Mitre 10’s “Ladies’ Nights” get 500 to 600 women attending in cities like Auckland all seeking to hone their DIY skills.
The name is a throwback to an era that’s rapidly passing into memory, when DIY was widely considered a bloke’s job, and people still used the word lady.
And yet, when it comes to DIY, both “lady” and “bloke” still have currency.
Academic Rosie Cox, who studied DIY family culture, said the “Kiwi bloke” was important in New Zealand gender identity, but its importance was for both men and women.
Or as Mitre 10’s Dave Elliott puts it: “The cultural code in New Zealand is women are blokes.”
By that, he means equal, and equally capable, a heritage going back to colonial times when land was broken to make farms, and you built your own home, and women did a lot of the breaking and building.
In advertising and popular culture, the technically incompetent, DIY-inept women that researcher Ann Winstanley identified in advertising throughout the 1980s and 90s has been replaced by male-female “teams” on shows like The Block.
Elliott says women may still be the ones choosing the paint in hardware stores, but they are into the “meaty” DIY projects as well.
“You would think Mitre 10 had a bias towards males, but it doesn’t,” Eilliott says.
In some stores in rural areas, women make up more than 50 per cent of customers coming through the doors, he says.
There’s also been a subtle shift in stocking that’s taken place in the past couple of decades. Power tools are now increasingly being designed with women in mind.
There’s no shortage of work to be done on our homes.
In the year to the end of June, Mitre 10 alone had revenues of $1.24billion. It’s a big expense, but the key reason people spend on DIY is to save the money they would have had to pay to tradies.
New Zealanders seem to be the western world’s most active DIYers.
Our wooden houses play a part, as wood is easier to work with than British brick homes, or Italian masonry, and wooden houses need a lot of care.
Academic research has found economic necessity drives DIY, but DIY also fulfils an urge to create. It’s part of our cultural identity. It’s to shape cookie-cutter homes to our needs.
It’s because our parents did it, though here there is a big difference between men and women.
Research from Mitre 10 shows six in ten women are better at DIY than their mothers were, compared to less than half of men.
Some women did learn their skills from their parents, who see it as a life skill they have a duty to pass on.
One DIYer told Cox: “Part of Dad’s relationship with me, in terms of being a daughter, and then again, a lesbian daughter, is that process of teaching me to be independent as I’m not going to have a man to do that for me.”
“Prior to coming out, he was really clear that I needed to know how to do basic maintenance on a car, but certainly post coming out he’s realised that I need a larger skill set.”
But women have been closing the DIY skills gap with men rapidly, and it appears to be a case of teaching themselves, and attending “Ladies Nights”.
Dairy farmer Sarah Coatsworth, whose DIY skills won her a national title in Queenstown earlier this year, says her rural upbringing exposed her to physical work from a young age, but many of her skills were self-taught.
“I was a bit of a tom-girl as a child, and dad taught me a little bit,” she says. “I have always be one of those people, not just in DIY. If I don’t know something I will give it a go.”
She also learnt skills from her builder husband, with whom she built a home.
Men who have DIY skills are being less exclusive about them.
Younger couples are now likely to be DIY partners, learning together, or teaching each other skills.
Many now learn their skills from how-to video clips, the kind that led Mitre 10 to launch its own TV production operation, and see the view-trackers log more than 15 million views.
Women are big consumers of the videos, Elliott says.
Business woman Angela Beer says there are other reasons behind women’s DIY skills acquisition.
“Birth rates are decreasing, animal ownership is increasing and there are more women not in a relationship than ever before,” she says.
DIY skills are part of being independent.
In the mid-2000s she created Hello Dolly a fun “gifting” business that made pink tools for women who wanted to “feel capable, independent, sexy and feminine”.
Her genius was to see that a hammer which sold for $3, would sell for $30 if it was pink, spangled with diamantes, and came in a nice gift box.
Mitre10 found 28 per cent of women thought they were “naff”, and 14 per cent of women wouldn’t be seen dead buying them.
Still, 11 per cent loved pink tools, enough to make a market of.