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A man’s world no longer: Women who have pushed into the male professions spotlighted

A firefighter, an airline pilot and a high-wire construction worker are among the subjects of a new photography book

Jen Kelly: “It’s really heartening to see a new movement happening, like the Women’s Marches and a bit of fire under people’s arses.” Photograph: Beta Bajgart
Nicky Hughes: “I’ve got two young kids, and it’s important for me for them to see me going to work and enjoying my job.” Photograph: Beta Bajgart
Teresa Hudson: “People say to me, but what do you do in the fire brigade? They don’t do it on purpose, but it’s kind of like, you’re a girl, so what do you do?” Photograph: Beta Bajgart

Like all good photographers, Beta Bajgart has a knack of pulling out aspects of people’s personalities and their humanity that might not be so evident at first glance. Nowhere is this more evidenced than in her upcoming coffee-table photography book, A Woman’s Work, a series of brilliant portraits that focus on women in unusual or male-dominated professions.

Bajgart has photographed chess players, boxers, lifeboat workers, sommeliers, electricians, undertakers, Michelin star chefs, rally drivers, scientists and more. She crowdfunded the book, which will be launched on International Women’s Day, March 8th, with proceeds going to the National Women’s Council.

The reoccurring theme throughout the photographs is strength, mental as well as physical, and the sense that it probably took the subjects a great deal of grafting to get where they are.

Firefighter Teresa Hudson, who lives in Kildare, is from Dublin – “inner city born and bred” – and works in Dolphin’s Barn. She left a corporate job with Guinness to join the fire brigade. She had been in the reserve defence forces, and knew a lot of men in the fire brigade. “I thought I’d go for it,” she says. “I was 26 at the time, and I wasn’t settled into what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

The general misconception of the job, Hudson says, is that “people think you should be constantly running into burning buildings. Especially for Dublin, a lot of people don’t realise the dual role of paramedics – ambulances and firefighting.”

The other misconception, she says, is that people don’t see it as a job for women. “People say to me, but what do you do in the fire brigade? They don’t do it on purpose, but it’s kind of like, you’re a girl, so what do you do? I don’t think there’s an intentional gender bias, but any role where there is traditionally one gender over another in it, people might find it hard to understand what you’re doing.”

On their worst day

Firefighting is a tough and physically demanding job, but for Hudson, the difficulties are more emotional.

“The hardest part of the job is dealing with people on the worst day of their lives. You are sometimes dealing with that, when they’ve just lost somebody or something devastating has happened. We’re very often the first person who is telling them or explaining to them that somebody has passed away . . . The rest of it, the physicality, the hours, what we deal with on a daily basis, can be tough at times, but it’s all part of the job.”

Hudson talks about how training pushes firefighters through some scenarios they face, how her coworkers really are a “family”, and how, ultimately, everyone who rings 999 needs help. Providing that to strangers is where the job satisfaction lies.

“I know I always do the best I can in every situation,” she says. “We don’t always have the best outcomes. Sometimes we do. We deliver babies, we save lives. But sometimes we don’t save lives. But that idea of knowing you have done the best you can for a stranger – I think that’s the thing we should all be most proud of. You don’t get that kind of job satisfaction anywhere else.”

What does need to happen, she says, is a change in mindset regarding who is suited for the role and who isn’t: “To see it more as a vocation and a vocation as not just for your physical skills. It’s a much more rounded profession than people know; there’s a level of empathy, understanding. You have to be a negotiator and as well as being able to do your job, as you do have to have a level of physicality with what we do.”

Nicky Hughes, a pilot for Aer Lingus, is originally from Leopardstown in Dublin. Her mother, like many women, was forced to give up her job in the civil service when she got married.

“I think in this day and age, particularly with what’s going on in America at the moment, it’s important not just for girls but kids in general to see women in positive roles, following what they believe in and being able to succeed in what they believe in,” Hughes says. “I’ve got two young kids, and it’s important for me for them to see me going to work and enjoying my job. I’ve got load of friends who are female pilots, so when my kids were younger they thought all pilots were female!”

Flying lessons at 18

Hughes’s father was always interested in aviation, but he didn’t make it through pilot training because he didn’t have 20/20 vision. For his daughter’s 18th birthday, he bought her flying lessons. Hughes did an arts degree, began working to pay for her flying training, and eventually earned a private license for light aircraft. At the time, Aer Lingus advertised for cadetships, and Hughes managed to secure one, which also funded her training.

Unlike many pilots, Hughes never studied honours maths or physics, but that didn’t hold her back. “I found doing the theory and the study a lot more difficult than some of my colleagues,” she says, “but I had to just put extra work in.” After starting out on European routes, she now operates Aer Lingus’ transatlantic routes. Her favourite city to fly into is New York. “I still love flying into there. It’s a very dynamic airport, it’s always busy, and you get that view of the city.”

Hughes notes the solidarity among the airline’s female pilots. Only 10-12 per cent of Aer Lingus pilots are women, though that is high compared with other carriers, shes says: “They’re always looking for more female pilots, and there are more applicants coming through.”

Grainne Cronin, Aer Lingus’ first female pilot, retired in 2010. “Grainne Cronin was amazing,” Hughes says. “When she was finishing, she said, ‘You know, girls, look after each other. It’s always going to be different. There are differences, but once or twice a year, check in, get together, organise a lunch, link in with each other.’ And she’s right. All of us do that. We get people together, because it is different, and I’m glad that support is there.”

There is also something very cool about the respect pilots command, right? That must make her feel like a bit of a badass.

“Ha! I do understand that, yes . . . it’s the same feeling of meeting a nurse or a surgeon in a hospital and knowing the skills that they have that you don’t have, I understand it from that view point. It’s important for passengers to have a sense of security and make sure that they feel safe, that’s always the biggest thing. Safety is the priority. You have to feel there’s somebody there that looks after you.”

Jen Kelly is an industrial abseiler and founder of WITNI (Women in Trades Network Ireland). WITNI’s mission is “to remove psychological barriers for women in Ireland so that it’s easier to achieve whatever they are passionate about,” Kelly says, and “also to develop self-sufficiency and confidence through tool skills, which has a profound effect on ones capabilities in the rest of life.”

Kelly’s father is Irish and her mother is from New Zealand, so she has divided her life between Ireland and the southern hemisphere. Her journey into such a specialised construction trade had an unlikely beginning at the Melbourne Women’s Circus.

“When I joined the Women’s Circus, it blew my mind,” she says. “It was women performing, but also women doing all the tech work, rigging, everything. I don’t mind if I work with men or women, but I was really used to seeing a guy in the background running things, and that wasn’t happening. That was refreshing.”

Cleaning windows

At the time, Kelly was also working in an outdoors shop with “a really inspiring woman” who was a rigger in a circus. A friend suggested she try abseiling work. She pitched up at a company, which told her to clean windows for a month to get experience.

“I came back and said I’ve done my window cleaning. They stuck me on a job with a bunch of guys painting. Next thing you’re sealing windows. Next thing you’re doing concrete repairs on the side of a building. Next thing you’re installing cladding. I learned as I went, which is my favourite way to learn.”

Since then, abseiling has led to working on the London Eye, on oil and gas projects, and on wind turbines in Scandinavia. But it is here in Ireland that she feels the need to make more of a difference in terms of women working in construction here.

“I’d have recruiters on the phone saying who are you looking for the job for,” she says. “And I’m like, well, I’m not ringing for my boyfriend!”

Kelly details some remarkable figures that show the work that needs to be done. Only 5 per cent of the Irish construction workforce is female – and £the majority of those women are perhaps in the more academic-based roles, for example architecture or maybe engineering. Great roles, fantastic roles. But when we’re starting to talk about women on tools on site, it’s maybe less than 1 per cent.” In 2016, only 33 out of 10,000 State-funded apprenticeships were taken up by women.

A couple of years ago, Kelly, says, she was at the point thinking that she might have to leave Ireland again. But establishing WITNI has pushed her towards advocating for women in the sector.

“It’s hard seeing how things can be for women in other places that have progressed, and you come back here and think, oh you can’t be serious! Whether it’s to do with women in construction, or abortion rights, or just how women are seen in society, it’s really heartening to see a new movement happening, like the Women’s Marches and a bit of fire under people’s arses.”

Presented with a list

Something many women in male-dominated professions flag is how opportunities are presented to young women early on – or not as the case may be. “It wasn’t something every suggested to us in school,” Hughes says of women becoming pilots. “I remember mentioning in to a career guidance teacher at the time, and she had a list of professions and said: Is it on the list? And it wasn’t on the list.”

For some, the bias continues. Kelly recalls a phone conversation she had while looking for support. “I rang a union one day and said hey, I’ve been looking for work for a while, not having much luck. That’s okay, but could you point me in the direction of a scheme that might help me out? They said but there’s no jobs for the men. Why would they start a scheme to get women into those jobs?

“That was in 2015. And that was a woman on the other end of the phone.”

With WITNI, Kelly is keen to connect with people who want to collaborate or advocate for women in construction, with employers who want to show their support, and with women who want to tell their stories.

“I think there’s something to be said for fundamentally getting to know yourself and what you like, not what you think you should be liking according to other people,” she says. “You’ll hear your own drive stronger, and you’ll know where your passions lie. If you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’ll want to learn and you’ll become good at it. I don’t necessarily think everybody should learn something with tools, but I have met a lot of women who are quietly keen to learn but are shy about it.

“If you’re keen on something, just start doing it. If you can’t find what you want but you start communicating that you want to learn things, people respond to that and they’ll want to help you.”

For Hudson, that drive to find what you’re passionate about and be the best at it that you can be is also central to her experience as a firefighter.

“If you do your job to the best of your ability, and you have your integrity, that’s all that really counts,” she says. “Whether you’re a street sweeper or the president, we can only do our best.”

https://awomansworkbook.com

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