Theme Tradeswomen on the Move - Are We Still Moving?
Non-Traditional Trade Employment
Written by Vicki Rich, Uniting Care, Adelaide
I was coordinator of the Tradeswomen on the Move Project (TWOM) in Adelaide from 1993 to 1996 but the career path that took me there was anything but smooth. As a young woman coming of age in the 1970s, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought such a job would even exist, although I did grow up knowing girls could do anything-thanks to my parents. Well, almost anything. Amongst my year 12 middle-class peers in 1977, the careers we were heading for were divided by gender. Most girls were looking at teaching or nursing and the boys were going to be breadwinners in business or a profession. I put up a mild rebellion and said I wanted to be a park ranger, but no one really took me seriously and I ended up at teachers college. After many adventures and finding out I loved making things and enjoyed using machines, I completed a cabinet-making certificate and then a B.Ed. in technology and industrial arts. In 1989, my technology training brought me into contact with a program that sought to encourage girls to become secondary school technology studies teachers. On graduation, I worked at the local TAFE college promoting building courses to women. Soon I was following in the footsteps of some brilliant TWOM coordinators, and spent four interesting years promoting non-traditional trades to girls and women in South Australia.
The Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) funded TWOM and it was jointly delivered in South Australia by DEET and TAFE. One of the best things about my work at TWOM was meeting many inspiring tradeswomen and apprentices. My department produced a newsletter and register of women in non-traditional occupations, and many of those women took part in a school visit program around the state. Some industries were pleased to be part of the program and offered extensive hands-on projects for the week-long workshops component, and girls from the country and city got to experience spray-painting, welding, electrical and automotive work, and much more.
It is important to note that the early 1990s marked the final years of a thirteen-year federal Labor government, and there was generally good support for TWOM from workplaces, unions and educational institutions. I firmly believe that TWOM projects around the country contributed significantly to an increase in the number of women entering non-traditional occupations in those years. We also were sure that Kylie Minogue's mid-1980s portrayal of Charlene Mitchell as the motor mechanic in the popular television soap opera, Neighbours, was a great help. We often plotted how we could influence more TV soaps to show women in those roles.
Certainly there were detractors and many, if not all, women felt the pressure and unfair burden of extra scrutiny, ridicule, sexual harassment, homophobia, hostility and personal danger. Stories from women who pioneered working in South Australian steel companies and endured incidents such as brake fluid poured on their cars and sugar in their fuel tanks sent a clear message. One young woman in a regional town, the only girl in the company and a skilled welder, had to deal with rocks through her windows, being spat on, accused of sleeping with all the men, and being ostracised. She found this too big a burden to deal with and unsurprisingly she did not last in the trade. More subtly, I remember getting a call from an interstate female bureaucrat who worked in a similar field. With the help of a talented photographer, we had produced a TWOM calendar featuring six inspiring tradeswomen but, instead of the congratulations I was expecting, I was criticised for using models and not 'real' tradeswomen. I was shocked at the assumption that the women in the calendar could not be 'real' tradeswomen as they were too pretty!
Discrimination and prejudice were sometimes overwhelming for many women. Having supportive family, friends, co-workers and a sense of humour were keys to women surviving in non-traditional occupations. Various advocacy groups instituted national awards for women in these fields; these provided a great boost. Once John Howard became prime minister in 1996, we knew the program would be in trouble. Our fears were soon realised-departments were reshuffled and new boards were constituted. We got word from a newly appointed federal spokesperson that funding for TWOM was over, and, to quote her: 'Why are you running a program encouraging women to do things they do not want to do?' So 1996 was the last year of TWOM in South Australia.
One particular memory stands out amongst all the experiences of those TWOM years. We were in a small regional town talking to the year six and seven girls about trades. Two tradeswomen, a fitter and turner and a carpenter, were showing their tools and talking about what they did. A young girl in the back row told us how she loved riding motorbikes. 'You could become a mechanic', said one of the tradeswomen. The look on this girl's face was priceless; it seemed like a sense of purpose just came over her. I often wonder what she did.
- Summers, Anne, The End of Equality? Australian Women and the Howard Government, Pamela Denoon Lecture, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 6 March 2003. http://www.annesummers.com.au/denoon.pdf. Details
- South Australia, Employment and Training Equity Unit, Tradeswomen on the Move: Evaluation Report, Office of Employment & Training, Adelaide, South Australia, October 1987. Details