From the Archives, 1988: It’s blokes not breasts that cause trouble (2023)

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“They thought I was mad, but I was always mucking around with cars.” The Herald spoke to three young women about life in traditionally male workplaces.

By Alicia Larriera



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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on June 2, 1988


BRONWYN GASCOIGNE oftens finds herself flat on her back, under the chassis of a car, with a 15 kilo-plus gearbox resting on her chest.

From the Archives, 1988: It’s blokes not breasts that cause trouble (1)

In charge of an all-male crew of 20 mechanics at the Brad Garlick Ford workshop in Ryde, Bronwyn, 20, said her breasts were the last thing on her mind when she was under a car trying to fix crunching gears.

Enter the NSW secretary of the Vehicle Builders’ Employees Federation of Australia, Bill Taylor. As far as he’s concerned, women’s boobs hinder the work of a motor mechanic, and although he concedes that some of Sydney’s leading mechanics are female, he’d prefer they stuck to spray painting or smash repairs because “they have a good eye for colour and detail”.

Taylor also believes that most women will not “stick out” an apprenticeship because “the minute a boy comes on the scene, the grease and the dirt is a nuisance”.

“I’ve got no troubles about them coming into the industry at all but it’s a fact - this is going to sound chauvinistic - but it is a fact, they have said it to us.

“They want to go out on Friday night and have to spend hours getting the grime from out of their fingernails, while their girlfriends who work in offices just need to touch up their nice painted nails. After a while they get sick of it all.

“They compare themselves with their girlfriends, as girls are apt to do,“he said.

Gascoigne said that Taylor’s remarks did not surprise her. Each day, at least one client will ring to inquire about the state of his or her car and then refuse to speak when a woman’s voice is heard at the end of the line.

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“I try to explain that I do know what I’m talking about, that I’m the mechanic in charge of the service shop, but they still say: ‘Look, I’d rather speak to a guy’.

“The guys I work with stick up for me: they get on the phone and tell the client that I do know as much if not more than them but they still refuse to speak to me.

“I get so mad. I’d love to say some pretty rude things - but I can’t and I don’t.”

The barriers to women entering trades in areas other than the traditional areas, such as hairdressing, still exist. A report released by the Federal Government this week, The Women in Apprenticeships, stated that only three per cent of apprentices were women. Only when hairdressing statistics were added, did the figure rise to 11 per cent, still a dangerously unbalanced ratio of female-male apprentices.

So why do some women opt to forgo the “luxuries” of office life?

The women Agenda spoke to are leaders in their field, but they deny they are pioneering some sort of feminist-led offensive into traditional male trades.

Gascoigne has never wanted to be anything but a mechanic, aside from a brief flirtation with becoming a vet in the first year of high school.

“A lot of my friends didn’t believe me. They thought I was mad, but I was always mucking around with cars,” she said.

Having spent three years rebuilding a 1955 Chevy, no-one could question her enthusiasm.

Maria Monty, 24, a carpenter and co-director of the Finac building company, has been in the industry for nine years. Her mother can’t praise her daughter’s achievements enough: “She’s the best,” she said.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I came from the bush and there was never any difference between the jobs me and my brothers did.”

Her daughter is equally enthusiastic about her job and makes it clear that this is no feminist battle: “When I get out on a building site I’m not out there to prove my strength, I’m out there to prove I can do a job and do it well.”

“I don’t want to look like Mr Butch, I try to look as feminine as possible but if I’ve spent the day building the frame of a house my hands are tortured.”

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From the Archives, 1988: It’s blokes not breasts that cause trouble (2)

When Monty meets people for the first time, they initially don’t believe that she is a carpenter. They ask to see her hands for proof, and that tends to end their momentary bout of disbelief.

For Monty, being able to see proof of her work at the end of each day is incredibly satisfying and she said she enjoyed the support and encouragement of her male colleagues.

“They think it’s great to see a lady on a building site. Sometimes, some of the older tradesmen think: ‘What’s she trying to prove?’ But when they see my work they know I can do it and I win them round.”

She was particularly touched when a co-worker recently attached a sign saying “unisex” to the only toilet on the building site.

Some of NSW’s leading female tradespeople, however, don’t find the support so forthcoming.

Anne Flanagan, a 21-year-old apprentice fitter and machinist at the University of NSW’s Electrical Engineering School, took out a gold medal at the Workskills Olympics in April for her work in computer control.

The reaction from her all-male colleagues has been one of envy.

“When you do something well, it’s because you’re a girl and when you do something bad it’s because you’re a girl. You can’t win,” Flanagan said.

“Mostly they’re good to me but I think a lot of them still don’t accept me. They’re nice to your face but you hear about the things they say behind your back and I find that hard to accept.”

And then there is the Monday morning ritual of bragging about the weekend’s sexual conquests: “They either stop talking when I come into the room or they say things to try and shock me. It doesn’t.”

When Flanagan opted to do a trade at the end of Year 12, it came as a bit of a shock to her family and friends.

“There had been expectations that I would go on to university.”

Flanagan said the problem of discrimination against women entering traditionally male trades began at school. “There’s not enough direction. Too many girls do secretarial courses because they don’t realise that there are so many other things that they can do.”

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With a shortage of skilled tradespeople, the Federal Government is planning an intensive campaign to persuade more women to enter trades, thereby reducing Australia’s reliance on bringing in skilled migrants. In redressing the balance, the Government is also hoping to stop women from being channelled into areas of high unemployment.


But for women like Renata Ciempka, a 22-year-old personnel co-ordinator with a leading Sydney hotel, no amount of Government pressure would sway her to swap her designer suits, heels and briefcase for overalls and a workshop.

“I’m just not interested at all. I like office work, I like dealing with people and I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in a workshop for eight hours a day. Imagine what my skin and nails would be like.”



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