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How the story of "Women of Steel" is still relevant today

Courtney Hardwick

14 July 2021

The issues raised and fought by women in the 80s aren't all relics of the past. Women are still to this day far worse affected by economic downturns like the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the 80's in Wollongong. Employment opportunities for working women are few and far between, with many women having to settle for long-commute factory jobs in Sydney or work in dangerous backyard sweatshops. Despite anti-discrimination legislation having been implemented in previous years, steelworks giant BHP flat out refuses to hire women. Fed up, a group of women start the “Jobs for Women” campaign: after staging street protests, creating a tent embassy and building union alliances, these women are finally offered employment by BHP. But this huge achievement doesn’t last long. Soon afterwards the country is hit by an economic downturn and BHP chooses to let go of their most recently hired staff – who just happen to be the women. Banding together to successfully sue BHP, these women argued that they were only most recently hired and consequently fired because of the companies long-held decision to not hire women.

This is the story told in “Women of Steel”, the award-winning documentary by director and Jobs for Women campaigner Robynne Murphy. The documentary was released in 2020, at a time where once again women were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the many wins made by feminist and union movements since the 1980's, women are still at a significant disadvantage. The story of Women of Steel is as relevant as ever in a tumultuous economy that benefits and prioritises men over women.

Just like in the 80's, women today struggle with insecure and low paid work and are still the first to be fired. They are disproportionally hired in casual rather than full time positions, leaving them without job security and entitlements like sick leave. To add insult to injury, women are often working less hours than they want or need, leaving them at another significant disadvantage. When the pandemic hit, many of these jobs were cut in an instant, failing to qualify for schemes like JobKeeper that prioritised long term workers.

In the last year, the proliferation of casual work has only gotten worse for women. A report by Senior Economist Alison Pennington showed that the gender pay gap widened in 2020 and was mostly fuelled by the concentration of casual work over full time. Women’s employment is still worse than it was in January last year, despite men’s employment improving – the “economic recovery” has recovered men, but not actually women.

Another significant barrier facing women is access to affordable childcare. With schools shutting their doors throughout the pandemic and children sent home, many women shouldered the burden of childcare and childcare costs, either sacrificing their work or a hefty portion of their hard-earned pay. Despite recent efforts by the government to improve childcare in the 2021 Budget, the proposed scheme still fails to address a key problem that affects pay equality: the eligibility assessment framework. The assessments that determine levels of government support for childcare costs are assigned in income brackets.

This income bracket assessment test ultimately creates a disincentive for women to work more hours. It incentivises women to remain working casual or part time rather than returning to full time work, which affects their economic position for the rest of their lives. The trajectory of their careers is negatively affected, and superannuation balances are lower when women retire, already a well-established inequality issue. The investment into childcare in the 2021 Budget was a step in the right direction, but without changes to the income bracket assessment, women will continue to be pushed into working and earning less.

Over the last year the Liberal party has blatantly prioritised an economic recovery that mostly benefits men. The majority of stimulus spending by the government has been targeted to male-dominated industries, and this disparity is evident when looking at improvements in male employment versus female. It is well established and understood that gender pay inequality is an entrenched issue in Australia, but despite this understanding, the government has failed to deliver policies that will adequately correct these issues.

Like the women who fought for jobs in 80's Wollongong, we can’t sit back and hope that we’ll get better conditions. Women need to band together and call for the government to create and enforce policies that will place us on a truly level playing field.


Don’t forget to purchase your tickets to the screening and Q & A event for “Women of Steel” at Hoyts Cinemas Green Hills July 21st, 7 pm. Proceeds go to Got Your Back Sista, a local charity that supports women and children after escaping domestic violence:

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