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Opinion: 'I'm constantly asked if I can thank the handyman for carrying out their work - my work'

Laura de Barra, author of a new book Gaff Goddess, writes about why we need to take the gender out of DIY.

Laura de Barra

“WHAT’S A GIRL like you doing in a place like this then?”

“Bought your first place, ‘av ya?”

“Ain’t your boyfriend around?”

“We’ve run out of pink!”

What I’m looking for when I hear these comments in DIY stores is not something that comes in pink, it’s something simple – a screwdriver, a washer, a wrench. But when I’ve stepped into some DIY stores, the assumption is that I don’t know what I’m doing.
An average month for me at work will see me build flatpack furniture, hang shelves, fix dishwashers and washing machines, the list goes on. I may have to repair leaking shower hoses, or dodgy bathroom plugs, or tweak UPVC window handles. And of course, there will always be a leak under the kitchen sink.

Tackling these jobs means regular trips to a local DIY store for supplies, tools, drain unblocker … and an eye opener or two.

I’ve always loved DIY stores (along with haberdashery shops and chemists). I don’t know why. I just go WILD when I see one. It’s the rows and rows of solutions to life’s problems that soothes me, I think.

But as I needed to visit them more often, I started to encounter more of the above comments. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this then?” became a familiar refrain. I’d hear that they’d “run out of pink” when I would ask for something behind the counter, followed by a roaring laugh. A classic. 

It never came in pink.

What’s men’s work anyway?

I have zero fear in situations like this.

Of course, the assumption that I only want pink tools irks me for many reasons, but also: I’m not a huge fan of fuchsia.

In every part of my job I am doing so-called ‘men’s work’, and it’s highlighted. I’m asked if I am the PA at viewings, if ‘one of the guys at the office’ can give them a call when they don’t like my offers. I’ve been asked to get my husband to help me at certain stages of a repair.

I am constantly asked if I can thank the handyman for carrying out their work … my work.

So, when it came to this DIY store banter, I wasn’t fazed. It was just another part of my role where I needed to focus on the bigger picture of why I was there: to gain the knowledge needed, then move on and find an alternative for next time.

Shopping around for my go-to DIY store, I began to realise that they are like every other store. There are good ones, and there are bad ones. In a good one, the employees are experts in their field and love to give you advice.

They know which products are poor, the best way to use what you are buying, must-have items for the task ahead and what’s just great value.

In these stores, I gained a hell of a lot of information that was making life a lot easier. Although at times there was an assumption that I knew nothing about the task at hand (and sometimes I didn’t), time was always taken to talk me through processes. There was a softness and sense of patience when I asked questions or needed more info.

But in a bad store there would be the odd cringey proposal with a plumbing olive (reader, it looks like a copper wedding ring), queries about whether I was married, or if someone had let me down leaving me in the awful situation of having to do it myself and so on.

This was just not something I wanted as part of my day. And at first, I thought this meant I wanted to be treated like one of the men.

But one thing that stood out on my search was that it wasn’t just me getting gender stereotyped, it was also men. Not all men, just men in the same position as me.

The men that also needed some advice, who weren’t professionals or experts, who just wanted to figure out how to do it themselves.

While I was getting put in the “make it pink” bracket, men in my position were getting put in the “useless” bracket. This was something that really opened my eyes.

The grey area

Gaff Goddess high res jacket

I would see it time and time again, someone asking a similar question to me and getting belittled, but in a different way. The tone was that, as a man, if they didn’t know this simple thing then they must be useless.

If a girl didn’t know, it just meant no one taught her.

I began to realise there is this grey area around DIY for most people who don’t work in a trade or have a heavy interest in it. And it was not down to gender.

This area of mystery brings a lot of fear and a little anxiety. It’s like, we’ve missed the boat and we can never catch up, or it’s a club we don’t belong to. This then results in people never learning, never fixing – and crucially, wasting money having someone else do something we could actually do ourselves, all because we don’t feel like we can.

It’s this grey area that is preventing us from learning about our home and fearing repairs and smaller issues.

This is what drove me to write and illustrate my book Gaff Goddess: Simple Tips and Tricks to Help You Run Your Home. I had started out sharing tips and simple hacks on Instagram as I went about my work. They were small snippets and quick tutorials, but they could make a big difference and most importantly anyone could do them no matter how much experience they had.

The amount of both female and male followers (and questions) I gathered showed that it wasn’t just me who felt this way. 

Women and men were able to learn from what I learned, and could then go into DIY shops armed with enough information to get started. I want everyone to feel empowered enough to pick up that screwdriver – and trust me, the feeling of satisfaction you get from learning about as well as repairing your gaff will only spur you on to do more.

No pink required (unless you’re into it, of course).

Gaff Goddess by Laura de Barra is published by Transworld Ireland and is out now. Laura is a regular columnist with TheJournal.ie’s Glenveagh Home Magazine.

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Laura de Barra

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