A Look at Industry Gender Issues

A Look at Industry Gender Issues

Courtney Wilkinson, vice president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing of Arlington in Texas

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Gender should be a non-issue in this industry, but reality doesn’t always reflect that.

Case in point, Marisa Beaver and Kara Wasserburger, owners of Sewer Experts of Commerce City, Colorado, featured in the June 2021 issue.

“Many times I answer calls from people who ask me to transfer their call to someone who can help them with their sewer line,” Beaver says. “I’ve even had a customer say, “I need to speak to a man.’ We definitely have to hide behind our crew most times, especially when it comes to marketing. It’s strange and uncomfortable to deal with the discrimination we get when we meet some clients on site. They expect to see someone more ‘plumber-ish.’ We’ve lost work and some contracts because of our looks.”

Marisa Beaver and Kara Wasserburger, owners of Sewer Experts of Commerce City, Colorado
Marisa Beaver and Kara Wasserburger, owners of Sewer Experts of Commerce City, Colorado

Unfortunately, it can also create challenges for hiring practices.

“We have to find people who are willing to work for women and take direction from a woman,” Beaver says. “If a guy is willing to take direction from a woman, right there you can tell they’re different than the norm.”

“One of our guys quit when it was announced that I would be president of the company,” Audrey Monell says of when she took over Phoenix-based Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning from her father in 2008. “Too bad. He didn’t know me very well. He just declared he wouldn’t ever work for a woman. I’ve encountered that kind of attitude. I’ve not been taken seriously sometimes because I am a woman.”

Monell otherwise had a lot of support from employees when she took over the company.

Audrey Monell, owner of Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning
Audrey Monell, owner of Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning

“There still is a pride factor in that I get to do something in business that other girls can look up to me for doing. But as far as the day to day, it’s not that big of a deal anymore,” Monell says.

Education is oftentimes key in making the gender issue irrelevant to those people who may have hang-ups about it.

“The more I knew about the wastewater business, the less of an issue gender became,” says Lara Mottolo, who helps run her family’s company Service Pumping & Drain Co. in North Reading, Massachusetts, noting that she did sense the gender gap when she first entered the industry.

Courtney Wilkinson says she was lucky. Her avenue into the plumbing industry came via her father, who made a concerted effort at educating her on all aspects of the business.

“My dad was really a great teacher,” says Wilkinson, vice president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing of Arlington in Texas. “I’m one of those people who has to visually see it. So he would draw up pictures. I would go out on jobs. I would get down into holes underneath houses and really learn how a plumbing system works.”

That field education has complemented the core tasks Wilkinson has handled since starting to work for her father’s company in 1998 during her senior year of high school, everything from accounts payable and receivable to answering the phone and dispatching technicians. The company made the transition to becoming part of the Benjamin Franklin franchise system in 2004.

“It’s a great benefit because I understand when we have new employees what it is they’re talking about,” Wilkinson says. “It’s about building a trust factor. That they can lean on me. If they can’t reach one of our managers, then they can call on me for pricing a job. I’ve created a really good rapport with all of our technicians. Unfortunately, women have to work harder to gain that respect, but if you educate yourself and you know what it is you’re talking about, then it really makes it pretty easy.”

Toward the end of 2020, Wilkinson joined a group called Lady Titans, which is tied to the software company ServiceTitan that the company uses. The group connects on social media and also has been doing monthly Zoom meetings.

“They’ll send out a topic ahead of time and you answer a couple of quick questions. So any kind of issues you’re having, they put you with a group that’s having the same issue so you can talk over those challenges,” Wilkinson says. “Every time we have the meetings you see more and more females. It’s not a closed door for just males anymore, whether it’s on the admin side or being a technician.”

Even if the industry is more male-dominated, what many people want is for gender not to be a primary focus.

“I didn’t become a plumber to prove a point,” says Linda Hudek, who runs her own one-person shop LH Plumbing Services in Fairfield, Ohio. “Male or female doesn’t matter. I’m a good plumber who’s earned the respect of my fellow plumbers and my customers. That’s what matters. My work speaks for itself.”

“When I hire a plumber, I look for industry knowledge, excellent problem-solving skills, a commitment to ethics and customer service, a healthy body and a willingness to work hard. A woman can meet those qualifications just as easily as a man,” says Anja Smith, who has worked in the plumbing industry since 2012. “I will always hire and train the best candidate I can get my hands on. Gender is a non-issue. I’d hope most hiring managers feel the same way. It is, after all, the law. So, is it difficult being a female in a male dominated industry? That question is stale and outdated. The modern adult woman is more annoyed that the gender conversation isn’t over yet than they are intimidated by being outnumbered. Sure, there is a lot of social bias to get past, but we can handle it.”


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