Fi Shewring

Trade - Painting Decorating

I never intended to become a tradeswoman, teacher or an advocate for women in trades, but as a single mother of five small children I met my second husband-to-be and started working with him in his painting business 25 years ago. He had been a single man just supporting himself and it was a huge leap to generating enough money to support seven of us. I had been struggling to make ends meet as a single mum and the obvious answer was to work together in his business.

I did not realise I was going into a non-traditional trade and wondered why there were no other women working on site. I enjoyed working with my hands and the fact that we were constantly meeting new challenges. I learnt my trade on site and then later went to TAFE and gap skilled to become a qualified tradeswoman.

A number of years later I then became a TAFE teacher and loved teaching my trade to apprentices which was extraordinary because I had struggled at school with dyslexia and thought teachers were authoritarian bastards! I started to teach short classes for women in painting and decorating as well as apprentices and opened up a whole new world. The women loved the hands on work and I realized that the reasons why women weren’t in trade had nothing to do with our capabilities.

The more I looked into it, the more astounded I was at the fact there was no real reason, just made up reasons.  I was horrified that women’s options in this day and age were actually incredibly restricted if they tried to venture beyond the ‘traditional’ women’s employment areas of child care, retail, nursing, office work etc I became determined to encourage other women to re-assess their career options, broaden their scope and consider everything as possible including a trade.

I started researching and initially gathered tradeswomen and apprentices stories. I wrote a booklet with the stories and used award money I had received from Institute of Trade Skills Excellence National Trade Teacher of the Year Award in 2007 for Building and Construction to pay for the publication of the booklet, which then went out all across Australia. I continued to research into tradeswomen and their pathways and wrote a number of papers including one for NCVER but I became frustrated at the fact that little was changing.

In 2009 I won National Association of Women in Construction International Women’s Day Scholarship which I used to design a month long study program in the United States of America looking at how women entered the trade workforce and what where underlying conditions which helped them succeed. At the time I knew no one in the USA in the tradeswomen’s world and I had never travelled by myself either. It was very daunting trying to set up the itinerary and then travelling across America by myself. I started at my brother’s in Atlanta where he taught me how to drive in America and I had organised a number of meetings with the IBEW of Georgia, the National Association of Women of Color in Construction and the local carpenters union. The American system is quite different to the Australian system and it took me a bit to get my head around it so I arranged a meeting with the local Painting and Decorating Union Atlanta to help me understand how things worked there.

From Atlanta I travelled back across to Los Angeles and on north to Portland and Seattle. I missed my children and husband but was so busy that the month went by reasonably quickly. Mothers Day was the worst; I was in a tacky motel in Portland and did not have enough money to call home so felt very sorry for myself!

The trip is outlined in the paper I wrote on my return:

The most important thing I gained was huge insights into what was working and what wasn’t as there had been a sustained effort in the United States to get women into the trades since the 1970’s, which had not happened in Australia.

I knew when I came back that I needed to start a support group for tradeswomen which was specifically designed for them, so in 2009 to support existing tradeswomen and advocate for change I started Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen (SALT) which later became a non-profit organisation working to change the status quo for working tradeswomen and encourage girls and women to consider a career in trade.

Since this time SALT has gone from strength to strength and has become another job on top of my full time job of being a trade teacher- this has become one of my biggest challenges! I still love getting back on the tools ( life is simpler and I enjoy getting back into the zone of physical work), which I do every school holidays when I take teams of tradies to the drought area of Lightning Ridge in North Western NSW as part of the SALT of the Earth Tradie initiative and I am incredibly proud of all we have achieved over the years.  I am also now a Grandmother with eight grandkids who have opened up a whole new world of joy and my hobbie when I get the chance is SCUBA diving which I have loved for 25 years.

I love the camaraderie which exists amongst the tradeswomen (I find the same camaraderie in SCUBA) and the way we support each other. I am eternally grateful that there are many other tradeswomen just as passionate as me and who work for SALT to ensure opportunities for women in trade will continue to grew into the future and beyond my time.

Fi’s VET Alumni Profile