OLD-FASHIONED views of a woman’s place in the workforce are being dispelled in what was once the male-dominated world of cathedral stonemasonry.
Of the team that recently completed the near-decade long restoration of York Minster’s great East Window, 40 per cent were female and, in the current group of masons going through the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship (CWF) degree training-programme, three out of the 10 students are women.
The CWF offers a career path for its specialist workforce. “We are absolutely gender-neutral,” the administrator, Adrian Munns, said. “It’s a reflection of society — and it’s a good thing. We are absolutely delighted that so many women are coming forward. Physical prowess is not a problem, if heavy lifting is involved there is always a workaround. Careful planning means a job can be done by anybody and, as far as wielding a chisel and mallet, technique and finesse are the most important qualities. It really is an old mindset that masons of old were hulking chaps.”
The CWF is a collaboration between the University of Gloucestershire and the nine cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln, Salisbury, Winchester, Worcester, and York. It is also supported by grants from Ecclesiastical Insurance.
The church-operations director at Ecclesiastical, Michael Angell, said on Monday: “We have been pleased to see an increasing number of female students taking an interest in this course over the years and often being top of their class when it comes to stonemasonry skills. This is further evidence that there are great opportunities for female students in what have traditionally been seen as male professions.
“Preserving this ancient craft is vital for us as an independent church and heritage insurer, as we rely on the skills of these experts to work with us on a daily basis when maintaining or restoring damage caused to our invaluable churches and cathedrals.”
The CWF’s success since it launched in 2006 has prompted significant expansion. Its ties with the University of Gloucestershire have been consolidated into a formal partnership, with a five-year contract expected shortly, and it is developing its own growth plan for the next three years. An additional course for electricians is being piloted this year, and there are proposals to include carpenters and lead workers in the near future. A full level-six honours course will also be added to the degree programme.
Tamara Schymura joined the York Minster stoneyard in 2011 after completing a masons course at college in her native Berlin. She is now in her first year on the CWF scheme. “Maybe in the past women were not allowed to do it, or chose not because perhaps it doesn’t look very attractive, but it’s not that woman are not able to do it,” she said. “We have a lodge outside the Minster where people can see us working. Some were really surprised to see us there. It was often women who commented, saying it was great that we are doing it, but I don’t think it is so special. For me it is normal. Why would I not do it? Perhaps it’s the public who need educating.”
One of Ms Schymura’s colleagues at York, Laura Jeary, 37, switched to stonemasonry after ten years in an architect’s office. She said: “Gender has not been an issue in the course of my work. I have never been given any ‘girly’ jobs — told to make the tea and so on — which I did when I was working in architecture.
“I was pleasantly surprised to find the attitude was not sexist in stonemasonry. One woman had been here for 20 or more years and was just part of the team. It made me feel it was not an issue. There is a bit of horseplay and silly pranks, but we all do it. I would certainly recommend it as a job for a woman. Needing physical strength is never really an issue, it’s more about working with detail. It does require certain personality traits such as patience and a willingness to spend quite a lot of time working on one thing.”
Emily Draper, 29, is the only woman in a five-strong stoneyard at Worcester Cathedral, and is in her first year on the CWF course. “I have had no experiences of any gender problems,” she said. “It didn’t enter my thinking when I started four years ago. The job is not one for a beefy stereotypical male. If you go at it like a bull in a china shop all you end up with is a heap of rubble. It’s about skill and training. It’s a good career for a woman to consider. You do have to be comfortable working outside — but I know a lot of blokes who are always complaining they are cold.”