Women in Plumbing: Forging New Paths in a Male-Dominated Trade
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When you think of a plumber, what comes to mind? A worker in a jumpsuit, a belt heavy with tools slung over their shoulder, ready to crawl into the dark corners of our homes to fix a leak? And they're almost certainly a man, right?
That gender stereotype has dominated the plumbing trade for generations—and it's affected who have pursued plumbing as a long-term career. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of women plumbers was only about 2.5% nationwide.
But the women who do make a living as plumbers are not only making valuable contributions to the field but forging a path for other women looking to enter a rewarding and lucrative career. And with industry forecasts pointing to a 75% retirement rate among current tradespeople in the next ten years, the moment to finally change our conceptions about who plumbers are may be at hand.
Yes: It can be hard for women to get into plumbing.
Women already face numerous challenges in the workplace and, in vocations that have traditionally been male-dominated like the trades, those challenges can be even greater. “Women wanting to get into the trades need to be prepared for some pushback,” says Linda Hudek, owner and plumber at LH Plumbing Services, LLC in Fairfield, OH. “Especially if it’s not at a family-owned company… that’s just the way of life.”
Alayna Chavez of Cool Today in Sarasota Florida recalls one instance in which a customer refused to let her do a job because she was a woman—only to have a fellow male technician standup for her:
“I had one customer who didn't accept me to do the work of a ‘man's job’ on his property (setting a toilet). So I gave him what he wanted and let him have another male plumber come out to do the job. Let's just say my technician stood up for me when the customer wondered how the company could send a woman out to set a heavy toilet and guarantee that it wouldn't leak. ‘She can install heaters, I'm sure a toilet is nothing to her,’ my technician told this customer.”
Is that “pushback” worth it for women who are interested in becoming plumbers? According to Leah Adelman, owner of Leah the Plumber in Saskatoon, Canada—absolutely. “The plumbing trade is the least picked by women, but I think it’s the most open to receiving women in the trades,” she says. “It’s a profession that’s well paid and you can live a good lifestyle on what you make as a plumber.”
Leah isn’t wrong. The average salary for a plumber in the U.S. in 2019 is $56,486. Plumber wages can vary widely depending on the region of the country and the qualifications of the individual plumber, but the fact remains: In most markets, you can make a good living being a plumber.
Do plumbers hire women?
There’s no clean-cut answer to this question. Have women faced doubt, rejection, and discrimination when approaching this profession? Undoubtedly. But it’s also a profession, as Leah Adelman pointed out, that women seldom approach. And remember: The number of young women interested in trades like plumbing has likely shrunk even further because the number of young people overall interested in the trades has trended downward.
So let’s put it this way: if a plumbing shop isn’t hiring women, it absolutely should be. The women plumbers we spoke to believed that women aren’t just as capable as men at being plumbers, but that they brought something special and valuable to the profession, as well.
“Being a woman in Sarasota, Florida doing plumbing, I have a lot of older women and widows to service and they say they feel so much more comfortable with a woman coming into their home to service them,” says Alayna Chavez.
“Some guys can be really aggressive with one another when they’re trying to make a point,” Leah Adelman points out, “and I think we [women] have some really valuable skills when it comes to problem solving and working together that really shine in this industry.”
“Usually, I get mostly positive responses as a female plumber, both from men and women,” Linda Hudek adds. “Very rarely do I get anyone who doesn’t like the fact that I’m a female plumber, both from customers and other plumbers that I work with. So I think it’s wonderful.”
What’s it like being a woman plumber?
Is being a woman plumber all that different from being a male plumber? According to the women plumbers we talked to... not really. “Being a female plumber is an excellent career,” says Leah Adelman. “I entered the trades in my mid 20’s. Since that time, I have never wanted to do ‘something else’ I always found another avenue related to plumbing that I wanted to try.”
“I definitely love my job. It’s certainly not perfect, nothing ever is, but I certainly like what I do. I’m cut out for it,” says Linda Hudek. “And the most satisfying thing about being a plumber is that they need me. Without us, the world as we know it ceases to exist.”
Are there challenges? Of course, but from Leah Adelman’s point-of-view, they are rarely specific to women plumbers. “100% of my challenges came when I allowed myself to listen to that voice that says ‘you’re not good enough’ or whatever negative thought someone might have,” Adelman adds. “What I find most interesting after being in this trade and developing great friendships and mentorships is that everyone struggles with this. It’s not a trait that is gender specific.”
How do I become a plumber?
Of the woman plumbers we spoke to, all of them agreed that education and training were key to their success in the field. “Every day I'm faced with a new challenge, a new customer, and a new situation,” explains Alayna Chavez. “That's why my company sends us to Nextar training, we learn to face and overcome challenges with customers and new plumbing situations.”
Let’s take a look at a few of the most trusted plumbing training for women resources the industry is offering today.
Education and Training
Formerly the Nexstar Legacy Foundation, Explore the Trades is a comprehensive online hub for anyone, including women and vets, to learn about the trades. With everything from FAQs to career path overviews and training recommendations, it’s a great starting place for those looking to take their very first step into this industry.
Looking for plumbing classes for women? Your local trade school is likely your best option. TopTrade.School has a handy database of schools that can help you find reputable trade schools in your area. The site also has a basic plumbing practice test so that new candidates can test their base knowledge on the topic.
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association is one of the most prominent industry groups in the country and their careers page is an amazing resource for those looking to pursue a plumbing career. You can learn about scholarships available to trades students and even connect with local PHCC Chapters to learn about apprenticeship opportunities in your area.
Women plumbers are trailblazers.
When do you think the first woman master plumber was licensed in the United States? The 70s? The 80s? It actually happened in 1951 when, at age 21, Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs passed the master plumbers exam in Arlington Virginia. Six other men took that same exam with her—and only two passed. Lillian grew up helping her father’s plumbing business and became a bit of a celebrity when the media reported on her record-breaking career milestone.
Lillian is the only American woman plumber who has broken barriers and cleared a path for other women. In 1987, Adrienne Bennett became the first African American woman to become a master plumber in Detroit, Michigan. Adrienne continues to be an industry legend: She’s recounted her difficult path in the trades to countless news outlets, is the CEO of her own contracting company, and sits on the advisory board at Lawrence Tech. Just this year, the Small Business Association of Michigan named Adrienne Michigan’s Small Business Women of the Year.
This is all to say that women plumbers are not new. For decades, they have worked alongside male counterparts to fix people’s homes, ensure building safety, and make a positive impact on their communities. And more than that, they lead rewarding, fulfilling careers that have enriched their lives.
"Plumbing started teaching me how to have a voice... and how to solve problems," says Leah Adelman. "If you invest in your work, it will give you a life you want to have. You just need to choose it."
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