According to the Department of Labor, less than two percent (1.4% to be exact) of women work in the plumbing industry. And unfortunately, to most people, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Because when we think about calling “the plumber,” we typically envision a man. However, while it’s more difficult to find a female plumber, the benefits they bring to the workforce are undeniable.
While there are few female plumbers, the women that are in the trade are forging a path and shaping the future of the industry. Their value and impact in the workspace is clear, but the obstacles presented to them may not be so evident.
To better understand, it’s essential to know the background of what the plumbing industry has looked like over the years. So let’s start with a quick crash course.
1. Women in plumbing: A brief history.
Plumbing itself dates back to ancient Rome, but the modern indoor plumbing we know (and love) today originated in the 19th century–and only became more mainstream in the early 1900s.
And while there are plenty of men accredited with the development of plumbing in the United States–Isaiah Rogers, Julius Adams, William Campbell, Fred Addee, Al Moen–the first predominant female name didn’t appear until 1951.
Lillian Baumbach, at the age of 21, was the first woman in the country to receive a master’s license after passing the exam with one of the highest scores in her class. Newspaper articles titled “Pretty Plumber’ Pen Pal of 250 Men,” “Cutest Master Plumber Plans Joint Life with Auto Repairman,” and “Area Now Has Girl Plumber, It Leaks Out” circulated shortly afterwards.
Then, in the mid 1960s Comet, a cleaning product company, ran a series of commercials featuring “Josephine the Plumber.” This was one of the first depictions of a woman in a plumbing role, becoming an iconic character for many in the trades.
It wouldn’t be until 1987 for America to have its first female African American master plumber, Adrienne Bennett. And since then, she’s been a force in the industry. Now a CEO of her own contracting company, Adrienne mentors men and women while advocating for the trades.
Most recently, there has also been an uptick in the number of female plumbers. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there was a 70% increase in the number of women working in plumbing from 2017 (13,200) to 2018 (22,435). With more women joining the industry, they have undoubtedly impacted this male-dominated landscape for the better. Which brings us to…
It’s clear having diversity ultimately comes with more benefits than uniformity. So why are some businesses hesitant to hire female plumbers?
Most of it comes down to social norms. Some have the notion that the nature of the job is too dirty, dangerous, or heavy for women. Reality, however, tells a different story. As Adrienne Bennett reflects, “Being a plumber is a physical job. As an apprentice, I was only 119 pounds. I’m carrying 20-foot lengths of pipe, steel, and cast iron because there was no PVC. I literally became this Amazon.”
Given the opportunity, women can easily thrive in the plumbing profession while shaping the industry into a more compassionate one that’s ultimately being enriched by more diverse relationships.
Shannon Tymosko, an apprentice in the trades, explains, “Culturally, women can give so much to a workforce… they tend to be more nurturing and can change the energy. It’s funny, on a construction site you don’t really see many men running to other men to tell them about their new baby. But let me tell you, when I walk by, they know I’m going to be interested. So then they get the opportunity to show off their baby.”
By including more women in a male-dominated business, it enables workers to be more open and vulnerable. The CCL’s study also found that employees who felt the most support within their organizations were the ones that had the highest percentage of female employees. This created a better overall work environment, increasing satisfaction and retainment.
Female plumbers are also essential to a successful plumbing business because they can provide a level of comfort to some customers that male plumbers cannot.
This is why Hattie Hasan founded The Register of Tradeswomen in the UK, “We work with women that are survivors of domestic abuse. At a women’s safe house, if some work needs doing and they need to contact a tradesman, it can often be quite stressful for them. We get inundated calls from customers who want to use tradeswomen.”
Despite the misconceptions, the benefits women bring to the plumbing industry are invaluable. They are extremely capable and competent for the job, have been proven to increase work satisfaction, and can provide services to customers who may not otherwise be comfortable having strangers enter their homes.
The value of adding a female plumber to your team speaks for itself.
3. Challenges a female plumber will face in the industry.
Nevertheless, women in plumbing face numerous obstacles. It’s important to consider these when building your strategy to hire more women.
A major challenge for women looking to enter the plumbing industry is the lack of opportunities. The World Bank Utility Survey found that water companies hire men over women at a 4-to-1 rate.
And unfortunately, it’s not due to lack of skill. The same study found that there are major gaps in the number of women who graduate from STEM related fields and those who go on to work in these areas. In Canada, for example, the number is less than 50%. This suggests that women are more likely to face bottlenecks in the transition from school to employment. At the same time, Shannon Tymosko highlighted how shortening her name on her resume to the neutral “Shan” significantly increased the number of callbacks she received.
Therefore, it’s essential for plumbing businesses to actively recruit for men and women, setting aside stereotypes and misconceptions. If you are struggling to get women to join your company, start reviewing your hiring process.
Is the phrasing more male oriented? Research suggests that simply switching out certain words in job postings can change the number of women who apply for the position. For example, using tradesperson instead of tradesmen. And once you start the interview process, be mindful of the questions you ask as well. Here’s a great list to get you started.
Another challenge female plumbers face is lack of mentorship and networking opportunities. Since the field is male-dominated, the majority of these social networks are made up of men. This tends to leave women feeling isolated, even if unintentional.
These connections tend to contribute to professional development, though, making it important as members of the plumbing industry to work towards a far more inclusive environment. If you own or work for a plumbing company, partner with organizations like Tradeswomen, Inc. to help female plumbers develop their capacity for leadership and career growth.
And if you’re looking to break into the industry as a woman, or need help finding additional resources, consider joining the National Association of Women in Construction. They offer members education, support, and networking to advance their careers.
4. The future of women in plumbing + the takeaway.
In the next ten years, it’s forecasted that three out of every four people in the trades will retire. This means a significant number of opportunities will open up in the field–for both men and women.
Therefore, now is the time to push for even more gender inclusivity in the plumbing industry. By purposefully hiring and supporting female plumbers the workforce will only benefit. Research has shown that when there are more women in the workplace, people find their work more meaningful. They’re also more engaged and passionate about their trade.
Although they make up a much smaller percentage, women have been crushing stereotypes associated with being female plumbers for decades. Starting with Lillian Baumbach who had the highest grades when earning her master’s license to Adrienne Bennett who persevered against all odds, women have proven themselves to be qualified and competent plumbers.
It’s important that the same effort is made by the industry to propel their careers forward, offering women interested in the trades the opportunity for work and professional development. So, if your plumbing company is looking to hire, seriously consider finding female applicants. If they’re the right fit for your business, the impact they’ll make will be invaluable.
Hi! I'm Ashley Tortorelli
When I'm not researching industry trends and writing about business strategies, I spend time with friends and family, travelling, and searching for the world's best chocolate chip cookie.