Hattie Hasan, leader of female plumbing community Stopcocks, talks to Vicki Evans about her experience as a woman in the KBB industry
Let’s get the giggling out the way now. A stopcock is the control tap for your mains water into your house and Stopcocks is a band of female plumbers created by Hattie Hasan.
Hasan became a plumber after being a primary school teacher for 10 years. Her desire was for more flexibility in her life and, because of her love of engineering, she decided that sh e would train as a plumber.
One of the main things that you take away from speaking with Hasan is how resourceful she is. While training, Hasan sent out more than 500 CVs and applications to different employees, but not a single person wanted to hire her. So, she set up her own plumbing business while she was training and every skill she learnt in the classroom, she could transfer to her CV and offer out as work.
Her first advert was in a local magazine, which she traded for some plumbing work at the magazine. After a while she started to build up a client base. However, in 2006, she wanted to create an exit strategy and to do something more than just plumbing. So, she had the idea to start the Stopcocks community. Hasan explains: “I wanted to build an army of women plumbers and we were going to make a difference.”
Stopcocks initially started with Hasan going around the country and finding female plumbers by going into local libraries wherever she went and searching for them in Yellow Pages. When she had built up enough contacts, she started a regular newsletter, Stopcocks Monthly, which told stories of other women plumbers and news from the industry.
Hasan says: “I started to really drill down about what was going on in the industry and what women’s experiences were and what their stories were. I wanted to know more and I found that even after 17 years in the industry, things hadn’t really changed that massively for women and they are still having the same problems that I’ve had.”
Problems range from not being taken seriously to no one wanting to hire Hasan when she first started out. She says: “I started to think: what could I do? How can I change this? That was when I had the idea of formalising the network to a band of women plumbers who are just under one brand as Stopcocks.”
Hasan’s current army comprises a database of more than 100 installers, the annual Women Installers Together Conference and Stopcocks plumbers in five franchise areas: London, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Weymouth and Hertfordshire.
It’s difficult to find exact numbers on how many women there are in plumbing and bathroom installation, but the estimate is that they make up less than 1% of the workforce.
Women being good at collaboration is a cliché, but it is certainly true when it comes to Stopcocks. People often reach out to the company for plumbers and if they don’t have a plumber in the area, they will recommend someone from their network even if they are not part of the Stopcocks franchise.
Hasan says: “We can often hand work over to women we know. That is one thing that we do. Even though they are not our plumbers and it is not financially beneficial to hand the work over, we feel that we are a collaboration rather than a competition. We are a community and we continue that community through the Women Installers Together Conference.”
Retailers vs installers
Recently, there has been debate over the retail/installer relationship. Some believe that not keeping installers on the books are cheating them out of basic rights and fair treatment, while other retailers see merit in keeping frequent installers off the books to give everyone more autonomy.
Hasan’s view on the debate is: “I think that, if you are moving into the area of treating people like employees – as in you are telling them what to do – but you are not treating them like employees when it comes to everything else then it is obviously cheating.”
Hasan has stayed independent throughout her career and hasn’t directly worked with one particular retailer, as she enjoys the freedom that being independent can bring her. She acknowledges that the steady work and reliable money is a good reason to build a permanent relationship with a retailer, but it may mean that there is a lot less choice.
She explains: “For women, plumbing is not about the money. Because it is so notoriously difficult for us to get into the industry, we have to really, really love it. Money can be a reason but it is not the main reason. So, for me yes, if I needed to earn a lot of money quickly, then I would be happy to go to a retailer and say, ‘give me all your installation jobs and put me on your books’. But I don’t need that and I think that a lot of women don’t need the money, as they have the work coming out of their ears.”
Some have seen a divide in the installers and retailer relationship with a lot of us-and-them attitude, however she says: “Collaboration between installers and retailers is always the answer.”
One problem that has come about in the past couple of years is accountability and who is the final person responsible for the installation – the retailer who sold the kitchen and bathroom or the installer who put it all together?
Once again Hasan has a simple solution to this blame game: “Wouldn’t it be great to have your installer, designer and customer all in the room at the same time [from the start.] The installer would say the limitations are this, then the designer could work around that.
“What often happens is the designer does the design and then the installer says you can’t have that because of this. Then everything takes longer and costs more. The installer doesn’t care, as they are just a minion that does the work, and the customer is left in the middle with a big bill and no bathroom. I think it is a complex issue, but if you spend more time and money at the beginning preparing everything, then once the installation gets under way, you are less likely to find things that aren’t going to work. It also means that the installer will care more as they’re involved.”
Hasan could list the merits of women being in the industry forever, however there are downsides that either make women quit or not even join the industry in the first place. She says: “It is not always the best environment and it is not always conducive to women – and I don’t mean that it is untidy and people swear. There is a lot more to it than that. The confidence-building aspects of it are important.
“There are massive confidence issues. I think that the banter culture, when you are already not that confident, knocks your confidence even more. And, it is not fair for women to become lads to feel like they fit in.”
While speaking to Hasan, she does talk about a few of the issues that can chip away at some women’s confidence. Hasan speaks of times in her training course where a fellow student could not take a hint and repeatedly asked her out. Or recently, when she did installation work for a friend and her estate agent said that she had knocked £10,000 off the house as a “professional” hadn’t installed it. The estate agent just assumed that Hasan was a friend into DIY rather than a qualified professional installer.
So what are the benefits of having women in the plumbing and installation industries? One thing that Hasan has noticed as she has worked with more and more female plumbers is the way that they interact with their customers. She says: “When you have a plumbing problem and you are in a bit of a state and stressed – things aren’t working or there is flooding through the ceiling – you call someone you want to fix it. A guy turns up and says, ‘no worries, love, I’ll fix it’ and does. You think, fantastic. But the difference is when one of our plumbers turns up, we talk to them, we understand them, we empathise with them and we care about them, and then we fix the problem. That turns the industry into a people thing rather than just a fixing thing.
“I think that is what women bring to the industry – they bring the personal back and it is really important and grossly underestimated. Yes, men do this as well. You have to take the time to care about the customer as well. Then they will be loyal forever.”