Shearing may be an iconic part of Australian history, but it's a dying industry. During our golden age of wool—which was pretty much any time pre 1980s—there were an estimated 30,000 shearers. In 2013, there were 3200.
As a shearer, you're expected to go where the work is, which can mean spending anywhere from one day to five weeks on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Considering this, it's not surprising the industry has struggled to attract younger workers.
But there are signs things are changing, partially due to more women taking up the trade. While the average worker is a 41-year-old man, the number of women has increased by two per cent since 2011. This brings it to an underwhelming five percent, but hey, it's moving in the right direction.
Not only are women filling roles, but they're doing impressive work. In 1996 Cathy Wendleborn took out the shearing world championship in front of the Queen. Over a decade later in 2012, Kiwi Kerry-Jo Te Huia set the current women's record of 507 sheep in an eight-hour day. Both defied ingrained attitudes that women aren't capable of keeping up with the job's gruelling pace.
But for all the good news, when VICE actually began speaking to young women in the industry the story felt less uplifting. Shearing has got some good press out of its inclusion of women, but it's still a challenge to nab a the spot on the shed floor as a female shearer. And while the industry struggles to attract workers, it also battles with abandoning its male centric culture to fully embrace female employees.
We spoke to a 24-year-old ex-shearer named April Falconer. April was a full-time shearer for four years before becoming a wool classer—the person who sorts the quality of the wool. Despite her love of the industry she left because of the physical strain and pressure from her male boss.
VICE: Hey April, how did you get into shearing?
April Falconer: I needed a job and I started as a shed hand and moved up. I then learned to shear at TAFE.
Why did you stop?
I'm working as a wool classer (someone who sorts the wool) at the moment because the contractor I'm working for doesn't want me to shear. He doesn't agree with ladies shearing. At first I was a bit put off, but I understand where he was coming from. What I'm doing now, I get more money and do less work.
You're very understanding about that.
It's not good for women's bodies. It doesn't do anyone any good, but he was more concerned that I was a woman.
Is that attitude common? There aren't a lot of jobs in Australia where an employer would be so blatant about your gender blocking your work.
Interestingly the gender issue was never really a problem historically in New Zealand. For some reason it only happened in Australia where no women were allowed into the sheds. In Australia, when a woman used to come into the shed, they'd say "ducks on the pond," which meant don't swear. That's why men hated women in the sheds, because they couldn't do whatever they wanted.
Looking at your experience this is clearly still an issue though. Do you think the industry is sexist?
I don't necessarily think so. A man and a woman can do the same job but I do think it's a lot more strain on a woman's body—we're built different. That's the truth of it. It would probably be the hardest job in the world. You try holding onto a bloody 70kg ewe and pinning it down. It doesn't want to be there, it just wants to kick the hell out of you. It's a fucking hard job.
No doubt, personally I couldn't do it, but other women can, and want to. With female shearers demonstrating an ability to do the work, surely it shouldn't be up the the boss to decide who gets to do it. You decided it wasn't for you, but that might not be another woman's choice. What about those women who want to shear, but may encounter the same attitude that you did?
They just don't put up with it, you know. If they want to shear, they go and find someone who will let them. I was quite happy to accept it and move on. Wool classing is 10 times easier and I'm getting paid the same amount of money, so why wouldn't I?
When you asked for a full time shearing role, did you feel like you could handle it?
At the time, yes. But looking back, it's nice to not have to work so hard. I'm 24 years old and I go to a chiropractor. I had unbelievable pain in the back. When you're a shearer, you're just buggered but you have to keep working. You have to earn money—it's no use sitting on your arse.
But kudos to the girls who do want to shear. I hope they get in front. I hope they're winners and that they shear 200 every day.
What was your first day on the job as a shearer like?
I didn't realise it was so full on. I remember saying to a fellow ,"can I stop and have a drink?" He looked at me and said ,"do you think those bloody shearers are gonna stop?"
At some sheds we don't come across clean drinking water, we don't have flushing toilets, sheds are falling down—hazards everywhere. My legs have gone through a floor.
You can't call Workcover?
Most of these farmers are struggling to keep afloat and a lot of them are drought affected. They're struggling to feed themselves let alone fix a shed. There's also that fear of losing your job. But generally you don't want to say it because farmers can't afford it.
Honestly, I'm surprised by your loyalty considering your experiences.
We're a dying breed. You don't find the environment in a shed anywhere else. The music pumps and everyone works their asses off. On a good day it's great fun.
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