Anything ewe can do: Aussie women shed stereotypes
There's been a gender rethink on sheep-shearing farms as more women enter the profession Down Under
In a sweltering shed on an Australian farm near the rural town of Trangie, Emma Billet drags a nervous sheep from a waiting pen to her shearing station.
She is the only female in her crew of five shearers, but attitudes on Australian farms are changing and training approaches are encouraging a gender rethink, with more women entering the profession Down Under.
“It is a physical job which I enjoy. I like to work hard,” 28-year-old Billet, who can fleece 130 sheep a day, said during her break.
“It is like a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.”The number of skilled women working with farm animals — including trainers, veterinary nurses and shearers and shearing hands — has grown from close to 11,700 in 2006 to almost 19,200 a decade later, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.“It comes back to women being on the land as well,” Billet said of the rise of women in the industry. “It has become more and more common now just to see women owning farms and running businesses and I guess times have just changed. It is good to see.”
Although there are still fewer than 100 female shearers, experts say there has been significant growth in the past few years.
“There have been women in the shed for a long time, that have just been roustabouts (shed hands that collect the wool from the ground),” said Glenn Haynes, a shearing programme coordinator at TAFE South Australia, a leading vocational training school.
There was resistance in past, however, with a “pretty negative attitude towards women” from the older generation when it came to their ability to shear, Haynes added. But this is changing and new approaches to training are being introduced, including female-only programmes, as demand among women grows, he said.
Haynes held a workshop in 2016 targeting women, in which just a few pursued a shearing career, but the annual event has recently seen close to 25 enter the trade.Australia is one of the world’s largest wool exporters, producing about 25% of greasy wool sold on the global market, in a multibillion-dollar industry. More than 70 million sheep are shorn each year.
Jim Murray, shearing development manager at industry group Australian Wool Innovation, said professional shearing sheds were much more inclusive now than they used to be.
“There has been an increase in female shearers for various reasons — better training, modern technologies and a more professional industry is part of the reason,” he said.
“Women are much easier to teach to shear as they often do not come with pre-conceived ideas,” he added.“The advent of social media has also helped to celebrate the gender and ethnic diversity in shearing sheds.”
Back on the farm, about 450km inland from Sydney, Billet, an industry veteran of 10 years, said improving facilities, such as toilets and showers, remains a problem for all in the industry.
And upgrading farming equipment was critical, she added, after a friend was scalped in a horrific accident in a shed by decades-old machinery late last year.
Regardless of gender, shearing is “not for the faint hearted”, said Billet, but she welcomes more women into the shed.
“You will feel like you have never felt before, but if you want to be a shearer, if you want to be good at your job ... no one or nothing will stand in your way,” she said.