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Image: US Library of Congress, via Flickr (Public Domain)

Last year, my partner and I moved into a new house. The whole exercise was exhilarating – finally, a place we owned – but it also unearthed in me a desperation, a deep frustration. For a long time I’ve wanted to be someone who fixes things, builds things, someone who is capable in practical day-to-day tasks. But though I own tools, I have ideas, and I tinker with my surroundings, I’ve never felt completely at ease in the tasks that various men in my life seem to take on with no backward glance.

In our just-built house there were so many jobs to do with drills, hammers, caulking guns. My drive to learn by doing was offset by disorientation and self-doubt. I wanted to begin improving our house, but I didn’t know what sort of screws I needed for the curtain rod brackets, or whether I could just drill straight into the plasterboard. My partner, a man, didn’t have much more experience in these things than I did, but approached the situation with a confidence and bluster that only confused me more.

Everyone had an opinion about these curtains. My brother-in-law advised me to get special wall plug thingies, the name of which I immediately forgot. I went to my local hardware store, was led brashly down an aisle and before I knew it I was out thirty bucks and holding a box of some heavy duty weight-bearing fixings that I suspected weren’t really what I needed. The unfiltered light from the street disturbed my sleep and I was stuck in a perpetual information-gathering loop, unable to begin.

I’d love to try things out and make mistakes without someone else coming in and taking over, or telling me what I ‘should’ be doing.

‘You just try things out and you make mistakes,’ my partner’s mum told us when we mentioned some of our plans for the new house, along with our doubts about executing them. ‘That’s how your dad learned.’ I wanted to tell her that I’d love to try things out and make mistakes without someone else coming in and taking over, or telling me what I ‘should’ be doing. I agree that this is probably the best way to learn all those practical skills I’m chasing – but as a woman in the company of men, it is almost impossible.

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Practical skills might be inaccessible or uninteresting to many people, regardless of their gender. But to me, what’s important is the opportunity to try. Shelley Lynn Jackson, author of my favourite bicycle repair manual, Chainbreaker, explains the universal human impulse to practise these skills. She writes: ‘The Do-It-Yourself culture started way before the punks. People have always loved learning how to be better in touch with their surroundings by problem solving life’s inevitable breakdowns and becoming proactive in keeping their world functioning.’

Even when we try not to, we treat boys and girls differently, right from birth. A raft of studies suggest that the gender assigned to young children can influence how adults interpret their crying, how we play with them, and how we respond to their risk-taking behaviour. Children can reportedly become aware of gender stereotypes from around 18 months old, and these stereotypes can have flow-on effects. Traditionally ‘masculine’ toys like blocks and puzzles have been found to encourage visual and spatial skills, while ‘feminine’ toys instead boost communication and social skills. The social sanctions of gendered play and later, gendered work, lead to more than a political power imbalance and a yawning wage gap. They shape how we tackle problems and engage with our environment – how in control we can feel of our own lives.

Gendered play and gendered work shape how we tackle problems and engage with our environment – how in control we can feel of our own lives.

There were no woodworking or metalworking classes at my all-girls’ school. When I moved out of home as a teenager, my dad showed me how to change a blown fuse. Around the same time, my best friend’s boyfriend gave me a set of tiny pink-handled screwdrivers in a neat little pink pouch. They were the only tools I had, but I hated them – feminised and shrunken replicas of what I imagined to be the real thing. I didn’t know how to use them, anyway.

Trade painter and researcher Fiona Shewring conducted a study where she interviewed women in trades training at TAFE NSW to determine what helps them succeed. She found that most of the women ‘came from trade families and as children had often helped their fathers with manual work around the house.’ They were encouraged to tinker with tools. I suspect this early experience fosters a confidence, even an entitlement, that is harder to gain as an adult.

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There was a time when I glimpsed what it might mean for me, to be confident in my own practical abilities. In my early twenties I found bicycle mechanics, and it opened up a part of me I hadn’t known how to access. I learned the joy of working with my hands, when for the better part of two decades I had been lost in books and papers.

First, there was a community bicycle workshop in Canada, a bustling shop spilling out bent wheels and punks in patched-up vests. It was mostly men working there, but there were a couple of women and I admired them with a fierce longing, their blunt authority and assuredness in the greasy metal-strewn space. I befriended one of the mechanics and he took me on, each week demonstrating and explaining and inviting me into skills in a way that inspired my confidence and wonder.

Back home, the more I tinkered, the more I realised there was to learn – and that thought thrilled me. So, too, did the new understanding I had while whipping around on my finely-tuned bicycle, weaving in and out of traffic, that this experience was made possible through my own handiwork. Making something, fixing something, using and improving it – this work felt meaningful and true. My newfound confidence bled out into other parts of my life. I approached blocked toilets and broken zippers with a mechanic’s mind. I gained some swagger, dashing around the dusty warehouse where friends and I had started our own community workshop, doling out advice and encouragement, tidying up tools and counting out donations.

But still something niggled at me – a desire, perhaps, to be taken more seriously, to prove what I could do – so I went back to the Pacific Northwest, to spend two months living and working with a master mechanic. In bike school I felt like a badass, wielding ratchet spanners and chain whips and spoke tensiometers, even a blow torch and a mallet for the odd rusted-on bottom bracket. Each time I adjusted the gears just so, or trued a wheel so it whirred straight and silent, my mentor would give me a firm handshake and a crinkly smile, and I would feel closer to being a whole human, unbound and capable.

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While we were moving house, before I got stuck on installing curtain rods, I returned to the old rental one evening. I went to haul a final load, to tidy up the yard and do the lawns. I struggled to start the leaky old whippersnipper, but with no-one around to offer advice or take over, I persisted until it chugged into life. I trimmed all the edges and gathered up the weeds, loading bits of junk into the borrowed ute. It felt good, to be alone and whistling and directing myself in a series of practical tasks.

It felt good, to be alone and whistling and directing myself in a series of practical tasks.

Previous trips back to that rental to clean it, to scrub and sweep and wipe and mop, I wasn’t buoyed by this same import of authentic capability. I worked hard at cleaning, and I brought to the task a degree of skill and grit. But I railed against the job as I worked. I felt suffocation instead of satisfaction. Rubber gloves didn’t make me feel powerful like leather ones did.

But where exactly did this good feeling come from? I worry that it could be bound up with a sense of proximity to masculinity; that my opposing experiences of these two types of practical work are informed by their social context, rather than any inherent joy or value in one over another. Cleaning is ‘women’s work’, poorly paid when it’s paid for at all. I have been socialised to perform it, but not to cherish it. Perhaps doing ‘masculine’ tasks allowed me access, however brief and tenuous, to a state of higher value, to a sense of freedom through work regarded as worthy, as fit for a man.

There are only around 5500 tradeswomen across ​Australia, making up just two per cent of the trades workforce. Griffith University researcher Karen Struthers interviewed school students to try to understand this persistent imbalance. ‘There was a strong view’, she writes, ‘that female students are capable of doing the male-dominated trades, but gender stereotypes and feelings of intimidation deter girls from these trades.’ Struthers blames the ‘gender essentialist views’ promulgated in popular culture and reinforced by family and society – that women are better at nurture and service, while men are better at physical and problem-solving tasks. These views follow women even when they do embark on a trade. A 2003 article in The Guardian quotes Gemma, a 21-year-old plumber: ‘The main problem when I was training on a building site was colleagues who wanted to “look after” me and do everything for me.’ This is the danger of asking someone for help – that they will take the tools out of your hands. It happened to me countless times while working on bikes.

The overwhelming dominance of manual trades by men not only fosters environments that are intimidating or unsafe for women and non-binary people, further excluding their participation, but it also results in a lack of representation that reinforces gender stereotypes. As journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez writes, ‘Numerous studies on “stereotype threat” show that female students do worse in maths tests when reminded of their gender – but, when presented with a female role model, often outperform men.’ How can we, as women, be sure that we can do this work, when we have never seen it? This poor representation has implications that reach further than enrolment in trades courses, and into our domestic lives. It feeds self-doubt.

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I found myself drifting away from bike mechanics, gradually, in the months and then years after returning from bike school. Initially brimming with ideas and passion, the sum of small pressures came to outweigh my love for the craft. Being left out of planning meetings for maintenance classes I co-taught with two men; being ignored or talked over in the workshop, left to fix the mistakes of men who were too proud to ask my advice; trying to start up exclusive opening hours for women and gender diverse people with a non-binary mechanic friend, only to have men turn up for ‘urgent’ tasks; being talked down to every time I went into a shop for a part, or even when I worked in one.

How can we, as women, be sure that we can do this work, when we have never seen it?

I had become, I think, a decent bike mechanic – patient and thorough. But it would have taken some years before I could amass the experience required for excellence, and these were not years I could endure. So I never mastered the work, and my confidence ebbed away, and small practical tasks started to feel daunting and insurmountable again. I tend to agree with Cecilia Moore, a professional handywoman in Washington DC who has faced her share of sexism and exclusion. ‘The thing is,’ she told the Washington Post, ‘there are a lot of men who can’t fix a damn thing – but just because they can’t or won’t doesn’t mean they want you to.’

It is excruciatingly easy to have doubt. The problem is not our inherent ability, but our difficulty in wading through the quicksand of socialisation, of expectation. However unlikely it is, I am addicted to the idea that I can be self-reliant and at ease with the work my body and mind can do together. I have big goals for what I might learn by doing at home. I want to build structures, outbuildings and furniture. But I’m starting small, reminding myself of what I already know.

So in the end, I put up the damn curtain rods, and it was easy. Easy enough that I suspect I probably could have figured it out without asking for nor taking anyone’s advice. I measured out the spacing, checked it with a spirit level, drilled pilot holes into the studs and attached the brackets with wood screws I found loose in the drill box. I hung the curtains and I tidied the tools away, and I tried to help this feeling of accomplishment crowd out my dismay at being asked by my concerned partner whether I’d be ‘right to do it on my own’.

When I feel frustrated or inept, I try to think about all the strong skilled women who have come before me, claiming their – and my – right to tools and independence. I think of the women in the bike workshop in Canada, and friends of mine who weld and fix cars. I know there is a long way to go before we all have access to a wider range of human endeavours, not just the ones we’re expected to be good at. But in the meantime, I’ll keep banging away until eventually I can drive all my nails in straight and true.