'Women of Steel' shortlisted for Sydney Film Festival prize

Yasmin Rittau and Robynne Murphy outside the Port Kembla steelworks. Photo: Peter Boyle

The world premiere of a 14-year struggle for jobs will be screened at this year's “virtual” Sydney Film Festival from June 10. Women of Steel, a finalist for an award, documents a hard won campaign by women in the Illawarra to force Australia's BHP to hire them at the local steelworks.

Producer, director and protagonist Robynne Murphy said while she is a little sad that the pandemic has scrambled the traditional festival opening night, she was extremely happy to be able to get the story of this campaign out to a very wide audience.

“We’ve got a local film about Wollongong, made in Wollongong, supported by the Wollongong community about a really interesting campaign about women’s right to work in the steelworks” Murphy told Green Left.

“We’ve got a lot of archival footage which means that a lot of people will see themselves in it.”

Murphy was one among many women looking for permanent and well paid work in the 1980s, only to be told that because they were women they would not make the cut at BHP.

They were not going to accept that, and they formed a united front with unions, community and political groups to fight this overt discrimination.

“The steelworks in the 1980s employed about 20,000 people and when we tried to get a job, they just said there were no jobs for women.

“We found out that this was what 1200 other women who put their names down for work at the steelworks and were also told. So we challenged that attitude and I am so glad we did because we’ve changed those attitudes.”

At the beginning of the campaign, the women set up a tent embassy (which is documented in the film) and it was then that Murphy realised that “it wasn’t only me but hundreds of other women who were affected”.

“All these women came up to the embassy and told us they were knocked back, and then they joined the campaign. That was so inspiring that I thought then that we have to make a film about it. I did not know then, of course, that it would take fourteen and half years!”

The film looks at the period—there was a steel slump—and the protagonists' determination to test anti-discrimination law, which had been enacted as a result of the 1970s movements for social change.

Migrant women, unemployed students and others combined to form an indomitable force: they were eventually supported by many BHP male workers, unions and others.

Yasmin Rittau, another Jobs for Women veteran, told Green Left, “I got a job in the steelworks in 1980 and worked there until 1982 as an assistant to electricians and an assistant to fitters. That gave me the background to go on to do an apprenticeship in fitting and turning.

“It was a good feeling when I got the job in the steelworks. My cousins worked here as did many of my male relatives and initially I would never have thought about getting a job in the steelworks because I sort of knew it was a ‘job for men’.

“But then I met the women in the campaign who supported the idea that this should be an opportunity for women to earn a reasonable wage. Lots of the jobs available to women in Wollongong were for lower wages.

“I was unemployed at the time so I applied for a job at the steelworks. I was told the there were no jobs for women but we went ahead and campaigned and, finally, we were successful.

“This should be a lesson for anyone who fights against discrimination: you have to be in the struggle to win it!”

Murphy's struggle to make the film is another story: a film maker herself, she had no major financier and had to rely on some 500 small donors (and a handful of large ones, from the Australian Workers Union, the Maritime Workers Union and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy) to bring the film to completion.

“I am so humbled that this film has been chosen as one of the top 10 documentary films at the Sydney Film Festival.

“This is a really good example of what people can do if we stick together.”

This is a not-to-be missed documentary of a significant feminist struggle, borne from a gutsy bunch of women who were not going to accept being told they were any less capable than a man. Many went on to be long-term employees at BHP, a job Murphy said she loved.

“We set a precedent for women in what were male-dominated industries. We changed the laws and we were able to test the anti-discrimination laws” Murphy said.

[Women of Steel will be shown online continuously during the Sydney Film Festival — day and night — and will be accessible from June 10-21. Information about the film and tickets is here.]

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