Please enter your email address to change your password.

The portal is unavailable for SA members. Please click here to visit the SA website.

Robynne Murphy and the Women of Steel

March 4, 2020

In 1980, a group of women came together to achieve what many thought was impossible.

Backed by the AWU, they took on one of the giants of the steel industry, after being told there were no jobs for women.

What Robynne Murphy and her band of warriors in Wollongong achieved would change workplace law permanently – paving the way for equal rights to employment for women across Australia.

But it took more than 14 years before BHP (now Bluescope Steel) stopped fighting them at every step, right up to the High Court of Australia.

This is Robynne’s story.

In 1980 in the Illawarra, almost two-thirds of the unemployed were women. The only jobs that existed for us were clothing trade work, or if you were lucky, you might work in a shop or bank. A lot of this work was done in people’s backyards. It was very exploitative, and we were paid piecemeal rates. They were dreadful conditions. We had no unions or legislation to protect us.

The biggest employer in town was the steelworks at Port Kembla, but apart from a handful of women working there, it was off-limits. We were told there were no jobs for women.

We’d still apply to work there, but we could be waiting up to seven years to get a job, where men would get employed in weeks.

They made all these excuses about women not being able to do the work, that we would not want to get dirty or break our fingernails.

We thought this was wrong. It was blatant discrimination. We were really keen on working there, getting union protection and better pay, so we started campaigning for women to be employed.

Pitching camp outside the works

We took action outside the works but we also went down the path of legislation saying it was illegal to discriminate based on sex.

To begin with we were on our own, but the Federation Ironworkers’ Association – now the AWU – soon supported us, and women lodged complaints with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board (ADB).

Protesting for equal rights

Nine months later, we were finally given jobs. But just a year later, when there was a slump in steel, BHP got rid of nearly all the women. It was based on the fact that we were the last in, so first out. While we agreed with this union principal, we argued that if we had been employed when we had applied like the men, we would have been there for years, would have been in more senior positions and would not have been retrenched. So we reopened our complaints with the ADB, and went back down the path of legislation.

We got legal aid after 18 months, and our case started at the tribunal level in 1984. We won our case, but BHP appealed and we went to the Supreme Court. They lost again and we went to the High Court in Canberra, where we finally won. It took 14-and-a-half years, but compensation was paid out to 709 women in 1994.

What this showed to us was that you can take on a large and powerful employer, and you can win if there is injustice.

What we achieved has been referred to as ‘the most important piece of discrimination litigation that has occurred in this country’.

We were really proud of what we achieved – a lot of other companies were watching this case very closely, and we set a precedent.

We also made the workplace safer for everyone, because one of the initial barriers to this work was legislation saying that women could not lift more than 16kg – that’s the weight of a four year old.

We got that changed, which has helped men too – who used to suffer from terrible back injuries. Occupational health and safety laws do a much better job of protecting both men and women now.

I went onto work at BHP for 30 years and did a range of jobs, as I love a challenge – including a crane driver.

But whilst we changed the law in getting women employed in non-traditional work and manual handling legislation, it did not change attitudes overnight. One foreman had famously said it would be over his ‘dead body before he worked with women’. We encountered sexism, harassment and very backwards attitudes.

But we had union support and we could address those issues, and we have gone on to achieve so many other positives in the workplace – maternity and paternity leave for example and flexible working.

We’ve now got women at BHP as engineers and in senior management positions which is fantastic. But the numbers are small, so there’s still work for the unions to do before we get true equal representation.

Robynne today

Robynne Murphy is now a retired member of the AWU. Her film, Women of Steel, should be completed in April 2020. View the trailer below. 

Women of Steel Trailer from BE Films on Vimeo.

Loading cart ⌛️ ...