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Our fast track to career success - the woman trawler skipper and the female train driver

Four women tackling jobs which are still perceived as traditionally male domains are the stars of a BBC NI documentary tonight. Una Brankin speaks to them

Published 07/12/2015

On the line: Janet Camporese McGrath loves her work as a train driver with Translink
On the line: Janet Camporese McGrath loves her work as a train driver with Translink
High wire: Meagan Lapsley says many people are surprised to see her doing her job
Creative flair: Helen Crickland loves sculpting wood
On board: Jean Morgan has been involved in fishing for her whole life

Janet McGrath is one of six female train drivers working for Translink. Jean Morgan is the only female fishing boat skipper heading up crews from Kilkeel, Co Down, and Helen Crickland is one of the few women joiners in Ulster. Meagan Lapsley is NIE's only female overhead lines technician.

They are among the 400,000 women who go out to work every day in Northern Ireland, an increasing number of whom are working in what would have been traditionally thought of as male-dominated jobs. Tonight's BBC NI documentary, True North: Wonder Women, sheds light on what life is really like working in what used to be a "man's world" - and how both men and women are adapting and changing.

Jean takes the team fishing for lobsters and crabs, and Janet recalls dreaming of being a museum curator when she left school, but ending up driving for Translink.

Along with Helen the joiner, the programme also features a model-turned-plumber, a roofer and a tiler, all of them members of the fairer sex. Meagan tells how she often hears someone asking incredulously, "Is that a woman up there?" as she works with 11,000 volts of electricity at the top of a telegraph pole.

Janet: the train driver

Janet Camporese McGrath (45) lives in Aghagallon, outside Lurgan, with her daughters Erica (19) and Julia (18), and house-husband Paul. A former ambulance controller (taking 999 calls), Janet has been driving a Translink train for six years. She says:

If you'd told me years ago I'd be driving a train for a living, I would have laughed. It just happened. I was working as a conductor and the opportunity came up, so I took it. Driving a train is a very different process to driving a car - there are some train drivers who don't even have car driving licences.

The training takes a long time; just under a year. With the instructor beside you, it's like any driving lesson - there's someone else to take the responsibility and you're just going through the motions.

The first time on your own is scary, without a wing man - or woman. The latest computerisation means it's a less hands-on job than it used to be. I preferred the older trains, to be honest.

Working with the ambulance service in the past, I was used to dealing with emergency situations. On the train, we do run into some security situations - fights and sometimes things get thrown at us, but the worst is trespassers walking the line. It's terrifying when you turn a corner at 90 miles an hour and see someone on the tracks. It's usually kids on school holidays. You pull the emergency brake and hope they'll get out of the way. I'm lucky not to have had an accident in my six years with Translink.

I love my work. It's not a run-of-the-mill job; I do get some funny looks and sexist remarks from members of the public, but I just ignore it, or laugh it off.

It is a job with responsibility and there's stress in that, but not on the same level as other jobs with deadlines to meet.

We all work on a roster, on shifts. It's a lot easier now that my two daughters are grown up. It was harder to juggle working for the ambulance service when they were small, but my mother, Joy, took over then and really helped me out. She's brilliant.

We get Christmas Day and Boxing Day off. I work through New Year's - we prefer to bring people to and from parties rather than them partying on the train.

I always wanted to be a museum curator, but I'm a bit long in the tooth to be changing jobs now. I'm doing railway exams to further my career.

Will I end up running the whole show? You never know."

Meagan: the overhead lines engineer

Meagan Lapsley (25) lives on the Londonderry/Donegal border with her partner Stephen, a businessman, and their eight-month old daughter, Isobel. From Malin originally, Meagan joined NIE Networks as an overhead lines apprentice at 20. She says:

When I was nine weeks' pregnant, I agreed to climb the pole for the True North documentary - it was the last one I climbed at that stage. NIE Networks give you 52 weeks leave, so I'm very fortunate I didn't have to go back to work so soon. I think I would have had regrets, although now I'm looking forward to going back soon.

I started off studying biological science at Queen's University, but it wasn't for me and I dropped out in the second year. My dad had done some contracting work before for NIE and when he saw an ad for apprentices in the paper, he told me to go for it.

I was always a bit of a tomboy. I like being outdoors. I was always running about my uncle's farm when I was younger, on horses and headfirst into everything. I like to be hands-on and outside, so this job is perfect for me. The apprenticeship was a good mix of practical and theoretical. I never got bored throughout the three years doing it. It's usually two years but they gave me time out when I had a miscarriage. They look after their staff very well.

Overhead lines was one of the options on the course.

Fear of heights didn't come into it - you're in a full-body harness and if you use the equipment and tools you're supplied with properly, which are excellent, and follow the rules, there's no risk.

I've never had an accident; I use a climbing safe which grips the pole and I'm fine.

The first project I was sent out on was low voltage hot spots and tree cutting - where the conduits of the line can interfere with trees. I really enjoyed it and still do.

I haven't really faced any sexist attitudes - although some people do express surprise when they see me working on overhead lines.

You do get people who are a bit backward thinking, but I don't take it personally, and the people you work with are keen to give you the chance, rather than put you down in any way.

I'd like to progress to switching, which is more of a technical job, within the company.

I'm keen to learn and to become a technician. Hopefully they'll have me."

Helen: the carpenter

Helen Crickland (51) runs a carpentry and joinery business, Lawrence Street Workshops, in Belfast's Botanic Avenue with her husband Martin. A fully qualified joiner, Helen also has a stall of upcycled produce using reclaimed materials, Go Green Glass, at St George's weekend markets. The couple's son Conaill (23) is a joiner and daughter Mairead (18) is on a year-out following her A-levels. She says:

For the past 27 years, I've been a joiner. I left school with a diploma in business studies and was self-employed all my life, doing all sorts - from dishwashing to making sandwich boards for businesses.

I always liked sculpting things out of wood, so I decided to go back to college and get a bit of paper to prove I could do it.

There were some men coming into the workshop who couldn't deal with the fact that a woman would be doing their joinery work.

I was the only woman out of a class of 27 at Millfield and they were all younger than me.

I didn't get any flak - I'd be helping them out with stuff at the end of the day, and the tutors were great. It's just a stereotypical mind-set to think of jobs in terms of gender.

There is a lot of peer pressure. As a woman, I was expected to go into hairdressing, or social work or nursing: the caring professions, but that wasn't for me.

It's not that I was always a tomboy - that's just a total miss in people's heads, this notion that there are men's jobs and women's jobs.

For instance, the construction industry has been made easier and safer for everyone working in it. There's no lugging big hods of concrete any more - it's all done by a lift. You don't have to be strong to work in construction now. The only barriers to women working in the industry now are social stereotypes.

I'd always done DIY and I'm involved with the women's sector to address inequality, at Women's Information Northern Ireland. I organise joinery classes and an introduction to plumbing course. Men are under great pressure to be able to do these jobs, but some don't have a clue and they make a pig's a*** out of it.

With courses, the workshop and the stand at St George's Market, I am kept busy. Being self-employed, though, gives you flexibility, so I was always able to fit everything in. The kids were practically raised in the workshop and Conaill's ended up doing the same thing now.

Filming the True North documentary was good fun. It was great to see other women doing jobs like I do, from all walks of life. I don't get to meet women like that often.

I've run into sexist attitudes, but I've been doing this so long now, I don't take any notice. The people you work with are okay - it's the further up the ladder you go, they tend to look at you as if you had two heads. Big companies and employers, who should be embracing women in construction, sometimes they can't take it on board. It's a step too far for them, even with a full set of qualifications under your belt.

To any young girl who fancies joinery and carpentry or plumbing, I say 'go for it'. You might be a salmon swimming up the river, but so what? Get a qualification and you can go anywhere with it.

It's not difficult, it's not hard labour and it's flexible. I really enjoy it. It's creative, too, and you can get great job satisfaction out of simple things, like making a nice shelf for someone.

And if you're involved in some city construction, you can sit back and think, I've contributed something to the future of Belfast. That's hard to beat."

Jean: the skipper

Skipper Jean Morgan (28) lives in Kilkeel with her husband Charles, a farmer. The couple married last  August and have a baby on the way. Jean leads teams of fishermen for lobsters and crabs from Kilkeel harbour in all weathers. She says:

I grew up around fishermen. As a child I'd go out on the boat with my grandfather and uncles - I was sailing before I could walk. My mum helped my dad out on his boat too, up until she was eight months' pregnant with me. I'll be the same. I'm five and a half months gone now and I'll be working up to the end.

I always wanted to be a skipper. I'm a girl, but it just comes naturally. It's not a stressful job in general, except when the weather gets rough, like it is now. The film The Perfect Storm showed what the job is really like in those conditions. George Clooney was really good as the skipper.

I was out on a wee punt once and it was flat calm at the start. An hour later, though, the weather turned and I thought I was going to have get the lifeboat. I wasn't too far from the shore, though, so I got picked up all right.

I've only ever had one sexist comment the whole time I've been skipper. This man said: 'A woman's place is mopping floors'. I just laughed at him.

Filming the True North documentary was good fun. I took them out to Port Patrick to fish for lobsters and crab. I never get fed up with it and I'd like to go after callop (bottom-feeding fresh-water fish) one day.

Other than that, I also help Charles on the farm. We have beef cattle and grow potatoes.

I'm not as busy in the winter, so I work in my mother's fish business, as well. Summers are busier, so I'll just be taking a couple of weeks after the baby's born.

I'd miss the water if I was away from it too long."

  • True North: Wonder Women, is on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight at 10.35pm

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