Like My Father Before Me, I’m a Working (Wo)man

Moving past sexism isn’t about making women feel better, it’s about doing what’s best for the plumbing industry.
Like My Father Before Me, I’m a Working (Wo)man
Anja Smith

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I’ll never forget the first time I experienced overt sexism in the plumbing industry: “Husband or father?” was his first – and entire – question. It took me aback for a moment as I struggled to understand the context. Then I realized that he was asking me whether it was my husband or my father who was the plumber. He was asking me because, when I introduced myself as the co-owner of a plumbing company, he immediately jumped to conclusions. Clearly either my husband or my father was a plumber. Why else would a woman be in this industry?

Since then, I’ve gotten a variation of that question – although rarely that rudely phrased – in many contexts. Most often it comes out something like, “Yeah, but you aren’t actually a plumber, right?”

Like many before me, I found an industry because it was my father’s. Like many in my generation, I also went out and got a few college degrees (and lots of debt) and tried a few industries (and more than a few jobs) before settling into the family business. It just so happens that my father’s industry is a trade and my family business is plumbing. The fact that I am a woman is irrelevant.

The truth is, if I was a man whose father founded a plumbing company, the assumption would be that I would eventually take over for him. Instead, my ambition to get my master’s license and run the company so that my hard-working parents can eventually retire is met with a general attitude of adorableness.

Fortunately, I’m completely unphazed by other people’s limited imaginations. I’m used to being the only woman in the room. Before joining our outfit full time, I was an executive at a technology company. There too I joined a male-dominant industry where I had no previous technical knowledge.

The fact that this isn’t my first time at the rodeo might make it easier, but the truth is, I’ve never questioned whether an opportunity was available to me because of my gender. I’ve always known the difference between what’s typical and what’s possible.

I know I have my grandmother (who was affectionately referred to as “Sarge” – the whole strong woman thing comes pretty naturally, if I’m being honest) and her generation for this confidence. They did the really hard glass-ceiling work.

Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs

In fact, it was in 1951 that Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs became the first female to pass the licensing tests and became a master plumber. No, she wasn’t my grandmother. Lillian’s other claim to fame was as a military pinup girl. Clearly she was the total package.

I can’t help but feel like we have let her down. Seventy-five years later, women still only make up 1.1 percent of the plumbers in the U.S. This pathetic percentage, from the 2013 Labor Bureau census, is actually down from 1.4 percent in 2010.

The enlightened men in the audience might be wondering what they can do to help. That’s great. Here’s the thing – you don’t have to do anything. No offense, but we don’t need your validation or permission to sit at the table. Just get out of the way and let us do the job.

A Ton of Opportunity

Plumbing is a great industry. It’s growing faster than average, so there is a ton of opportunity. On-the-job training means little-to-no tuition debt and a paycheck from Day One. Plumbing is also a great industry if you are interested in entrepreneurship, as the barriers to entry are relatively low in many states.

The problem is, the trades are underestimated and under respected. That problem, though, isn’t a gender issue. It’s a generational issue. We need to get the message, about the fantastic opportunity that plumbing provides, out to every kid – not just half of them.

To be honest, I see that 1.1 percent as an opportunity. Half of our population is potential talent that has yet to be tapped. We obviously aren’t doing a good job recruiting this labor pool. I suspect that the way to increase the number of women in plumbing is to hire them. Weird thing, that.

When I hire a plumber, I look for industry knowledge, excellent problem-solving skills, a commitment to ethics and customer service, a healthy body and a willingness to work hard. A woman can meet those qualifications just as easily as a man. I will always hire and train the best candidate I can get my hands on. Gender is a non-issue. I’d hope most hiring managers feel the same way. It is, after all, the law.

So, is it difficult being a female in a male dominated industry? That question is stale and outdated. The modern adult woman is more annoyed that the gender conversation isn’t over yet than they are intimidated by being outnumbered. Sure, there is a lot of social bias to get past, but we can handle it.

Lillian set out to prove that a woman could be a master plumber. We’ve long since settled that debate. Trust me, little Sally knows she can be a plumber when she grows up. She just doesn’t want to be one. For that matter, neither does little Johnny. That’s a much more pressing concern and the bigger issue. Yes, women need to be recruited. But, everyone needs to be recruited. It really is that simple.

Moving past sexism isn’t about making women feel better. It’s about doing what’s best for our industry. And, that’s not because we “need women in the conversation” – we do, but that’s beside the point – it’s because we have a lot of jobs to fill. Now let’s get to work.

To Paraphrase Joan Baez, Like My Father Before Me, I’m a Working (Wo)man


 
About the Author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja.nicole.smith@gmail.com.


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