Sooke plumber a champion for women in construction

‘Average was never good enough,’ says trades advocate Mary-Anne Bowcott

Mary-Anne Bowcott is not what you’re expecting, and she’s used to that.

The 33-year-old owner of Westcom Plumbing and Gas in Sooke still registers the surprise, sometimes shock, in people’s eyes when she walks in the door with her tools.

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But over the past 10 years, the journeyman plumber and certified gas fitter has gotten used to the odd raised eyebrow, and never let it get in the way of establishing her small company as a force to be reckoned with on the Island.

Bowcott’s determination to succeed — the overachieving tendency she’s had since she was a kid — has driven her small company’s growth and lifted her into the spotlight.

Bowcott was just named the Canadian Construction Association person of the year, hard on the heels of receiving back-to-back excellence awards from the Sooke Region Chamber of Commerce, along with the 2018 B.C. Construction Industry Leader Award.

Bowcott admits she’s still “blown away” by the success of the firm and the awards, but she also understands when people are taken aback when she shows up to work. “I get it,” she said, noting few expect the person both running the company and “on the tools” to be a young, petite woman with seemingly boundless energy.

It’s the same kind of reaction she got when, as an 18-year-old, she tried to get hired in construction. Looking back, she understands why she didn’t get so much as a second glance when she sent out more than 100 resumés.

“I had zero construction experience, I am not even 100 pounds, and I’m an 18-year-old female. I can see why people didn’t call me,” she said with a laugh.

Her energy and sense of humour are two tools she’s needed over the last 15 years in the trades, the first five working as a roofer.

She started there, she said, because it was the only job she could get in construction. After five years, she wanted to transition, again defying the odds by getting a plumbing apprenticeship in the midst of a recession.

Over the next six years, Bowcott worked with two firms before starting her own outfit in 2015.

During that time, she honed her skills and developed a thick skin.

She prefers to look at her career as one of many interesting avenues rather than one tough road. However, she admits she has had to deal with everything from being overlooked for jobs to sexual harassment through bullying and “inappropriate touching to an almost disgusting degree.”

And when she began to advance in her career, those promotions came with male co-workers who refused to listen or take direction.

Bowcott said all of that had her questioning how she would build her business in the early years — she wondered if people would even call a business led by a woman. For two years, she held off putting her name on her business card because she was worried about being singled out.

The business currently features three women “on the tools” and another in the office, but Bowcott said that’s not by design.

“It just happens that we are all female,” she said, noting she always needs plumbers and most resumés she gets are from women.

She believes some men might not consider working for her company because they have problems with having a boss who is young and female.

That kind of thinking might be why Bowcott has been a passionate champion of attracting and retaining women in the trades, both by offering apprenticeships at her firm and by speaking to young women whenever she gets the chance.

Lisa Stevens, chief operating officer at the B.C. Construction Association, said Bowcott is on the governance committee for the association’s new builder’s code project, designed to retain woman in the trades.

“She’s fantastic. She’s not only a successful business woman, she’s also a journeyperson,” Stevens said. “She runs her own business, is on the tools, she mentors others and she’s committed to helping other tradeswomen and supports apprenticeships.”

Stevens said Bowcott’s positive attitude helps.

“She doesn’t have an ounce of negativity,” she said.

That’s important when the construction industry in the province has fewer than 9,000 female workers in a field of 180,000.

“Women are not very well represented,” said Stevens, which means Bowcott is a hugely important asset. “Increasingly we understand you need to be able to see it to be it … [Bowcott] is a compelling story for others.”

It’s a story that has just begun, as Bowcott sees a lot of growth ahead for Westcom.

“Ever since I was young, I thought I can always do better. For whatever reason, I like being up here — average was never good enough.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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