FOR aspiring women painters and decorators, getting a foothold is about more than picking up a brush and applying the gloss. It remains largely a man's world: women comprise only 1 per cent of the house-painting trade; and work placements can be alien territory.
Few know the pitfalls better than the staff at Gordano Training, based in St Paul's, Bristol. Since Gordano took on its first woman trainee 12 years ago, numbers have built up steadily. There are eight in the current intake, almost 10 per cent of the total, all intent on making the grade.
Pastoral care is central to making things work. "Our first female was a complete and utter rarity," said business liaison officer Yvonne Hobson.
"There was a huge learning curve for us, with frequent additional visits made when she was on site. Yet, she was very successful."
Gordano has built close links with five companies which have become first choice for placements. The organisation has also developed a thorough knowledge of health and safety issues.
Inevitably, the unpredictable can happen. Several months into her course, one trainee discovered she was allergic to paint. That might have been the end of the road but Gordano found her work in another field. Where problems arise on site - with facilities or behaviour - Yvonne tries to sort them out. "If one company is not suitable, then we'll switch to another," she said.
It's an approach for which Kerry Jeffery, 23, who has been painting and decorating for three-and-a-half years, is grateful. "At one place I had problems with a bloke who was getting too close," she said. "After I had the trouble, I felt like packing it in. But I kept going - Yvonne helped me through and I got stronger."
Such support can make the difference between staying put or quitting. Kerry is as keen as ever on the work. "But as a woman you feel you have to prove yourself more," she said. Currently doing NVQ 3 (A-level equivalent) she plans to do NVQ 4 and has gained valuable experience working on historic buildings, using limewash and distemper. "I wouldn't mind concentrating on special effects, such as gold leaf," she said.
Course tutor Andy Coggins is a popular figure and the women often turn to him when problems arise. "The advice I give is that they can't just be one of the lads; they have to be better," he said.
Gordano trainee Tracy Jordan, 19, has been voted south-west apprentice of the year. "When I left school I didn't want to work in some office surrounded by other women," she said.
Tracy would like to have her own business one day. She has gained experience of painting historic buildings such as the Pump Rooms and the Guildhall in Bath. "I've been all over the country," she said. "There's a lot of variety in the work."
Gemma Richards, 22, who started the course last November, is another aiming to run her own show. She knows about sexism in the trade. It was, she believes, simply because she was a woman that she lost her previous job as an exterior painter. "The back-up here makes things a lot easier," she said. "I want to get as many qualifications and go as far up the ladder as possible."
Paul Williams, construction manager at Gordano Training, said: "Decorating companies are sometimes asked if they'll send round a woman when a delicate touch is needed or if they have valuable china. Some clients prefer women because they want someone they'll feel more comfortable with."
A spokeswoman for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) said: "We haven't researched whether women householders prefer female decorators but anecdotally we understand that they do."
This is confirmed by Caroline Armstrong of the Islington-based organisation Women and Manual Trades. "For safety and religious reasons, many clients prefer women," she said.
One in 10 staff in Leicester City Council's maintenance department is female as a result of targeted recruitment advertising, work experience and taster courses. The council felt women tended to have better social skills, and that the elderly and the vulnerable preferred women in their home.
* The CITB has launched Positive Image, a recruitment drive aimed at attracting more young people of both sexes into the industry. It says that 380,000 workers need to be recruited by December 2006 to meet growth targets and replace those who are leaving.