Sunday, 25 March 2012

A tale of two plumbers

A feature  appeared the other week in Stella, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, about five women working happily in non-traditional jobs. Annabel Smith, Britain’s only female beer inspector, Diane McMurray, who drives refuse trucks for Bolton Council and Shelley Morgan, a fire-fighter with the London Fire Brigade all talk enthusiastically about their work and how they deal with the surprised looks. But the two of particular interest to constructive women are Rosa Garrigos and Zoe Watson.

Rosa, a 37 year old with two children, became a scaffolder after getting to know about the job when working in a building site canteen. She got a job on the Olympic Village site as a trainee, where she knew a lot of the men working there and where there were lots of women working too – but no other female scaffolders. “So when I’d put my helmet and harness on I would watch the guys’ jaws literally drop. I was something of a novelty,” she says.

Zoe Watson, 25, is a plumbing and heating engineer in Surrey, who took a college course after helping a friend with his plumbing business. She too was seen as something of a novelty by the men on the course, who were friendly but seemed rather immature to Zoe. “I was there to learn," she says, “and I didn’t want distractions.”
Zoe Watson receiving her apprenticeship certificate.  

She obtained an apprenticeship which gave her four days work and one day at college each week. When Zoe was made redundant during her apprenticeship, her mum wrote to the plumbing company that looks after the estate where they live and Zoe was given a job and able to complete her training. Confident in her capabilities, she admits that sometimes the older male residents on the estate sneer when she turns up to service their boilers, “banging on about girls stealing all the mean’s jobs. I just laugh it off and ask them when was the last time they were even in work.”

Zoe’s story is in stark contrast to the recent tale of Sheona Keith, the female plumber from Exeter in Devon who admitted causing actual bodily harm to a stranger in a bar (injuring him in the face with a glass) because she felt he was looking at her in a 'suggestive' way. The judge spared her the customary jail sentence because he accepted the defence that she had been subjected to intolerable sexual harassment at work for months, which apparently had resulted in her losing her job on the day of the attack after complaining to her boss.
Sheona Keith at work in April 2011. 

This is a worrying case, as there appeared to be no opportunity for her employers, outsourcing company Mitie, to respond to these allegations. There is also some confusion in the reporting as to whether she left her job or was made redundant. Moreover just a few months earlier the magazine Devon Life featured an interview with Sheona in which she described how happy she was with her career choice. She said, “I chose plumbing because it opens so many doors, and doing my apprenticeship with Mitie has been amazing. I have learnt so much. Every day I am challenging myself and go home exhausted but happy."

Just three weeks before the case went to court in January this year, the Chief Executive of Mitie, Ruby MacGregor-Smith was awarded the CBE in the New Year’s Honours List, for services to business and diversity in business. Mitie was voted one of the Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2011. Ruby is one of a small number of women holding the position of Chief Executive in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 and is the first Asian woman to be appointed in such a role within that group of companies.  I have shared a platform with Ruby, and can vouch for her practical and unassuming commitment to supporting women in the workplace.
Ruby MacGregor-Smith, CEO of Mitie                
Let us hope that the allegations of Sheona’s treatment and redundancy have been thoroughly investigated and any issues resolved. Let us also hope that this case does not encourage those who feel they are suffering discrimination and harassment at work to take out their frustration on innocent bystanders rather than taking their grievances to a tribunal.

Photographs: NESCOT, This is Devon, Coutts

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