Aude Michaud used to be a psychologist. Mona Lalanne worked in fashion.
But today, the pair owns and operates one of the first female-run plumbing businesses in Paris. Armed with wrenches and a whole lot of brass pipe, the two 30-somethings are breaking the glass ceiling and opening the eyes of their kinswomen—still largely mired in traditional gender stereotypes—to new and unexpected career paths.
Neither Michaud nor Lalanne ever expected she would become a plumber but, after a few years spent pursuing traditional careers, both felt the siren call of manual work and professional autonomy. “It took me three years of research and thought before I finally decided to pursue plumbing as a career,” says Michaud. “I made the decision later in life, after deciding that I wanted a stable job that would allow me to work with my hands.” Lalanne concurs: “Plumbing had never even crossed my mind. It was only after I’d finished university and started working in the textile industry that I considered switching. Manual labour never scared me, and I’d always loved fixing things myself at home.”
The two met at school while pursuing their certificates of vocational aptitude in plumbing, and had only been practicing their trade for nine months when they decided to launch their own business, Le Sourire de la Plombière (The Lady Plumber’s Smile), in August 2016.
In France, where the unemployment rate has hovered around 10 per cent (a number that rises to about 24 per cent for those 25 and under) for too long now, job creation is a hot topic. One solution comes from the building and sub-trade sector, which is seriously in need of employees. Trades like plumbing, electricity, roofing, and carpentry are quick and reliable ways to find employment, but aren’t even on the radar of most young women. The reason? A lack of education, awareness, and female representation in a traditionally male-dominated area—women make up a measly 2.1 per cent of sub-trade labourers in the country.
“There are more and more associations that promote women in construction and that make training for women more available than it once was,” Lalanne explains. “But it would be great if big construction groups would allow us to work on big work sites by providing women’s bathrooms.” Despite this glaring oversight, the pair admit that discrimination is a non-issue for them. “On the contrary,” says Michaud. “Women are so rare in this line of work that our suppliers, partners, and clients are delighted to work with us—it makes us special.” Besides, customers always know before hiring Le Sourire de la Plombière that it is run by women. “It’s because they want to deal with women that they get in touch,” Lalanne says. “People trust us innately, which lays a solid foundation and leads to strong and lasting relationships with our customers.”
The pair also admit that the job can be less than glamourous, which is likely a contributing factor to the lack of interest among women. Lalanne admits that practicing a trade is difficult. “You can’t kid yourself,” she says. “Carrying things all day long, being dirty, physical discomfort, and regular cuts, scratches, and bruises are all par for the course in this job.” Despite these challenges, the duo is happy. After all, they get to create their own destinies.
When asked if they have any advice for women interested in pursuing a trade, there is no hesitation: “Don’t be scared, just go for it,” Michaud enthuses. Lalanne agrees: “It’s a huge amount of work, but there’s an equal amount of pleasure to be gained from this type of job and from being your own boss. Plus, nothing beats the personal satisfaction gained from being able to fix or build something yourself.”
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