Hub Spotlight Feature: Danielle ‘Twig’ Browne

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Let’s just get to this right from the start. What initially was meant to be an insult, Danielle “Twig” Browne (@thelittlestplumber) got the nickname from her high school rugby team. “I was lanky and my muscle hadn’t come in. I was the thinnest on the team but had been playing since I was 10 so I was more advanced than the other girls. One girl didn’t take kindly to the new girl being good, and popped the name ‘twiggy’ on me,” says Browne. The nickname has stuck with this Newfoundland, Canada plumber for most of her life. “There are a large majority of people on my island who don’t know my actual name, even my mom calls me Twig.”

But don’t let her physical stature fool you; she’s been kicking ass for years now. For the past nine years, she has been a facilities management plumber—specializing in plumbing service and maintenance—for the Canadian government, stationed at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. “The area where I shine is diagnostics and repairs of plumbing systems new and old,” boasts Browne.

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Needing a job right out of high school, and college didn’t feel like the right move, Twig started in the automotive field. “To be honest, I’m not sure I even knew trade schools existed,” says Browne. “So, I applied to work on cars, and the boss took a liking to me and put me in the garage right away.” Twig loved the garage for the first couple of years, but eventually got bored into years three and four. It was then that she had heard about trade schools and she knew she wanted to stay in a mechanical career. “I looked through a college course booklet and thought ‘plumbing sounds cool.’”

When Twig finished her pre-employment “Plumber” classes in college, she was encouraged by her instructor to enter into a trade competition Skills Canada, which has grown exponentially since. Among the three trades schools entered, Twig won 1st place against both schools. “Shortly after, my first boss contacted my instructor because he wanted to meet ‘that girl that won,” and I haven’t been without a job in this trade since.

When asked about her image as a trailblazer for women, Twig was modest in her reply. “As the first female plumber in my province, I’ve been called a trailblazer, but I’ve never really considered myself one; I’ve always just seen myself as a plumber. Even when people refer to me as a female plumber, I never get the need to add the gender. I’m a plumber.”

However, leading by example is something Twig’s always been focused on. “It is so important to prove myself to the world every day. From the naysayers who have a preconceived idea of what I’m capable of, to the young girls out there who think they wouldn’t make it in the trades, I want my work to change stubborn minds and build confidence.”

Of course, Twig has encountered her share baseless stigmas from the first day on the jobsite when some of the guys buried her tools with a backhoe to present day on site, as well as online. “Just recently I spoke with a 4th-year apprentice online and he made an unprovoked remark that he was shocked when he realized I knew more. Or was better than him? I knew he was trying to compliment me, but I still wanted to ask him why he was shocked that a certified plumber who has been in the trade for 12 years longer than him, was better. He admitted he didn’t really think that way about the more senior men in our trade. It’s called subconscious bias, we all have it. He in no way meant his comment to be malicious, and I didn’t take it that way. But somehow, in his mind, he was automatically better with tools than me.

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“Gender roles and strengths are instilled in a lot of people in many different careers. This happens all the time, so it never affects me anymore, I just like to get a healthy conversation going about it. I will say this, far more people are welcoming than not. The people that refuse progress are definitely on a sinking ship.”

Nevertheless, in recruiting and recognizing women in the trades, according to Twig, there’s a very strong chance you are going to need to work twice as hard for half of the recognition. “You’ll learn very quickly that pats on the back don’t pay your bills. Show up every day, wear your PPE, work hard, and never stop educating yourself. If there is one aspect of the trade that makes you nervous, that’s the one you should be focusing on.”

Twig can thank her mother for shaping her into the person she is today. Born with several physical disabilities, Twig’s mother has never once made an excuse for herself. “She worked hard and received an education, started her career as a Human Rights investigator, and raised two daughters as a single mother. I know she is in pain 24/7 but she never mentions it. She is a boss in every way.”

As for a professional mentor, Twig has had a few but her old lead hand Charlie stands out. “What a pain in my ass. Charlie didn’t think I could do much when he first met me, and I didn’t take kindly to that when I was younger and more hard headed. We got into many screaming matches, which always ended up in him throwing a job at me that he didn’t think I could handle,” says Browne. It took some time but she eventually proved herself to him, and to this day, when he comes back for seasonal work, he picks me—out of a handful of other plumbers—to be his work partner. “He is still a pain in my ass though, haha.”

Overall, the plumbing trade has been very fulfilling, and “the satisfaction of working with my hands has been incredibly rewarding,” says Browne. Yet, helping people has always been Twig’s satisfaction No. 1. “There is no better feeling for me than seeing the relief on somebody’s face who, moments before, was so stressed out.”

Getting Personal

Unbeknownst to many, Twig used to be quite competitive at rugby, and it has been a huge passion over the years. “I played for 20 years and was once selected to team Canada’s long list, and, of course, I promptly broke my ankle as soon as I made that list. The sport has taken me all over the world as a player and spectator. It’s a phenomenal sport and lifestyle if you’re interested in the world and the people in it.”

But these days, spending quality “spare time” is a work in progress for Twig. “This whole COVID-19 pandemic has really shown me that for the last decade I haven’t really made spare time for myself. It’s been all about work, which I love. But now that work has slowed, I am finding myself lost. I use to love painting and Judo. Seeing how close contact martial arts are probably looked down upon during a pandemic, I’ll probably pick up some watercolors and see what happens.”

And balancing work and family life is something that Twig is working on, as well. “My partner is a nurse and we both have very busy work schedules. We try to make date nights or games nights with friends at least once or twice a month. Hikes with the dog, when we can fit them in, are great as well.

Just last weekend Twig was tearing apart her dilapidated front porch; the weather was gorgeous for a change. After not making a lot of progress on it, her friends from hockey called and asked her to join them on a hike. “I almost said no because I really needed to get at the deck. But I went and it was exactly what the doctor ordered—friends, the East Coast and cliff trails overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Afterward, we had a beer in their backyard and just shared a laugh. The deck will be done by 2022, I promise.”

Speaking of friendships, social media, especially Instagram, has been an incredible outlet for Twig, socially and professionally. “Growing up on an island is amazing in so many ways, but I was missing out on meeting people and friends who could teach me more about my trade, show me the newest technologies and tools. But mostly I was missing out on the amazing community of plumbers Instagram has. I can honestly say I have met some of my favorite people from that app.”

Danielle “Twig” Browne is a girl done good. Hard working, strong minded and proud of who she is and where she came from, “I’m a very proud Canadian. I can confidently say majority of people in this country want the best for each other, and have the same core values. I couldn’t really tell you if it’s in our blood or if it’s just our great beer.”