Forget traditional nonsense – meet the four women breaking the bias in so-called ‘male’ careers

International Women's Day will take place on Tuesday 8 March this year, and in celebration we chatted to four inspiring individuals, who are breaking the bias and thriving in careers that are often associated with men.

The Mechanic

Laura Kennedy, 39, lives in London and founded Spanners with Manners

"On an average working day you’ll find me under a bonnet servicing a car and having a good laugh. Every day is different and I love it, but as a kid I was convinced I was going to be the next Sporty Spice.

"I left school at 17 and worked in the admin office for Mercedes. By 22, I’d got a job as a receptionist at a car dealership. One night, watching EastEnders, I saw a female mechanic – Carly Wicks – and decided I was going to train as one too, like my Grandad.

"I always loved fixing things. Once my apprenticeship began the house was filled with car parts – carburettors on the stairs, exhaust pipes in the hallway – it drove Mum mad. One day there were five cars parked on the drive!

"At college I was the first female to study mechanics and lads would joke, 'You can’t lift that, you’re a girl!' But I made it on to the cover of the college prospectus. For work experience, I tried 30 garages, but they all eyed me with surprise and said, 'Sorry luv.' One didn’t even have a women’s toilet.

"After college, at 25, I worked in various all-male garages. Most had never met a gay female mechanic before.

"The more I progressed with my career, the angrier men got. One colleague even swung a hammer at me because I’d failed his car’s MOT. 'Your car’s dangerous,' I told him, before he went ballistic about the fact I had authority. Thankfully my boss intervened and told him I was right.

"Most garages are just how you’d expect them to be – a volatile environment with lots of rows over work and a pin-up calendar on the wall.

"I’m comfortable with my sexuality, but judgement and prejudice are draining. Once a male customer sent his wife out of earshot and asked me, 'Do you like men or women? Do you want to come to the gym with me?' Another said, 'Come on a date with me and I’ll change you.' Some men ignored me completely, but there were nice colleagues, too, who shared their knowledge. And female customers made a beeline for me – I think I reassured them.

"After 16 years in all-male garages I started my own business, where I hired female apprentices from my old college. Spanners With Manners is London’s first all-female garage and my wife Siobhan is the manager.

"It’s like working with your best friends – there are no sexist jokes and the atmosphere is never uncomfortable. We’re often contacted by female apprentices, which is so exciting.

"Being a mechanic isn’t a man’s job any more. Women generally have smaller hands to make light work of hard-to-reach jobs. Customers aren’t intimidated by us and that makes me proud.

"Forget barriers in life. If you want to do something you’re good at in a male-dominated world, get out there and do it."

See Spannerswithmanners.co.uk and @spannerswithmanners on Instagram

The Fisherman

Ashley Mullenger, 34, lives in Norfolk and works as a female fisherman – and explains why she is not a fisherwoman

"Before I found my love of fishing I spent 10 years as a resident liaison officer, sitting at a computer looking after contracts for social housing in my area. Dealing with complaints was stressful.

"One day, in 2009, in search of a release, I invited my mates to go sea fishing at the weekend. We turned up at the harbour at Wells-next-the-Sea on a sunny day, clueless but up for it. As soon as we took to the water in the boat I thought, 'I need to be here.'

"I took the next week off work and joined the skipper every day catching small sharks and fish. My passion snowballed and two years later, the skipper Nigel invited me to join his crew. Spending the summer gutting fish and helping customers with rods and reels was a dream, but then I had to return to my office job.

"Then, in 2018, Nigel asked me to work full-time on his commercial fishing ship. I’d always been put off by the fisherman stereotype – angry, burly blokes – but they’re genuinely lovely, hardworking and considerate. 'But I’m a girl… I’m too weak,' I worried to Nigel. 'What if a man risks his life to save me?' He laughed and told me he had faith in me.

"The sea is hostile. If the weather turns, you’re in for a rough ride. Slips, trips and falls? They’re a daily occurrence – you get used to it. Luckily I don’t get seasick.

"When I’m on the boat I use a hydraulic winch to haul up pots full of fish from the sea. Then I empty them, stack them up and shoot them back into the water. If my hand gets near the rope when it’s flying back to sea, I’ll lose it.

"Initially, Nigel treated me like a china doll. But he soon saw I could haul up pots as well as anyone else. I can’t remember the last time I had a day off, but I don’t care.

"We could be at sea all day and night fishing for crabs, lobsters and whelks. It’s a physical job – some days I’m sweating buckets in my plastic suit, with no make-up on and a beanie on to stop my hair flying around. On others I’m watching a gorgeous sunrise. If I have a spare five minutes you’ll find me sunbathing on deck!

"I’ve experienced such moving things at sea. Once a pod of dolphins and their young approached our boat and honest to God, I cried.

"I’m supported by the local fishermen and my fishing adventures are also followed on Instagram. I haven’t had a bad word in my inbox. Instead, people applaud me. My family is happy for me, but Mum worries. She thinks I’m going to dissolve when it rains!

"Last time I checked there were 14 female fishermen in the UK, compared to about 11,000 men. I insist on being called a female fisherman – that’s my title, I’m not a fisherwoman. There’s no reason why women can’t be fishermen, too.

"You’ve got to love the outdoors, be resilient and be able to get up at ungodly times. A sense of humour is a must and being able to be alone – your colleague might be the only person you see that week.

"Boats are hard work and expensive and it’s not a steady income thanks to the weather. But you can earn great money if you’re prepared to work hard. Just because fishing is a male-dominated industry, it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way."

Follow @thefemalefisherman on Instagram

The Trucker

Lucy Rose Hewson, 35, lives in St Helens and works full-time as a Lorry driver

"Every morning my alarm goes off at 2am and I’m excited to pull on my jeans, trainers and hoodie. The cab has become a special place for me to think in peace. But if I’m having a bad day, it can be terribly lonely.

"Women make up fewer than 1% of the industry. We have a saying – we don’t mind being in a man’s world, as long as we can be women within it. Luckily, I’ve made good female trucking friends since I started driving 16 years ago. We chat on our phones or over social media after work.

"The men appreciate having us around, too. I’ve become a shoulder to cry on when I see them at stops, offering advice about why a girl might not be texting back.

"I can be myself, but I’d never let the men see me cry or show weakness. Even on the first anniversary of my Mum’s death, I retreated to the cab for a quiet sob.

"There’s plenty of banter, so you need a thick skin. 'Who did you have to sleep with to get the job?,' they joke.

"People can be surprised to see me, even getting their phones out to record me. One customer said, 'This isn’t a job for women – you should be at home.' Ridiculous!

"I pull 110 cages of milk on to and off my truck every day and in July I’ll be hauling my lorry across a car park dressed as a Disney princess for charity. I want to keep breaking the stereotypes of who women should be and what we’re capable of.

"My partner Dave is also a trucker – it’s how we met. Previously, I had an awful relationship. My ex couldn’t cope with me talking to other males, which is a huge part of my job.

"Both of my grandads, my dad, my uncles and my brothers are all in this industry. Originally I got my licence to transport animals, then realised my love for big vehicles. Many female truckers are horse riders, in fact.

"Some of the female drivers produced our own charity calendar recently – not the kind where we stripped off! We wanted to show we’re not a sexual fantasy and we made more than £25,000 from the sales. We’re very proud of that.

"The downsides? A bad day can be 15 hours if you hit all the traffic. The service station facilities are often grim – I even found poo in the shower once. When you’re on your period and need to regularly nip to the loo, it’s not nice.

"Instead of fast food, the staple of many truckers, I take healthy snacks with me – boiled eggs, tangerines and protein yoghurts. I have a fridge, microwave and camping stove in my truck. And for safe places to sleep I ask others for tips on trucker Facebook groups.

"But if the sun is out, the lorry is clean and it’s just me and the open road, there’s no better feeling."

The Girl Torque charity calendar is available at hewsoninternational.co.uk

The Firefighter

Sammie Moodie, 33, is a firefighter from South London

"My first big rescue was at an industrial warehouse fire. There were more than 50 firefighters on the scene and a volume of flames I’d only ever seen before on training videos. I was tasked with rescuing two men right at the back of the blaze. There were gas cylinders that could pop off and explosions occurring as I passed the fire to reach them, so I had to work quickly.

"When I got the men to safety, they started taking selfies with me. They were blissfully unaware of how much danger they’d just been in, but I was happy to smile for them.

"I’ve wanted to be a firefighter since I was in my mid teens, but it’s been a long road to get here. There was a lot of training, revising, and rejection and it required patience, but on my third application and well over a decade later, I made it.

"My dream began to take shape at a job fair when I took part in the firefighter simulation on offer and enjoyed the whole experience. I was convinced it was what I was meant to do. On that day I met seven other women who also wanted to go for it. We started a WhatsApp group that’s still active to this day. We’ve all supported and encouraged each other and five of us have gone into the profession.

"If it wasn’t for the kinship we felt that day I may not have even become a firefighter. It was a text in that group that informed me the applications were open again in 2019 while I was working at my local gym. I put my application in just hours before the deadline.

"I was quite lucky there were four women out of 14 in my training group, but there were also quite a few young guys who had a lot of testosterone and big egos. I naturally found myself mothering them.

"When I started working at my station I noticed the older guys were quite careful about how they treated me and what they said. I joined just before the Black Lives Matter movement really started, so they were conscious of the fact I was a black woman. They still don’t want to get anything wrong and are always open to learning from me. I appreciate them taking it all seriously.

"A lot of my job involves educating people about fire safety. The most common cause for the fires we attend is an electrical fault, including using cheap chargers overnight and overloading sockets, so we advise people on how to use gadgets safely.

"Obviously, another side of the job is rescues and yes, I have saved a cat. It was stuck up scaffolding, not in a tree though!

"I’ve also come to the rescue of a woman who was in a bit of a mess because she was scared and she lost control of her bowels. In that situation, she really needed a female who was going to be sensitive and discreet.

"I’ve found elderly people and women feel more comfortable talking to me than a man – perhaps I appear more approachable.

"Children are often bemused by me when I visit schools, especially as I have red hair.

"The most famous firefighter is probably Fireman Sam, who’s a white man. It’s not just women who are underrepresented, it’s non-white people. The brigade is moving in the right direction but it’s going to take time. If young people don’t see anybody who looks like them in a certain role, it’s harder for them to aspire to that job.

"I have a six year old son who loves telling everybody what his mum does, so he’s helping me on my mission to educate. My whole family is proud of me for reaching this point in my career – my grandma even came over from Jamaica to attend my graduation!"

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreaktheBias. For more information see internationalwomensday.com

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