Women in WA's forest industries, then and now
Women have always had an important role in WA’s forest industries. Today women represent about 20% of WA’s forest industry workforce. Industry is working hard to improve that number and recruit more women in the future.
This year, the International Women’s Day theme was Balance For Better. The women in these photos have been improving the balance for generations.
The first woman to have a professional job in WA’s forest industries is probably May Holman. She held several positions in the Timber Workers Union. She was also the first female Labor Party politician in Australia, and the second woman after Edith Cowan to become a parliamentarian. Beating nine male candidates, May was pre-selected for the seat of Forrest and won the by-election in 1925.
At just 31 years old, May Holman used her first speech in parliament to passionately and eloquently advocate for the industry1, drawing attention to the poor working conditions and lack of roads in her Forrest electorate. May used her experience in the industry to develop and introduce the Timber Workers Bill in 1926. It was one of the first health and safety bills in the world, and copied by other countries.
In 1941 the first all-female fire gang in WA (and possibly Australia) was formed2. There were six women in the main gang, with other women involved from time to time. They had flexible working hours, accommodating for school drop-off and domestic duties. In spring and autumn they’d perform prescribed burns and clear firebreaks, and in summer they would fight fires. Their work was always of a high standard, and the women appreciated both the comradery and income while their husbands and sons were away in the war.
(L) Helena Nermut creating maps today, (R) Pat Collins created many maps in the past and is pictured here running soil analysis.
You might remember Helena Nermut from our last newsletter, and her work in geographic information systems (GIS). Spare a thought for the women in WA in the 1960s and 70s that were assessing aerial photography and creating maps before technology like digitising was common and computers were nothing like the ones we use today. They spent hours colouring important maps with pencils, dot by dot. One woman, Pat Collins, even helped develop a unique GIS program called Forest Management Information System. It remains a powerful tool today.
In the 1970s WA’s Forests Department recruited its first female professional foresters. Even so, into the 80s women remained a novelty in industry. Those hardworking women broke down a lot of barriers, in addition to making significant contributions to sustainable forest management in WA.
Today there continues to be a wide range of jobs available in WA’s forest industries, with women employed along the supply chain; in native and plantation forests; at all levels; in cities and towns; in the bush and in the office. The balance is getting better every day.
For a more in-depth dive into the topic, read Women of the Forest: Voices of Western Australian Women, complied and edited by Roger Underwood (2017, York Gum Publishing ISBN: 978-0-9942271-2-6).
2 Heine, E. (2017). Home Fires. In R. Underwood (Ed.), Women of the Forest. Voices of Western Australian Women (pp 114-118). York Gum Publishing, Western Australia.