s probably a female thing too. And I turn up when I say I will!”

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Penny is a member of Women In Trades & Services, an organisation formed in 1997 to help promote and support women who work in trades and non-traditional employment. Members include women working in everything from architecture to woodwork. It is one of several organisations around Australia targeting clients who would prefer to deal with a female. Penny says she finds that elderly people or women who are at home alone often feel safer with a female tradesperson but there are also clients who just consider that they will get a better service from a woman.

Penny runs her own maintenance business and now has a large contract with a local council in Melbourne, providing services to the elderly or the disabled living at home. She is also the maintenance person for a local women’s refuge. Between the two, she still accepts some private work, but “has become a bit smarter about working myself to death on weekends” – these days she keeps a better balance between work and play.

So where did she get the skills to be able to offer her services as a professional? Always a tomboy, Penny could be found most days hanging around her father in his workshop. “Both my parents were good with their hands. My sisters went the traditional way – more interested in craft and girly things – but I loved making stuff with wood and fixing things.” After stints as a postie, a bus driver, a band member and working in a women’s prison, she realised that most of her spare time was being spent helping friends with building and maintenance projects. “I thought, blow this, I may as well be getting paid for it.”

Penny won the National Association of Women in Construction Award in 2002 and is now on the judging panel, a position she enjoys as it makes a contribution to the recognition of women in trades. She also holds workshops in repairs and maintenance to encourage women to tackle jobs around the home themselves.

Women@Work Painters advertise themselves as 98.5% testosterone free, which according to owner, Avril Southon, says it all.

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Caption: Penny and trusty workmate, Jack

“Clients who come to us have often had a bad experience with painters and just don’t want to go down that path again. There are a lot of cowboys out there in the painting business with no qualifications and no business ethics. They provide shoddy work, are rude and intimidating, leave the job unfinished for days or even weeks on end and leave a trail of mess behind them.”

Avril still rolls up her sleeves occasionally to help out on a job, but mostly her day is spent quoting and organising her staff of eight or nine women painters. The business was established in 1996 with the mission to ‘provide an all-women service to clients which is punctual, reliable, respectful and professional’.

Avril says her biggest challenge is finding suitable women painters and sometimes has to call on trusted members of the opposite sex to keep up with the work. “You have to really love it, and the women who work with us do. It’s hard work, but the satisfaction of seeing a house transformed at the end makes us feel great. I think women make excellent painters because they know how they would feel about having their own home painted – they put in that extra care and effort.”

Both Penny and Avril are amused at the reaction of some men when they turn up to quote on a job. Both say that elderly men can feel a bit challenged by the idea of a woman doing a man’s job. “We often get asked if we can climb a ladder,” chuckles Avril.

There are several organisations around Australia that support women in trade related fields. The Master Builders Association has a ‘Women in Building’ group that meets each month to give women in the industry an opportunity to exchange ideas, discuss relevant topics and hear guest speakers. State Governments are actively encouraging the enrolment of women into traditionally male-dominated areas and there is a positive trend of women’s participation in many TAFE courses, although women are still well under-represented in most.

You can read the rest of this article in the Australian Hardware Journal’s June issue.