The number of women working in the UK has been steadily increasing over the past 50 years. In 2022, three quarters of women aged 16 to 64 were either in employment or looking for work, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), while in 1972 it was well below half.
Despite this, just 1% of people working in skilled trades in the UK construction sector, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers, were women in 2021 according to the latest ONS data.
They may be in short supply, but female traders are in big demand. In a June 2022 survey by the Chartered Institute of Building, a third of respondents said they would prefer to hire a female tradesperson. The most common reason given was to support women in trade but some said they would feel more comfortable having a woman working in their home.
So how did our Which? Trusted Traders get to where they are today, what challenges have they faced as women in mostly male industries and what advice would they give to other women considering a skilled trade? Read on to find out.
The women we spoke to took a variety of routes into their roles, including through apprenticeships, taking courses, on the job training and drawing on previous experience.
For Kiomi Barritt at Barritt Electrical, becoming an electrician was a natural step. ‘My dad and brother are in the trade and I always knew I needed and wanted a physically active job,’ she said. ‘I enjoy the variety, and the physical and mental challenges of the role.’
Others tried other jobs before finding that working as a trader suited them best. ‘When I was 20, I had been changing careers, from hospitality to nursing, and nothing stuck,’ said Rebecca Paice, locksmith manager at Franchi plc.
‘My mum ended up doing some research and came across a locksmith apprenticeship. It took a month of her talking to me about it before I finally applied for my first apprenticeship, which I got. Next month it will be 15 years in the industry and I learn something new every day.’
The women we spoke to said they find their roles varied and rewarding. Tilly Taylor of DB Heating Ltd said: ‘I enjoy that it’s fast-paced and working for a good company with a great reputation, good team ethos and working culture.’
Although women are currently by far outnumbered by men in the trades, the latest government data on women starting apprenticeships, which are a recognised route into trades such as plumbing and carpentry, are promising. In the 2020/21 academic year, 12% of those starting apprenticeships in the construction sector were female.
Alison Grant from Inspiration Computers Ltd sees definite signs of improvement in the IT world. ‘Generally, women weren't encouraged to get involved in IT or coding 15 or 20 years ago,’ she said. 'But now we work with our local council to promote coding courses for girls. That active promotion to younger women just wasn't there before.’
Many people are still surprised to see women working in certain trades, however. Michelle Inder, director of GMI Aerials Ltd, has experience of this although attitudes are changing. ‘Some men in the industry ask to speak to my boss,’ she said. ‘When I say I am the boss they are taken aback. Only some men, though – most men are modern and up to date now.’
Rebecca Paice agrees: ‘It is getting better as time goes on but people always assume I'm the office lady who just takes calls. I've learnt to be firm and let the customer know that I can help them and I know locks. I've had a couple co-workers who have felt they were better because they were males, but that has been rare and I've been lucky enough to have worked with a great bunch of men who have felt females belong.’
Although there is still sexism towards female traders, being a woman in a male-dominated world can help to set you and your business apart from the competition.
Alison Grant said: ‘When we started the business in 2003, all the advertising connected to computing was quite masculine in blues and greens. We decided to do an advert in pink, with me – a female computer repairer – and it got a massive response because we were offering something different from everyone else.’
The UK has a serious skills shortage. In a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses in August 2022, 82% of firms that had problems recruiting people in the previous 12 months said it was because they couldn’t find people with the relevant skills, qualifications and experience.
To address this skills gap, it’s essential that more women are encouraged to join the sectors in need. The Women’s Trade Network is one initiative, launched in 2021, with the aim of doing just that and increasing the number of female tradespeople. A range of organisations in the housing industry, including Peabody and the Chartered Institute of Housing, have joined together to raise awareness of the opportunities trade careers can offer women and provide training, mentorship and employment.
If you’re a woman considering learning a trade, our traders advise you to just go for it, and there’s plenty of support available.
‘Know that there will be physical challenges because you are a female, but learn to find ways that work for you,’ advises Rebecca Paice. ‘We may not have the same strength but learn to use your brain and find solutions to solve those issues. Always keep learning and strive to know more. The industry is always changing and having that drive to learn more will make you stand out.’
Allison Paing, director at A&R Design adds: ‘Be committed to what you feel passionate about. Continue with your skills and your talent will shine through regardless of who or what you are.’
There’s little doubt that more women will need to go into manual trades if the UK is to avoid skills shortages in the future. Our female Which? Trusted traders are proof that it’s not just a man’s world – there’s room for women too.