Ripping up the rulebook of male-dominated trades, we meet five women ‘tradies’ who wear it, work it and own it.
Almost two years ago, armed with an enduring esteem for master-craftsmen, I set out to chronicle Dublin’s finest Repair People. Five talented fixers were plucked from across the city — a cobbler, a luthier, a hoover fixer, a sewing machine mechanic and a typewriter repairer — their skill-sets stretching from niche profession to vanishing trade. Their seldom-heard voices spoke on the dwindling consumer demands corroding their work, lamenting the lack of apprentices to inject fresh life into a family business. The tradesmen involved were embodiments of industrious graft, their customers serviced with pride and passion, but one personal objective was never seen through: a thirst to pinpoint female craftspeople alongside these dexterous men.
When Work / Wear commenced its conceptual genesis — a photo-centric spread exploring intrinsic ties between work clothes and identity — I went into the research phase with pre-conceived notions. Surmising that our male interviewees would be secured in a heartbeat, their female counterparts a struggle to track down, the arrival of Ruth Connolly (a fantastic photographer and first-time collaborator) took the project on an exciting trajectory. She had come into contact with Jen Kelly, an industrial abseiler and founder of Women In Trades Network Ireland (WITNI) and, as she connected with an increasing number of talented tradeswomen from their ranks, she proposed we make our quintet of interviewees an all-female force. I leapt at the chance! These women had ripped up the rulebook of male-dominated trade, slamming gendered prejudices in the workplace and the regressive, “masculine” labels which characterise their professions. When WITNI came into being, forming Ireland’s first women-in-trades network, it forged iron-clad connections with female tradies across the country, many of whom had felt perennially alone in their profession (as it stands, less than 1% of on-site, manual tradespeople are women). For those eager to take up a trade but faced with gendered obstacles from the outset — be they discouraging guidance councillors or unwilling employers — WITNI’s online ‘Career Stories’ segment provides the ultimate fuel to push forward their agenda.
These women also brought the symbolism of workwear to a deeper significance: with trade clothes traditionally designed for a standardised male shape, more petite tradies are swimming in their work overalls, whilst their trousers never fit both waist and hip. The problem this presents is two-fold: firstly, ill-fitting gear can be a serious hazard on-site, encumbering (rather than enabling) the wearer’s safety and ability to get the job done. Secondly, many women describe sporting oversized workwear as feeling like they’re playing dress up, raiding the grown-ups’ wardrobe; surely a walking catalyst for imposter syndrome. Subliminally or otherwise, that sensation of wearing someone else’s work clothes — clothes perfectly catered to a man — can add to a sense that, as a woman, you’re not really supposed to be here. The strides of Snickers Workwear and overseas companies show that while there’s a long way to go before female workwear achieves omnipresence, we’re certainly speeding in the right direction.
This pentagon of professional tradeswomen — an industrial abseiler, a carpenter, a painter-decorator, a welder and an apprentice of heavy vehicle mechanics — have pioneered tirelessly for progressions in the workplace. The reticence of would-be women tradies often stems from the messages — some subconscious, most overt — that have been sent to them since childhood; urging them to put down that power tool while the boys have a go, or asking them if they’re really sure they don’t mind their clothes getting dirty on the job. For these reasons, WITNI are keen to dismantle gendered stereotypes from as early an age as possible: engaging with schools and engineering hands-on activities for those who want to develop their skills. Their words stem from a much larger, long-term conversation — one which hopes to galvanise a new generation of female boundary-breakers. witni.ie
The Industrial Abseiler – Jen Kelly
“It became clear that my capability was doubted because of my female name on an application”
“Name any trade in an industrial environment, and I will tell you stories of the women who have thrived in those roles”
“In the mid 2000s I had been volunteering as a stagehand at the Melbourne Women’s Circus. I cannot overstate the deep impact that this organisation had upon me. Being immersed in that environment, among their diverse crew of technically capable women, really twisted my melon — Franca, the head rigger, was an especially big influence on me. In those days, I was living in a warehouse with a wild bunch. We had circus aerials hanging from our roof, so I used to come home from work, play records and climb on the silks. My body was growing stronger, and a friend who worked as an industrial abseiler suggested that I also take up the profession for a living. He pointed out that my retail job paid peanuts and abseiling in construction would improve my lifestyle to no end — so I went for it!
“Industrial abseiling is a multi-dimensional construction job, employed when scaffolding, elevated work platforms and so forth prove difficult, or impossible, to set up — i.e the ground may be unsuitable. You end up working with a variety of tradespeople on tasks such as painting, glazing, rendering, or concrete repairs. I’ve worked all over the world: on skyscrapers in London and Melbourne, on wind turbines in the North Sea, on bridges, oil rigs, sports stadiums.. Sometimes I dangled above forests near the Arctic circle and once over a school of sharks in the Indian ocean! It has been incredible. I am immensely grateful for those experiences, for the skills I have learned and for the people who led me toward those opportunities.
“When I first started working on the ropes, I was fortunate in that there were already a couple of women working at the company that I joined. Like Ireland, Australia faces diversity issues within their industrial workforce, but are still further ahead in their progress — the notion of female tradies is not as alien there as it seems to have been here. Outside of this country, you’ll find grassroots networks for tradeswomen that have operated for over 30 years. They have affected the individual lives of women, influenced policy change and alleviated skills shortages. In my first few years in construction, I was aware of these networks but didn’t think that I personally needed them, until I came back to Ireland — then my perspective shifted. There wasn’t much work for abseilers in this city when I returned, so I sought out other work: labouring, apprenticeships and so forth. Recruiters kept turning me down, I got responses like “Who are you looking for this job for?”, or “You do know it’s dirty work, right?”. It became clear that my capability was doubted because of my female name on an application, or my physical size, and it was standing in the way of me getting the work I wanted. If it was this difficult for a woman with years of experience in the industry, how hard must it have been for women who had none?
“From this frustration rose Women In Trades Network Ireland (WITNI), which turns three this September. I wanted to make an impact on the visual landscape of our industries, telling the career stories of Irish tradeswomen to encourage others who harboured a desire to work on the tools. I’m now contacted on a weekly basis by women looking for trades, careers, guidance… We also work with companies looking to diversify their workforce, and that’s a really rewarding experience. At this early stage, we are in contact with around 100 tradeswomen across the country who possess a wide range of skill-sets, with our numbers ever on the increase. Many of these women have, in turn, assisted or mentored new women on the scene.
“One by one, past, present and future tradeswomen are connecting across Ireland. We hold peer networking events three or four times a year, while some of the activities in our meet-ups include trying out the latest power tools, exploring aeroplane engines, and running a focus group on workwear. There’s a fantastic atmosphere among the women, many of whom are the only female in their workforce: a bunch of them have documented their trajectory so far on our website’s Career Stories.
“Workwear is a longstanding challenge for tradeswomen; it can feel like a needle in a haystack scenario at times. Between oversized gloves or sleeves that are too long, it’s not just the issue of feeling like a kids dressed up in your parents’ clothes — it’s actually a genuine health and safety issue. If you’re working at heights, taking nuts and bolts out of things that you can’t afford to drop, you wanna have really good-fitting gear, that has no risk of catching on something. There are some smaller, female-fronted brands from abroad that we love, while here in Ireland, Snickers Workwear is expanding their women’s range. Last year, 10 of the tradeswomen in our WITNI network helped to test-pilot a new womens class 3, hi-vis work trouser for Snickers, which is now available to buy. Additionally, five of us crowdfunded our way to the biggest tradeswomen’s conference in the world: we were the first female Irish group to attend that event! (I had travelled alone the previous year). We went there dressed in Snickers gear which got a great response from our overseas tradie counterparts.
“As a nation, we need to better support our diversifying labour workforce, figure out ways to improve industrial sustainability and put ourselves ahead in the game, both technically and creatively. People still question whether women are capable of these physical careers… it’s a boring debate, and gendering jobs isn’t helping anyone. Name any trade in an industrial environment, and I will tell you stories of the women who have thrived in those roles.”
The (Multi-Disciplinary) Carpenter: Sara Murphy
“I was so normalised to being the only woman in my line of work that I thought I was just fine, and didn’t necessarily feel the need for a network”
“I’ve always loved making things. I grew up around interesting design — there’s a load of architects in the family. I used to fix all my friends’ toys, and my parents were great in showing us practical skills: if they were ever decorating the house we’d be shown how to paint a room properly, and taught how to wire plugs from mid primary-school age onwards. I’ll jump at the chance to learn any craft, whether that’s crocheting or chainsaw sculpturing.
“As a teenager, I really struggled with Ireland’s degree culture. If you’re in any way academically inclined, you’re expected to go to college, and there’s not really a structure outside of that. I was doing well in school, but since there was nothing that I wanted to study afterwards — though I would later complete a post-grad in events management — I didn’t see the point of putting yourself under this horrific pressure [of the Leaving Cert], with no motivation to aim for a particular thing. So I dropped out, and I found that I was free-floating. I had moved to Edinburgh with my family when I was younger, and attended a state school with incredible facilities. They ran a course called CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) in a building dedicated to workshops; it was so well-equipped. Once back in Ireland, I discovered the standards of school woodworking weren’t half as good.
“After I dropped out, I announced that what I really wanted to do was furniture which, luckily, my parents were supportive of. I set out to find all the furniture makers in Ireland, which I achieved through a database in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre — I made a top-ten list, went home and phoned them. I went down to see Michael Bell [Zelouf and Bell], and after a trial he took me on for six months: he had a female apprentice when I started with him, which was really unusual to see, especially in the late 90s. She was an incredible craftswoman.
“I then went back to Edinburgh for a few years and was running nightclubs there, doing the decor and so on. While in Scotland I completed three more years of apprenticeship and gained a HDip in Furniture Production and Design. I’ve been combining events with making since then: I’ve gone back and forth between the two professions, and now I’ve settled on carpentry. I definitely draw from my experience in events when on festival jobs [Electric Picnic, Glastonbury]. I have been taking all sorts of commissions to figure out which I like most — sash windows, rebuilding an 19th century barn roof in Wales (the first job I was a foreperson on), bespoke design and installs of fitted furniture to name a few — and I have gotten particular satisfaction from directing the build at Open Ear Festival for the past three years. I created the stage backdrop using CNC machines last year, which was my biggest digital fabrication project to date.
“One of my friends posted on Facebook that a woman called Jen was looking for Irish tradeswomen for some project, and they put us in touch. We met in a cafe round the corner from my house and she told me what her plans were for WITNI, which sounded great. Honestly, I was so normalised to being the only woman in my line of work that I thought I was just fine, and didn’t necessarily feel the need for a network. Still, I was up for doing anything I could to support WITNI and, six months later, the first meet-up took place: I couldn’t believe the feeling of camaraderie, support and power I drew from it. Finally I could relay experiences that I knew the other women would understand, from their first-hand experiences.
“Since WITNI started, it’s spurred me on to have deeper conversations about women in trades than I would’ve done previously. Outside of the network, I’ve always had to explain why I’ve chosen this job, even though the reasons are no different to those of men. There needs to be many more females on the job sites, so people understand the benefits of a gender-balanced workspace. The ‘issue’ that’s often cited is strength but, generally speaking, men don’t use the upper level of their strength in work these days. The standard weight limits are well within what women can lift, and we have higher endurance than men; an equally useful attribute during a long day on-site. Women are also more risk-averse: the data that’s come back from countries with more women on job sites proves that, when you have more women working, there are less accidents and mistakes. So we both have our qualities which we excel in.
“I’m quite lucky when it comes to finding workwear that fits, because of my body shape, but I’ve come across companies that are amazing to tradeswomen. Snickers have recently been developing a new range of women’s workwear, and I have one of their waterproof shell jackets — it’s exceptionally comfortable and hard-wearing. Outside of Ireland, I have lovely work trousers from Dassy, an American brand, and I’ve found the coolest womens workwear from a Swedish company called Fristad Kansas. I’ve got a hot-pink, workwear mini skirt from them: it has proper stitching, proper heavy-cotton twill, outside pockets.. while they have ‘normal’ shades available, their womens range also comes in sky blues, lime greens and fluorescent yellows. If you want colourful, you can have colourful!”
The Painter-Decorator: Jenny Thompson
“You don’t have role models in the classroom, from a young age, that represent tradeswomen. For any physical job, a man is always presented”
“I’d wanted to do a trade since I was in school, but my parents, like many at that time, weren’t too keen on the idea. I ended up studying Environmental Science, and went off to America on a J1 visa in the ‘80s. A friend of mine had flown over and gotten a job in painting, so I followed suit — I stayed beyond the initial visa, and was painting by ’85. When I came back to Ireland in the late ‘80s I set up a business straight away, which is still going strong 30 years later. I’ve trained several women in the last number of years, all of whom have gone on to establish their own businesses; they’re very successful in their own right. I’m currently looking for apprentices and, in many ways, wish I could positively discriminate in favour of females! Considering the challenges they have to face, women really choose to do a trade; men typically fall into it.
“I started my training in San Francisco and, comparatively speaking, there were so many more tradeswomen [in the city] — because the training was so fantastic in the States, tradespeople were far more respected and well-regarded relative to Ireland. There’s a general dearth in trade because everyone feels their kids should go to college and, by consequence, apprenticeships are severely undervalued. Because of the high-calibre training I received in San Fran, my business thrived back home — through word-of-mouth, we flourished in our niche, high-end market, and took lots of pride in our work.
“Around ten years ago I was working with two builders, one of whom was always encouraging me to come out to France and paint with him. Once the recession came and everything stopped here, I took him up on that offer — then once my Irish clients heard, they began asking me to work on their French villas. Now I go to Paris every Spring, I was painting in St. Tropez a few months ago… last year we did a house in Notting Hill. Outside of the business I’ve established, I don’t think I’d ever come across another Irish tradeswoman before finding WITNI — zero in thirty years. It’s unbelievable, really. By contrast, back in San Francisco, I actually worked on an all-women painting crew, while it wasn’t unusual to meet female electricians and carpenters on-site.
“Unsurprisingly, I get all my work clothes from America — friends in San Francisco will always ship some over when we need them. I’m 5”1, and find it impossible to find a short pair of whites here. They’ve often too big at the waist — it might have changed more recently but, for years, the smallest waist size you’d be able to get was a 32”. It’s absolutely geared towards men. I don’t struggle as much with getting gloves, thankfully, and I get all of our tops made up.
“Jen and I first met two or three years ago, at the Construction Industry Federation meeting on International Women’s Day. I quickly became a fan of hers — I found it so inspirational that she had set up WITNI. I’d love to be helping out even more with the network, but I just don’t have the time to… I’d especially love to go into schools to talk with Transition Year students about women in trades. You don’t have role models in the classroom, from a young age, that represent tradeswomen. For any physical job, a man is always presented. Discussions should be starting in primary school, let alone secondary school. Trades are struggling here, irrespective of gender, and I firmly believe that if the psychology of doing a trade changes in this country, the perception of women in trade will change alongside it. WITNI is what gives me a little bit of hope: if it hadn’t been established, you simply couldn’t find that same concentration of support and camaraderie.
The Welder: Laura Mulkeen
“At the end of the day, workwear has to let us do our job”
“When I was leaving school, I had a half-baked notion that I’d like to do something practical, but I wasn’t entirely sure. While I’m not knocking any of the adults in my life at that time, whenever you’re uncertain of what [career] you want, you tend to be pushed down a ‘safer’ path. I wound up doing a degree in events management, as I’d already gotten experience in putting on a few gigs. I followed it with a masters and spent the guts of ten years running events. I absolutely loved the last place I worked, the people were great, but with something like events management — and this goes for many careers — the end result isn’t a physically-tangible finished product. I spent much of my twenties with a touch of imposter syndrome, worrying if I was doing the job right. The welding process is much more straightforward: when you go in and weld, you’re either good or bad at it.
“I moved from Dublin to Donegal the week I turned 30. I couldn’t find any events work here, which gave me a wee bit of time out to decide what I wanted to do next. Both my husband and I were interested in blacksmithing, so we did a day-long course and thought, ‘to hell with it, let’s make a coal forge!’. We built one in a shipping container beside the house and continued to hone our skills in that space.
While I was still out of work, I spotted a fantastic, basic welding course twenty minutes from our home. I thought it would be a nice side project to pair with the blacksmithing, and I found out I was pretty good at welding, as well as absolutely loving the craft. That set me on the path I’m currently on.
“At the minute, I’ve just about wrapped my last, full-time welding course with Donegal ETB — they’ve been a brilliant crowd, and I’ve basically become their poster child for diversity! I’m now being put into the big, bad working world, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m really hopeful. In terms of employment prospects for women welders, there seem to be two ends of the spectrum. Not too long ago, a few welders I know were approached about doing a test for an employer who, I was told, would not be hiring women. It upset me hearing these things, being so close to finishing full-time education, and it gave me the fear of being told, ‘yeah love, thanks but no thanks’. On the other end, after completing a welding course last year I did a work placement for a fairly forward-thinking company, who placed real importance on hiring female tradies.
“It’s been incredible to connect with WITNI. Jen is an absolute powerhouse, I have so much respect for what she’s doing. I live on the north-western coast of Donegal, as far up as you can go and, on certain days especially, the gender issue can pile on top of you and make you feel like an alien within your craft; you end up asking yourself why you’re even bothering. Because of that, it’s so good just to know the network are always there, even if you can’t get to an event. There’s always someone to talk to [about these topics], so you know you’re not insane or imagining things! It brings serious reassurance.
“I live in a pair of Snickers padded workwear trousers. It sort of has to be those, seeing as I’m pear-shaped — I couldn’t fit in male work clothes. Myself and another trainee were down at the RDS with our instructor a few weeks ago, for Ireland Skills Live: we were running a virtual reality welder, and [the course centre] wanted to get us new gear for it. My instructor suggested we pick up some workwear in Letterkenny, and I replied that while I appreciated the gesture, we wouldn’t find anything for women. Still, he wanted to persevere, and the experience was a serious eye-opener for him: he could’ve kitted out the other male trainee in the first, second, third or fourth shop, but there wasn’t a trace of womenswear.
“I wear MIG gloves when I’m melding, which are made from thick leather — I always have to stuff my little fingers in beside my other ones, because they’re huge! They’re like big bear claws on me. There’s a company called Lincoln Electric that make a lot fantastic of welding gear. They’ve done a great collaboration with Jessi Combs over in the States, creating a collection of smaller women’s jackets and welding gloves. At the end of the day, workwear has to let us do our job.
The Heavy Vehicle Mechanic Apprentice Samantha Kao
“Don’t let size, or height, or gender, or skill-set stand in your way”
“Growing up, I had male mentors whose actions and attitudes led me to connecting with my trade. My dad is a technical engineer — he used to fix dental machinery — so from a very young age I would’ve understood the workings of a factory. A friend of mine races road-bikes with [Irish road-racing dynasty] the Dunlops. My first memory is being in Mondello Park, aged four or five, watching them race. To me, this was a totally normal lifestyle: Saturday mornings were spent in the shed, working with dad on bikes, or lawnmowers… a couple of years ago we built up a vintage car. It’s always been there in the background.
“When I was in Transition Year, a group from FÁS (now Solas) came out to talk to us. It was a half-hour of speeding through everything they offered for training, which wasn’t nearly enough time! I suddenly felt this might be the direction I want to go in. I went up to the rep afterwards and said, ‘this might sound really strange, but can women do motor apprenticeships?’, and he jumped on that! He was thrilled that here was a girl who wanted to train, and gave me all the information I needed. I thought I’d be able to start with FÁS straight away, but first, he told me, I’d need to get a relevant job. My mum was adamant I still had to finish school, and have the Leaving Cert to fall back on. My dad pointed out that if this trade was something I really wanted to do, it would still be there in two years’ time. I was glad my parents had made me stay on, because if I had been halfway through an apprenticeship when the recession hit, I wouldn’t have had a back-up beyond my Junior Cert.
“My little boy was around three when I went back to my local FÁS. I went up to reception and told the lady there I was searching for an apprenticeship. I had my child with me, and she stared back with a look that said ‘you can’t be serious’. I persisted and said I just wanted more information on their motor vehicle apprenticeships, but her responses were an attempt to deflate me: ‘You know it’s going to be down the country? Would you not do childcare or something?’. It was terrible — all I wanted was an apprenticeship! I later had a look around at garages, but none of them wanted to take me on. Most places didn’t get back to me at all, but the handful that did gave responses like, ‘you’re not what we’re looking for’; generic answers that didn’t own up to the fact they just didn’t want me.
“It took fifteen years and a fantastic, light motor vehicle technology, course in Drogheda to get to where I am now: Bus Éireann’s first and only female mechanic apprentice. Their application process was very different to any other company I’d encountered, based around a candidate’s skills and capabilities rather than gender-biased first impressions.
“I find sourcing workwear very, very hard. First off, the clothing measurements are for men, and there’s not many that have as short a leg as I do. While I prefer trousers, my line of work mostly requires me to wear overalls — an ill-fitting pair can make you feel like you’re wearing somebody else’s clothes. We’re meant to wear knee-pads, and I do have them on, but mine turn into shin-pads because of the big overalls. I look like an 18th century lady hitching up her dress, except it’s dirty workwear! The lads are looking at me and going, ‘what on earth are you doing?’.
“Something I really want to instil in my son — but the same goes for future women tradies out there — is that it doesn’t matter what you want to do: in your life, in your career, if you have drive and a fire lit in your belly, you’re capable of doing anything. Don’t let size, or height, or gender, or skill-set stand in your way. If it wasn’t for Jen and for WITNI, I’d feel lost, and by that I mean alone; like you’re the only mad female in this field. I wouldn’t have met such a phenomenal group of women, who are blazing trails in their own trades. Hopefully, this is just the stepping stone… the start of what’s to come.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony Brady
Portraits: Ruth Connolly