Women make up only 9.9% of the construction industry, and Judaline Cassidy is on a mission to change that. She is a feminist plumber, public speaker, activist, and the founder of Tools & Tiaras, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing the interest of young girls and women in the trade industry.
We spoke with Judaline to hear how she has survived and thrived in a male-dominated field—plus she shares more about her continued efforts to inspire confidence among young girls.
How did you become the first female to join the plumbers union in New York City?
I had started out working as a plumber for another company. Typically, once companies feel you could be a reliable employee and have at least a year under your belt, they would send you down to the union. So after a year of actually showing up to work every day, enjoying the job, and actively learning, I went down to the union with a whole bunch of men. Right away, they took all my co-workers that were men but yet told me, “Go home and do dishes.” I said to myself, I’ll just go back to work so I can do what I love, and I’ll just keep doing it.
“You never know when what you’re doing or working on is going to multiply and expand into somebody else’s world.”
Along the way I met this amazing man, Brian Tortora—he really stepped up to be my hero. Brian spoke to someone, who then spoke to someone else, and before I knew it, I got into the union. Getting into the union had a ripple effect. I’ve learned that you never know when what you’re doing or working on is going to multiply and expand into somebody else’s world. At the time, Brian didn’t know that I would later teach girls nor could he have known that I’d be on TV talking about plumbing, and this would impact my life in the way it has. Nobody gave plumbers the time of day back then.
People are shocked when I tell them that I still wake up every day on a high to do plumbing. It is beautiful. I look at it as art—even though it’s really a job that gets me covered by rock, brick, and wall, I just love fixing things. The cherry on top is knowing that I’m making somebody’s life better.
Tell us more about Tools & Tiaras.
Our program offers free monthly workshops for women and girls as well as a summer camp where the girls have a week of programming to learn plumbing, electrical, architecture, and engineering work—we constantly aim to educate and empower. Tools & Tiaras is for people who can’t afford to learn this elsewhere, so we really are intentional about diversity—our girls come from various economic and racial backgrounds.
“You should give a girl a tool and a tiara, which gives them confidence, independence, and power.”
I started Tools & Tiaras in 2017, but it’s been a vision and message from the universe long before then. That year, I was asked to be one of the keynote speakers at the MAKERS Conference. There was a part in my speech where I said, “You should give a girl a tool and a tiara, which gives them confidence, independence, and power,” and as I said it, I threw my fist up. The minute I spoke those words, I felt like the universe was telling me this was something I had to do—and I listened! I came back from the event and literally googled how to start a nonprofit. And since, I’ve been running Tools & Tiaras while being a full time plumber.
The purpose of Tools & Tiaras is really to teach girls that jobs don’t have genders. We inspire these girls to be whatever they want to be. In my experience, girls tend to genuinely believe they can do anything, and that no one can stop them. But, as soon as they reach 10 or 11 years old, all those positive thoughts and messages start to fade away. I want to prevent that from happening, and I believe I can be part of that change. And I’ve always been that type of person—I don’t wait for people to do stuff for me, I just do it myself.
My organization is all about intentionality with diversity. If you want to hire people to work for your company, remove the gender. If someone sends you a bio, just put their last name. And then, you hire your people on the merit of their work.
What impact have you seen on the girls that you work with?
If we want to change construction and the way that jobs are portrayed, we have to let the girls in the program see women like me, like all my trade sisters, and then they will believe it. People often say, “You see it, you believe it,” and as cliche as it sounds, it really is true because that’s what the girls tell me after our meetings. The staff and women around these young girls are sure to remind them that they really can do anything. They have the power to say, “You can do it because Judaline and the women at Tools & Tiaras are doing it.”
“Their parents tell me the girls walk around differently, more confidently, feeling empowered. These girls are changing toilets in their homes and doing all kinds of work.”
We try to show, in addition to telling, that women really can do anything, and jobs don’t have genders. Their parents tell me the girls walk around differently, more confidently, feeling empowered. These girls are changing toilets in their homes and doing all kinds of work. One mother recently told me how they have a shed at their house, but they needed to get rid of it and how her daughter took a drill and said, “I can do this.”
It’s giving confidence that’s so important—I know from experience too. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago really poor, without a mother or father. My grandmother was my caregiver, and I didn’t have any confidence in myself. I believed that I shouldn’t even be on this planet and nobody loved me. But when I became a plumber, my world changed. Now, I am the most confident person there is, and I just think of myself as the world’s best plumber. I see that, I believe that, and that is what we give the girls. They now walk around with this superpower because we told them that they are superheroes.
What is the biggest challenge that you have personally faced?
The biggest challenge has just been being a woman in this world. I love being a woman and wouldn’t change it, but being a woman of color especially has been a big disadvantage. You see other organizations receiving funding, and that’s something Tools & Tiaras didn’t get in the beginning. Honestly, it just makes me fight harder. I have put my own money in, collected water bottles, and sold my car—I do all that I need to do in order to be successful so that I’m not dependent on anyone.
“Women rock and I always want to fight for them.”
Although being a woman in this world has been my biggest challenge, it has also become my biggest superpower! Where people see that it might be a disadvantage, I actually use it to my advantage. At the end of the day, I like to think of it as the gas that’s in my engine. I take it, put it in my car—you know my American-made union car because I’m a union worker—and it actually drives me. I’m always out there on the front lines being an activist because it fuels me. All those disadvantages I put it in the car, step on the gas, and I’m going to make this happen. Women rock and I always want to fight for them.
Photos from Tools & Tiaras; interview by Ali Schwartz