You don’t think of ‘soft skills’ as being high on the list of qualities critical to a tradesperson’s success, but as Colleen Upton will tell you, the physical ability to easily manoeuvre a hot water cylinder isn’t anywhere near as important on a call-out as clear communication – just one of a surprising number of areas in which her female staff outperform their male colleagues.
A compelling if cerebral argument for women to pursue this “very lucrative” career option, Upton is clear that the female plumbers and gasfitters she’s mentored over the past 30 years are just as handy on the tools, too.
Unfortunately, getting a foot in the door to prove it remains a challenge for many, with one female apprentice being denied interviews at 35 different plumbing outfits before Upton took her on. “She had topped her pre-trade class, so we’re talking the cream of the crop here. And it was just ‘Nope, we don’t hire women’ over and over.”
Since starting out managing invoices and typing quotes for a small plumbing business in her 20s – a role which quickly expanded so significantly she insisted on buying a stake in the company – Upton has seen sexist attitudes come a long way.
But while the topless calendars might be long gone from the smoko room, several years on the board of Master Plumbers NZ was enough to convince her that women’s contributions continue to be undervalued by the industry, and undersold by the women themselves.
“A lot of plumbing businesses are husbandand-wife operations, and it’s always the wives who are following legislative changes and understanding their implications and dealing with any fallout. So you feel like saying to them, ‘Maybe you should be coming to all these meetings and your husband can stay home and look after the kids.’”
Mother to a fiercely independent grown-up daughter and two married sons, whose wives’ careers have always been equal if not higher priorities than their own, Upton is proud to have instilled such strong, feminist values in her children.
And now, she says, the master has become the apprentice. “Before this photo shoot, I told my 10-year-old granddaughter, ‘Nana is a bit scared!’ And she said ‘Nana, sometimes you just have to do things you’re scared of.’”