July 10, 2024

An Unwelcome Guest: Imposter Syndrome & Women in the Trades

Thoughts from guest contributor Rebecca Fenton, Media Consultant and Plumber

Interview multiple candidates

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Ask for past work examples & results

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Search for the right experience

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Vet candidates & ask for past references before hiring

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Once you hire them, give them access for all tools & resources for success

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 “If I was a tradesman, I’d be taken seriously.”

...the final line of TaskHer’s hard-hitting and innovative advert echoes long after the clip has finished. Dressed in oversized work clothes and moustachioed, the tradeswomen in the clip have just finished relating comments they have endured: “…leave it to the blokesif you need a break or a hand with the ladder, just call me…”. The list of patronising and maddening comments crescendo and blur into a cacophony, before the haunting last line hits hard.

And now, elbows deep in a customer’s concealed WC cistern, which measures roughly 20cm by 15cm, approximately the size of a small notebook, these words are ringing around my head as I feel the creeping rise of panic:

 I can’t get this bloody flush valve out. 

Scraping my bare arms (I’m wearing gloves though the bathroom is a windowless sweat box and the edges of the badly-installed cistern access panel are sharp) as I wrestle with the unfeasibly unwieldy thing, it’s not the fact that I can’t remove it in this very moment that I’m concerned about, it’s deeper than that.

 Growing up female from birth, the countless years of micro-aggressions, unsolicited advice, professional devaluation and even street heckling (not to mention the misogyny that any social media post comment section quickly devolves into) have inevitably shaped me. Some may be surprised to hear this, as to the naked eye, I’m accomplished in both of my fields (Media Consultancy and Plumbing Maintenance) and am probably a half-decent mum, too (although my daughter might say that’s subject to opinion). I’m also no shrinking violet either, although I probably fall on the slightly more introverted side of the dial, needing regular quiet and alone time to recharge – one of the elements I really quite enjoy about plumbing and being a sole trader. 

Though regardless, the momentary glitch in me removing the cumbersome valve from its stupidly small and complex tomb has led to overwhelming feelings of imposter syndrome and the naysayers in my head that have been programmed so consistently over the years: ‘I’m going to let the client down/how am I going to explain this/they’ll be proved right (illogical, as my clients trust me and rely upon me)/I’m going to have to call an emergency plumber to correct this… the list unfortunately goes on. 

It doesn’t help that I’m hyper-aware that I’m only 2% of the UK’s plumbing workforce.

I don’t have a mentor and I qualified quickly – working my ass off in a 6 week practical and academic level 2 diploma qualification that taught me everything I needed in order to start out… though again, I’ve read and heard so many comments by detractors in the trade regarding shorter courses that even this epic achievement, completed when my daughter was still under two, feels tainted and less worthy, somehow.

Let me clarify at this point that all of the thoughts and comments above are those of my unhelpful and ill-societally-conditioned mind at a stress point on a tricky job. I don’t actually believe these things of myself or my ability in my logical mind, though under pressure it’s difficult not to feel like a failure or not capable, particularly when many tradeswomen may feel that the wider world of trades are watching keenly and that they will be judged more harshly than their male counterparts if they encounter complications on a job or appear to not know the answer. 

And the truth is, as per many women in workplaces, we do tend to have to have everything completely right, to be diligent and genial, to be ‘perfect’ in our professional and personal lives and even then, this seems to somehow fall below par. And indeed, the above qualities should be shared by all tradespeople, though with every customer seemingly having a story to tell about ‘bad’ or unscrupulous tradespeople, I’m sad to say it’s unlikely that all tradespeople hold themselves to the same high standards.

Safe to say, I took a breath, sat back, looked again at the configuration of the cistern and was soon able to identify the issue (the ‘cradle’ or holder of the flush valve had become fused to the main body and had to be twisted off in situ in order to be removable from the small access hatch) and replace the faulty valve to ensure that the unit was back in working order.

For all of my self-admonishment, the job took under an hour and the customer was happy

They were none-the-wiser aside from my slightly redder cheeks and slight frown. In my more newly qualified days, I was so under-confident that if I had encountered the same issue, I may have not charged for the visit and made an excuse as to why I wouldn’t be able to help them further, perhaps recommending an alternative tradesperson I knew to assist them. I’m a little embarrassed of this, though my aim in my work has always been customer satisfaction and I didn’t want to leave the customer in a fix, though didn’t feel confident enough to help.

The turning point came for me when I turned down a couple of shower cartridge replacement jobs (quite lucrative in terms of plumbing maintenance due to their fiddly and temperamental nature) in a row and decided that rather than refusing any more jobs/revenue due to my imposter syndrome, I’d use my naturally academic and methodical thinking to try to solve the problem in my own bathroom (the equivalent of a Test Kitchen, I suppose). 

Through about 10 carefully adjusted iterations and configurations and a number of diagrams with ‘no!’ written next to them, along with a couple of good soakings when the shower head decided to have a field day, eventually I cracked it. And then I doubted myself, replaced it again and it worked again. The feeling of pride and achievement that I had after working out this seemingly unworkable conundrum was immense! I did know that I wasn’t the first plumber to hate shower cartridges and won’t be the last (I’ve spoken about this at length on The Heating and Plumbing Show on Fix Radio), my natural diligence had meant that I’d solved the problem. I was delighted. I then went on to start accepting these jobs again and they are now a significant part of my income.

I don’t profess to be able to cure or solve imposter syndrome, though I have actively fought against it since I became a plumber.

The majority of men (and women) I’ve met and discussed my work with have been hugely supportive, respectful and impressed, though a lifetime of being diminished and underestimated definitely comes into play as I work in a field where I am hugely underrepresented as a gender and relatively newly qualified in, meaning that I’m still learning on every job. I think part of conquering imposter syndrome is accepting that learning, not being perfect, asking for help from trusted mentors (if you have them) or even consulting Dr Google to clarify and assist with a problem on a job is OK. The same goes for pitfalls in setting up and managing a business, worries and fears re. revenue, marketing and even tax. Noone knows everything, though it’s evident that men as a gender often believe that they do, as they have always been told that they deserve the right to be confident and to believe in themselves. For some women, even myself, the narrative that I don’t deserve these same rights and should somehow belittle myself, even when I know what I am doing as well as anyone, can be a long road to un-walk.

Ultimately in my experience as a tradeswoman so far, the biggest challenge to my imposter syndrome are my achievements. Whenever I struggle or start to doubt myself on a job, I take a step back and actively try to recall similar jobs that went well (which is the vast majority of them!), previous problem-solving techniques I’ve employed and I also scroll through the amazing customer testimonials and recommendations on my phone – every one a satisfied customer who is willing to recommend me to a wider group as I fixed an issue for them. I remind myself how far I’ve come and how I belong in this space just as much as any other tradesperson. 

“If I was a tradesman, I’d be taken seriously” – in my case, the first step is taking myself seriously, the rest will follow.

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