Never too girly for a pipedream

21st March 2008 at 00:00

Long johns, overalls . and waterproof mascara. Now, are there any women's toilets on site? Shirley English talks to a young woman in a traditionally male occupation

Wearing full make-up, brightly painted false nails and with not a hair out of place, Jennifer Breaden was instantly mistaken for a beauty student when she first walked into the all-male plumbing class.

The petite 18-year-old was told by her fellow students at Cardonald College in Glasgow, where she had enrolled for a modern apprenticeship, that "hairdressing and make-up is on the next floor".

Jennifer says: "I'm quite a girly girl and I think I came as a bit of a surprise to the boys. They said I was in the wrong class. But I told them, `No, I am here for the plumbing class.' They were totally shocked."

Jennifer never set out to be a trailblazer for gender equality, but her circumstances have made her just that. She was the only young woman working in construction in the west of Scotland when she started at Cardonald College as an apprentice plumber in 2006. Two years on, and many muddy building sites later, she knows of one other girl training as an engineer.

"We are there for each other. If I've had a rubbish day, I can talk it through with her; she knows where I'm coming from and that feels so much better," she says.

Efforts are now being made in colleges across Scotland to ensure other students who choose non-traditional employment routes are not left isolated.

For years there have been concerns about the student gender imbalance for courses traditionally viewed as male, such as engineering, construction and plumbing, or female, such as childcare and health.

The extent of the problem was outlined in a 2003 Equal Opportunities Commission report, which showed that 38 years on from the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, young men and women still faced social and cultural barriers to courses associated with the opposite gender.

It coincided with warnings from industry about skills shortages affecting productivity, with about a quarter of employers in construction, plumbing and engineering reporting difficulties finding workers.

Together with the Gender Equality Duty introduced last year, which obliges public bodies to demonstrate they are taking steps to end sex discrimination, these have created renewed impetus for change.

In 2005, the Scottish Further Education Unit, in partnership with five Scottish colleges, launched Redress the Balance, a two-year project aiming to develop a strategy that could become national to encourage more women into construction and engineering and men into childcare.

A baseline report on course enrolments in Scotland showed there was a mountain to climb. In 2005, female students made up 90 per cent of those studying childcare and 85 per cent on health and social care courses; male students made up 90 per cent of those studying engineering and construction.

Since then, the colleges involved - Cardonald, Coatbridge, Aberdeen, Forth Valley and Jewel and Esk - have improved school-college links, introduced "Day in the life" taster courses for prospective students and advice sessions for school guidance and careers staff. They have also introduced imaginative marketing of courses with clear signposting to career opportunities.

Coatbridge College concentrated on attracting more young men to its female-dominated biomedical science courses. It invited guidance staff from secondary schools to view the facilities. National Qualifications students also designed a computer game, Forensics is Fun, for visiting pupils, in which they could use science to solve a virtual murder. In two years, the number of male students in biomedical science has risen from 13 to 30 per cent.

At Cardonald College, changes were made to course advertisements. Leaflets promoting plumbing featured female plumbers, and health-related courses ditched the image of a female nurse with an elderly patient for the dashing figure of a male paramedic.

Nancy Birney, the equality and inclusion manager, says intervention in schools and slicker marketing are crucial. "We want to promote wider choice. We want people to leave their assumptions at the door and ask themselves what they really want to do." But she added: "It's all very well doing these things in college, but on the building site it is a different experience and we have to make sure students are prepared for that."

Overcoming gender prejudice has been part and parcel of Jennifer's decision to work in the traditionally male domain of copper pipes and gas boilers. A lot of her work experience has been on building sites and, as well as facing a sometimes hostile reception, she has had basic practicalities to overcome, such as finding a women's toilet.

"It felt a bit lonely at times. I often would catch the bus or train to work in my work overalls and boots because I couldn't change on site like the guys. It was so cold I'd be wearing long johns and vests - not the most glamorous of gear - but I always wore make-up, no matter what. It had to be waterproof mascara, of course!" she jokes.

Jennifer, who has five Highers and was expected to go to university, says her career choice has been demanding, mentally and physically - she has had to carry a boiler upstairs by herself, watched by men.

"You have to be prepared for people wanting to put you down. But for every person who's against you, there is always one who is supportive and that's important," she says.

Jennifer was nominated Apprentice of the Year last year by Cardonald College. Yet at school, plumbing was never presented as "a door that was open to me," she says.

"Girls should know that there are a lot of trades that are crying out for women, and the more women we get on building sites, the more used to it the men will get," she says.

"Maybe then we'll get women's toilets that aren't miles away!"

The SFEU will publish examples of good practice from the Redress the Balance project on a website to be launched next month:

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