It's time to invite the other half of the population to the party.

When I was invited to speak at the Office Depot's Women's Success Strategies conference, I was not sure that I wanted to participate. I have shied away from “women only” programs because I felt they were, well, discriminatory. In a traditionally male industry, I have always felt welcome and embraced by my compatriots and associates. I have never found being a woman to be a disadvantage.

Also, I have never before been around one thousand women (the expected attendance at the conference). Would a fight break out? Would we all start to mood swing in the same direction? I was afraid.

As one who likes to face her fears head on, I chose to attend. I decided that I would be at-the-ready to expose and condemn any man-bashing. Off I went to attend the conference.

When I was introduced for my program, the panel moderator shared my biography. The crowd of women laughed at the mention of my plumbing industry experience. The microphone was turned over to me, and I asked the audience, “Do I look like a plumber to you?” The response was an outburst of laughter.

I laughed, too, as I confessed that I am not a plumber. I don't look like a plumber, if your idea of a plumber is a white man carting around a few extra pounds and exposing a gap between his pants and shirt. Isn't that how plumbers are depicted on TV and in magazines?

How sexist and discriminatory is that?

Where Are The Women?

Then it hit me. I am deeply respectful and admiring of plumbers. Plumbing is a great career. Why are there so few women who choose it? While plumbing is a physical trade, women are not physically incapable of performing plumbing tasks. Shouldn't you have the proper tools and help if you are going to lift more than 50 pounds? (Only a plumber with problem-free back and pain-free knees should answer that question.)

When I was president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, we had zero, zip, nada women plumbers on our team. Gosh. Why not? During my decade as a columnist for PM magazine, I have met and written about only a couple of women plumbers. Since I wrote those articles, those women have left their companies and no longer work as plumbers.

Interesting. Maybe there is a reason to pro-actively promote women in business - and in plumbing. So, I relaxed my prejudice about the women-focused format of the conference. And, I learned a few things.

Here are some highlights of the conference:

  • Barbara Walters shared stories from her amazing career. As an ambitious journalist, she broke through the “glass ceiling” by becoming the first woman anchor on national evening news. Co-anchor Harry Reasoner was neither supportive nor amused. Barbara was dismissed.

    Determined to succeed, she pursued the most powerful and interesting people on the planet and got them to sit down and talk with her. What determination! She didn't let her speech impediment stop her. She didn't stop when she was told she wasn't good enough and didn't belong in a man's world. She became one of journalism's most successful professionals and gained access to and shared conversations with movie stars, kings, queens and presidents. Imagine the energy of a woman who is told, “You can't make it,” and made it big. Imagine that energy working in your company.

  • Media mogul Nely Galan told of her journey. A Cuban immigrant, Nely found her voice as a teenage journalist. Accused of plagiarism by one of her teachers (a Latina couldn't have written that well?), she retaliated by writing an article about why you shouldn't send your daughter to Catholic school.

    Seventeen magazine ran the story and Nely has pushed the boundaries of possibility ever since. She produced Telemundo programming for the USA, and became our country's youngest station manager. Gaining experience, strength and confidence, she convinced media mogul Rupert Murdock to invest $5 million in her television company - in a single meeting.

    Ironically, her mega-makeover TV show concept, “The Swan,” was born from her desire to be the most authentic person she could be. As a new mother, she longed for the time and resources to strengthen her mind and spirit and beautify her body.

    The TV show name came from an “Aha” moment while reading her son the Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” Imagine the power of a woman in touch with what women want, and willing to do what it takes to help them get it. Imagine a service plumber like that working for you.

  • Best of all was Maya Angelou. I knew Maya as Oprah's friend and remembered her reading one of her poems at President Clinton's inauguration. Maya shared that she was sexually abused as a child. Unlike many victims, she told of her abuse and identified her abuser. Though he was set free with barely a reprimand, he was found, beaten and killed by a passionate vigilante.

    Maya, fearing the power of her voice (she told and he was killed), stopped talking for seven years. Nurtured by the unconditional love of her grandmother, she developed her skills of observation and listening. An influential English teacher convinced her that the poetry Maya loved was best appreciated by saying the words aloud, and encouraged her to speak again.

    Maya pointed to the stage and acknowledged those she had brought with her to the program, those who had “paid for us to be here.” Her grandmother, who had died long ago, was there, Maya told us. So was her English teacher. And so were thousands of men and women of all shapes, sizes and color who had paid her way, our way, by the battles they fought and the boundaries they crossed. Maya found her voice and she preaches joy and happiness. She preaches from the shoulders of those who carry her, who have paid for her.

    Imagine all of those people, the people who paid for you, for us, working for you in the person of a woman who acknowledges them - and brings them with her every day.

    Affirming The Action

    There are very few women in plumbing. To change that, we have to push the pendulum well to the other side of our male-dominated field and actively recruit women.

    I am now a proponent of affirmative action in plumbing. By affirmative action, I mean we must do more that just allow women to become plumbers; we must actively woo, recruit and entice them to join this fine and honorable industry as plumbers.

    We don't need or want the government to do this for us. We don't need or want rules and laws to force us to do this. We can increase the number of women who choose a career in plumbing by intending it to happen - and taking positive, affirmative action to that end. Here are some ideas:

    • Set a diversity goal at your company. Determine that by a certain date, at least X percent of your team will be women and Y percent will be of a race and heritage different from the rest of your team.

    • Go to where the women are. Set up a trade show booth at the Office Depot Women's Success Strategies conference next year. Go to to find out more about the event.

    • Look into programs that support and contribute money and training for developing women's skills in nontraditional industries. Check out The Commonwealth Corp. at Their mission is, “Helping people and businesses learn, earn and succeed.”

      Also, check out Goodwill Industries at Goodwill Industries “believes in the power of work” and provides customized training and employer matching programs for all types of industries. You choose to promote women and there are organizations that will support you.

    • Create a scholarship program for high school girls. And invite them to an open house at your shop. Show them what a fine, professional, high-dollar career they could have solving problems for your customers.

    • Spread the word. Plumbing is a great career and pays better than many traditionally female jobs, like secretarial work, manufacturing, teaching and care giving.
    No, you are not going to hire someone just because she is a woman. Yes, you should start looking in new places if you want to expand and grow your company with right-stuff people. Raise your hand if your company is struggling to find great plumbers. It's time to invite the rest of the population to come to the party.