Alana Madden joined the Falkus Family in 2018 as a bench hand. Having previously worked as an interior designer she later made the decision to retrain and pursue a career in joinery. Outside of the workshop Alana possesses an unrelenting passion for social change and activism and spent five-months interviewing tradeswomen from around the world. Alana sits among the new wave generation of joiners and we were impressed with her yearning for change so caught up with her to discover what we could learn.
How did you first get into joinery?
I previously worked as an interior designer and it was through this that I developed a curiosity for woodworking. I started working on a few personal projects but lacked the skill set to build anything well. After a lot of soul searching, I made the decision to retrain and enrolled on to a bench joinery course. I learned the basics from the course and later took on an apprenticeship with a joinery firm.
Over the years you’ve devoted your time to connecting with trade’s women, what was the motivation for this?
During my time at that workshop, it became alarmingly apparent that there was a real lack of female woodworkers. I wanted to know what could be done to change this so I desperately began to seek them out. I didn’t know it then but this curiosity would later take me on a five-month journey to America and Japan to meet tradeswomen from a variety of backgrounds. It was an amazing opportunity and I was able to interview them, share their stories, and celebrate their work.
Describe the process and the inspiration for setting up the WMWOH website
When I began my mission I had it in mind that I wanted to set up a women’s group. I started doing a lot of research into funding for training and read lots of oral history books. These were all set in America and it made me want to interview them and get their view on things. This became a great way to connect with other women and I started hosting interviews about their lives and motivations. There’s a real lack of female trade workers worldwide and I wanted to discover what could be done to instigate change.
After a rigorous application process I was sponsored to go to America and later Japan and conducted another 60 interviews. Today these interviews exist as an archive that available online, Women in Manual Work Oral Histories (WMWOH). It’s very niche but I think they’re really important and interesting and will help us develop solutions to encourage more women into the trades.
Some inspirational interviews from trades women. Archived on the Women in Manual Work, Oral Histories website.
What were the stories that inspired you?
During this journey, I met so many inspiring women so it’s hard to choose. One that comes to mind is the carpenter I met who set up a group called Black Women Build Baltimore.
This group promotes social and economic freedom for black women through a home ownership initiative that provides trade-related training, comprehensive life-skills support, and a guided opportunity for home ownership. It facilitates the community in building and renovating properties. Once a project is completed and the women have built up a kind of ‘sweat equity’ they can take ownership of the house. It was humbling see how these women had all come together to inspire community and social change. I became a committed listener and sharer of their stories to help inspire the next generation of women to take up tools and help build a better more sustainable and diverse future together. I found it inspiring to hear of their achievements and it subsequently helped guide my career.
From everything you’ve learned what could the industry do to encourage more women to get into joinery and construction?
We need to reshape social views and present this career path as an option to women at an earlier stage. Due to industry biases, there’s not enough access, which is reflected in the dramatically low entry numbers. 15-18 is such a crucial age when choosing your career so we need to make this a viable option. We need to get into schools and speak to the teachers and incentivise them to prioritise this. Specialist trades are suffering from a skills shortage, and it doesn’t help that 50% of the population feel excluded.
I hope we get to a point where more women are being recognised and celebrated for their work.
Do you think that some women might feel that physical capacity could hold them back?
I think that anyone can be a joiner and that as people we have more similarities than differences. One person’s strength could be overshadowed by another’s creativity.
Often there’s a view that if you’re physically strong than that automatically qualifies you as the right person for the job. However, everyone has their limits; it’s more the case that if you look the part then often your limits are viewed as being acceptable. If you stand out or don’t fit the mould then more often than not you’re met with scrutiny.
In joinery, I think you need to use every tool in your belt. If you’re lacking in physical strength, you might find that you’re quicker in other areas so use what you have. I appreciate that that’s very general and it’s a complex topic, but overall I think any obstacles can be overcome.
What do you think the future holds for joinery?
Ultimately I think bespoke joinery will be phased out as we become more of an IKEA nation. The throwaway culture is as prominent as ever and building things to last seem less important. On one hand machines are more accurate and faster. However, the industry is slow moving and the technology that exists will take longer to develop. This lack of innovation in joinery technology could be our saving grace.
It takes decades to develop new joinery machinery, with the CNC being a prime example. New machinery still requires a level of skill to operate so we’re possibly a long way off from automation. When that happens the industry will hopefully have evolved or and we up skilled and moved on to the next tool. A lot of joiners struggle to afford new machinery so the process of buying and up-skilling could be problematic.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
In the future I hope to find a way to combine my two passions, the first being joinery, the second, grassroots community organising. I’d love to have my own workshop or COOP aimed at offering accessible training to communities, particularly women.
I want to help people who are often overlooked by society and those who are fighting for an alternative society. There’s always room for growth so I’m looking to develop outreach in those areas and hoping for positive change. I have experienced success when working with 18-24-year-olds; these can often be the most defining years of a person’s life, so I want to help guide and support.
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