ANZAC Day: remembering when women held down the fort

This article was written by WGEA Director Libby Lyons.

ANZAC Day is our national day of reflection and commemoration. We remember the brave men and women who served on battlefields and in peacekeeping missions around the world. We mourn those who never returned to their loved ones and honour their sacrifice in keeping us safe.

Today let us also remember and honour the invaluable contribution women made during war time on the home front. Women kept the “home fires burning”.  They continued to care for our children, the elderly and the infirm.  They dealt with the broken bodies and minds of husband’s, brothers, uncles and friends who returned from a brutal battlefield and when necessity called they joined the workforce to keep the wheels of the Australian economy turning.

World War II was in fact a turning point for Australian women. They entered the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before, working in previously “male-only” occupations.

For the first time, women filled paid roles left vacant by men who had gone off to war. They were recruited into jobs usually regarded as too physically demanding for women but which were essential to the war effort. They works in factories, shipyards, commerce and transport.

Australian women also worked on the land. In July 1942, the Australian Women’s Land Army was established to support agricultural production. Over 3,000 land army members went out to farms across Australia to help maintain the country’s food supply. They drove tractors, milked cows, raised poultry and pigs and harvested crops.

Women did much of this work while earning less than men. With few exceptions, wartime controls kept their wages down to between 60-90% of the standard male wage for performing the same job. Despite this inequity, women persevered in helping to keep Australia’s economy on track to meet wartime demands.

At war’s end, it was expected that women would return to their traditional household roles, and many did. But the tides had shifted.

World War II was important for Australian women because it set off some long-term changes. In the following decades, women gained greater access to the paid workforce and won the legal right to equal pay for work of equal value.

Australian women also achieved something else in World War II. They successfully debunked notions of “men’s work” and “women’s work”. In meeting the challenges of war, they proved capable of working in whatever job they were required to do.

Despite this experience, traditional ideas about the kinds of work women and men “should” do are very stubborn. It is 74 years since the end of World War II, and Australia still retains deep-seated stereotypes about “men’s work” and “women’s work”.

Australia’s workplaces remain highly gender segregated. Almost 60% of Australians work in an industry dominated by one gender. Women and men are concentrated in different roles and industries.

The data that our Agency collects shows that there has been very little change in either occupational or industrial segregation. It’s one of the most disappointing results from our five years of data collection.

Labelling certain types of work as being better suited to women or men is ridiculous. A person’s gender is not an indicator of their aptitude or interest in a particular area. All that matters is that people find a job they enjoy and can perform with competence.

Breaking down gender segregation is also critical to our future economic success. Research shows that gender-diverse teams lead to better decision-making, help foster innovation and creativity, boost employee engagement and improve the bottom line. If we are serious about being an innovation nation, we need to improve gender diversity across all industries and occupations.

Employers have an important role to play in this process. Some are already challenging stereotypes about the kinds of work women and men “should” do. However, the data tells us there is clearly a lot more to be done.

This Anzac Day, as we as remember the many men and women who fought in war and laid down their lives for us, let us also pay a special tribute to the achievements of the many Australian women who stepped up at home to keep the nation afloat. They proved to us more than seven decades ago that gender is irrelevant in being able to do any job well. Let us learn from their example and break down those barriers to “men’s work” and “women’s work”.  Those stubborn barriers hold back both women and men in pursuing and fulfilling non-traditional jobs and careers.

This article was originally published online by the Daily Telegraph.