Labour History

Obstacle Course: Women’s Entry into Skilled Positions in the Newcastle Steel Industry, 1980-2000

Labour History (2022), 122, (1), 77–105.

Abstract

Sex-segregated workforces were common in Australia in the twentieth century and male dominance of the massive steel industry in Newcastle, New South Wales (NSW), was especially pronounced. Although there was temporary employment of women in heavy industry during World War II, no permanent change occurred in Newcastle until the end of the 1970s, when local feminist aims for equality in the workforce were potentiated by a youth riot, which revealed the sheer extent of female unemployment. Drawing on campaign literature, reports from the 1970s through to the 1990s, oral history interviews and conversations, this article outlines the obstacles faced, and overcome, by the young women who grasped new training opportunities from the early 1980s. By the mid-1990s, the operations superintendents of both the steelmaking mill and the blast furnace at the BHP Newcastle steelworks were women. A solid groundwork of feminist activism, accompanied by supportive government policies at all levels, led to some women finding a place for themselves in the skilled workforce of Newcastle’s heavy industrial sector.

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