What’s the reality for women working in the painting and decorating industry? 

What’s the reality for women within the painting and decorating industry? To find out, we spoke to three women to learn their career stories.

With women dramatically under-represented within the UK’s painting and decorating sector (just 4.8% of workers are female) – Bagnalls, one of Britain’s leading painting, decorating and specialist industrial coatings contractors, profile some of their employees to get their unique perspective.

Three women share their decorating career stories

Although 60,972 more women joined the construction industry between 2009 and 2019, CareerSmart data shows that women make up just 4.8% of painters and decorators.

Despite the industry being traditionally male-dominated, progress is coming to the sector slowly but surely. National painting and decorating contractor Bagnalls recently sat down with five of their female employees, ranging from managerial roles to trainees, to discuss their experiences and insights in the sector.

Who are the women we interviewed?

Here are the three women who have shared their stories with us:

  • Abi Johnson has been a painter and decorator at Bagnalls for the past year, having previously worked as an apprentice.
  • Joanne Gualda is Group Marketing Director for Bagnalls and Director of our Special Projects division. She joined the company 21 years ago in January 2000, starting as a Group Marketing Manager. She was also the first female director on Bagnalls’ board of directors in its 145-year history.
  • Katie Booth is a Contracts Manager at our Wolverhampton branch heading into her third year of the Management Trainee programme. She quickly got stuck into managing contracts and have been doing so ever since.

What attracted you to the painting and decorating industry?

Abi: I’ve never been much of a fan of sitting behind a desk or working in retail. When I left school, I wanted something more active and engaging, so an apprenticeship fit the bill perfectly.

Joanne: Having worked in marketing for some time, I was approached by an ex-Managing Director of mine who was doing some consultancy work for Bagnalls. He said they were looking for a specialist in Marketing and asked if I would like to be considered for the post. I didn’t even realise until I did my background research for the job that Bagnalls was a national painting contractor and undertook such huge contracts!

Once I met Stephen, our Group Managing Director, and had several interviews with him, I knew that having a career with Bagnalls would be amazing. I set my sights high even before joining the company, telling Stephen that I wanted to join the board eventually.

Katie: I’ve always been interested in the property market and architecture. Whilst renovating my own property I took a very hands-on approach to managing the works, hiring contractors, and scheduling the stages of the project myself and found I enjoyed the process. When I saw a job advert on LinkedIn, I decided to apply as I had some relevant experience and skills, which led me to my career at Bagnalls.

Abi Johnson is a painter and decorator at Bagnalls

How was entering the industry for you? How did your friends and family react?

Abi: My family were immediately supportive when I decided to do an apprenticeship. My Mum had wanted to be a joiner when she was younger but was told it wasn’t appropriate for her as a woman – but for me, I had a lot more support going in. My Mum was really happy to see me pursue my chosen career in a way she had never been able to.

Joanne: All of my family and friends were pleased that I had found a new position that offered challenges and potential promotion. With Marketing as my specialism, my skills are very transferable and I transitioned into the sector with relative ease, although there was nonetheless a degree of adaptation required.

Having worked in the wire rope industry for Bridon and then in the packaging industry for Portola, I knew that even though painting is a male-dominated industry this would not be a problem for me.

Katie: People were initially confused! It was quite a sudden career change for me, but once they got over their surprise my family and friends were encouraging.

Can you give us an overview of some of your career highlights so far?

Abi: For me, a definite highlight of my career was being invited to Slovenia in 2019 to take part in a charity event with the Painting and Decorating Association. We travelled there to decorate a school as part of a community support project and were allocated a portion of the project to complete.

Being introduced to everyone there and getting to contribute to improving the school for local school children and teachers was amazing. Whilst in Slovenia, we also got to do some wine tasting and tour the capital city, visiting the market there and getting to see the local crafts and foods – all experiences I never would have got outside of my apprenticeship.

Joanne: I have so many career highlights, but for me, the standout was becoming the first female Director appointed to the Main Board in 2006. I am also hugely proud of the success of our Community Paintbrush Scheme, which I established in 2012; the scheme has helped numerous organisations over the years through paint donations, volunteer painters and charitable support.

More recently, I have been trained in being a Mental Health First Aider (MHFA), a subject I feel passionate about and have been involved in more throughout the past year as we have expanded our mental health support systems to help employees deal with the impact of COVID.

In addition to my personal achievements, many of my career highlights so far have also been due to the success and dedication of my colleagues; our project wins at the annual PDA Trophy awards, our apprentice success across the UK and our specialist awards such as RoSPA Gold for investment in safety to name but a few.

Katie: I’m proud to have been to university and completed my master’s degree in Business Management and Marketing. My involvement in the renovation of Resorts World in Birmingham was a definite highlight. The project was different, ambitious and creative, and went on to win the Retail category of the Johnstone’s Trade Painter of the Year Award 2020.

Joanne at the “Raising the Bar” 2019 Awards, where Bagnalls were named winner of the “Large Company – Environment” award

What is something you excel in or gives you fulfilment in your role?

Abi: I’m very proud of the finish on my work. As a painter, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and take my time on things to ensure they’re perfect. I’m also quite proud of my wallpapering skills – it’s a slightly more technical area and difficult skill to learn, but it’s an area I do well in.

Joanne: Seeing people succeed gives me a lot of fulfilment in my role. The small things that colleagues contribute are something I’m immensely proud of.

When reviewing customer satisfaction surveys, it always makes me smile to read positive comments from customers about individuals who have worked on their project, seeing how they have got to know our painters by name and thank them for their courtesy, care and excellent work.

Katie: I love seeing a project go from start to finish; it’s extremely satisfying to watch a location transform. Some of my most fulfilling projects have been working in care homes and mental health facilities, where I truly know that the work I do will make a real difference to the people there.

What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt or challenge you have overcome during your career?

Abi: For me, adjusting to the pandemic and a completely new way of work was a struggle in the beginning. We’re always strict with hygiene and health and safety, but the pandemic required bringing that to a whole new level and fundamentally changing the way we operate day-to-day.

I like having a routine – so having it thrown off during those first few months was strange and took some adjusting to, but I overcame it and I’m now used to our new processes of work.

Joanne: An important lesson I learnt is that you can do it – but that does not mean you have to do it alone. My colleagues at all levels are so supportive and there are times I need to ask for their support and engagement to do the best I can in my job.

I often take on too much for my own good; but I know when asked, a colleague will help me achieve my goals and vice versa. 2020 was no doubt a major challenge for many businesses, but again I was so proud of the way we pulled together and adapted to the ever-changing environment as a team.

When it comes to challenges in my career, there have been a few, I started work in 1990 when the same standards of equality and behaviour applied in the workplace today were quite different. This ranged from lewd comments and subtle remarks about women being successful.

However, in all the roles I have had I have persevered and proven my worth and as such, I have been recognised and rewarded. At Bagnalls I have completed an MA, been promoted, and had a daughter; challenges are just hurdles to be overcome.

Katie: Entering into a new role with no past experience in the sector was a challenge for me, although a welcome one. There is a noticeable lack of women in the painting and decorating industry, and I occasionally receive sweeping statements or surprised reactions when people find out that a woman will be managing their project, however, I prove with time on the job what I am capable of.

Katie standing in front of the completed Resorts World, Birmingham project

Who do you look at in the industry as a source of inspiration?

Abi: My first teacher in the decorating industry was a woman named Robin who I still look up to. In addition to the technical guidance and support she offered, having a female role model there was important for me.

A woman named Sandie Webster has also been a big source of inspiration for me. I first saw her at the PDA awards ceremony a few years ago when she gave a speech about being the first woman to win an award in painting and decorating.

Sandie started her own business at age 30 but couldn’t apply for a grant as it was for under 25s only; instead, she applied for a loan through the Prince’s Trust and began entering painting and decorating competitions and used her prize money to purchase a van and kit it out for herself.

She is truly an inspiration to all trades women. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet her multiple times, including when I competed at the 2019 Skill Build competition where she was a judge.

Joanne: My colleagues and the industry at large are always a source of inspiration. I feel lucky to be part of an industry where so much is going on; although painting has been around for thousands of years, there are still innovations constantly occurring, from paints that combat viruses or reduce the spread of flames to steps forward in making paint packaging recyclable and reducing our carbon footprint.

Katie: There are so many people within the company who have provided me with a wealth of knowledge and guidance. We have periodic conferences which have been invaluable in terms of receiving guidance from many different people.

Michaela Wain was on The Apprentice a few years ago and immediately inspired me; I’ve listened to many of her podcasts on women in construction which have been very influential.

What advice would you give to women currently looking to join the painting and decorating industry?

Abi: You’ll need thick skin sometimes in such a male-dominated industry – but do it. Having said that, the people at my current role in Bagnalls have been lovely and even though I’m often the only woman in a given situation, I’m rarely made to feel excluded or like I’m facing any prejudice.

My overlying experience within the industry has been extremely rewarding and given me so many incredible opportunities that I don’t regret it at all. In short, just go for it – we need more women in painting and decorating!

Joanne: Don’t pre-judge what opportunities there are in any industry sector. The painting industry is so vast – from working with major blue-chip companies such as Akzo Nobel (Dulux) through to small scaffold companies, the roles for women are vast. 

Bagnalls is absolute proof that there are so many opportunities for women and no role is off-limits, from being a painter on-site to a Main Board Director. Regardless of whether you start as an apprentice, school leaver or graduate, this is an industry where, with the right training and development, you can become the supervisors, managers and even directors of the future.

Katie: Be yourself and always strive to be the best you can be. Stay up to date with the latest qualifications, industry standards and management skills as the time you invest in these will be invaluable. At the same time stay one step ahead and don’t shy away from opportunities as they arise; remember that everyone is human and it’s okay to make mistakes as you learn.