As was the fashion of the day...

When I got my first proper job - one in a place that didn't involve vegetables - the world was a very different place compared today. Especially in the workplace.

1980 was an interesting time to be a woman. Despite all the gains our foresisters had made for us, our roles were still quite defined. Women were nurses, teachers, secretaries. Back in the day, we had a whole department of typists at the place I worked - in fact that was a job description - and each boss of a certain level (my boss's boss, for instance) had a secretary. Have you ever worked with a secretary in this modern age? I think we have two at my work now, but they're referred to as "Executive Assistants". Gone all posh and stuff.

Anyway, it was a little bit '70s era Mad Men and a little bit LA Law back then. Our skirt lengths were below the knee with high necklines and shoulder-pads to equalise/powerise the look. Boobs were out (not literally) shoes were in and higher than they'd ever been before - like our hopes, maybe - hopes as modern women with jobs and share-apartments and our own cars and freedom, and our singleness.

Looking back I can see that I never saw myself as a gender. I had no concept of what I could or couldn't do. This is the legacy of the women's liberation movement I suppose - maybe I was an early prototype of the objective - the worker who didn't see herself with any limitations based on anything but ability. Of which, I had very little at 17 years old but man I had potential off the charts, ready to soak up any and everything.

A few months into my job I was offered an apprenticeship in piping design draughting. In case you don't know what that is, check out those encaged gas pipes sticking out of the ground on the side of the road and in farm paddocks - I was trained to design stuff like that. Like in this picture:

(the above image is an example of the type of piping design I was trained in)

Most of my training was done in-house at work, and on-site on the natural gas pipeline and at gas treatment plants. A portion of my training also had to come from block courses at the local polytechnic where I was to work toward a Trades Certificate because that's what I was - a tradie - sure, a discipline on the periphery of what we know as trades people but one none the less. The closest thing to piping design at the local polytech was Fitting, Turning and Machining which I attended with a dozen or so other apprentices from around the district for three six week block courses a year for four years. It took me a while to realise I was the only girl on the course and I heard later, I was only the second female in New Zealand to train for my Trades Certificate.

Now let's just stop there and take a look at how the education system I had just left was treating girls at that time. At some progressive schools, girls were given the opportunity to study subjects like wood work and sports training while boys were given lessons in typewriting and cooking. Kind of a education exchange programme, of sorts. Not my school though. Mine was still stuck in the Catholic ideals of women learning home economics and sewing, typing and book keeping. I remember once we wanted to learn to play soccer and softball. We were categorically denied soccer, though we were allowed to play softball, during PE and not in competition at all. After all, girls really only played tennis, netball, maybe indoor basketball and a few of the field sports such as long jump and running. We honestly didn't have much of a choice and no one was interested in changing that at the time.

The point being, I hadn't been inside a workshop since I was a little kid when my Dad'd take me to his work. At least my father had prepared me to know how to act in a workshop, and what tools were - but as far as knowing how to use them to any degree of skill - I was a blank slate.

Fish out of water with scuba gear

On my first day on the block course, we were told to make a tool box. We were given printed off instructions and told to get on with it. I didn't have one single clue on where to start. I read all the instructions twice, figured I understood the steps if not the details, then did the thing I needed to do - I asked a fellow apprentice. I spread my asking around a bit so as not to bog one poor boy (because that's all they were, with the exception of one adult apprentice, we were all the same age) I got stuck into making my tool box.

That all went pretty smoothly. I wasn't great, but I wasn't the worst in the class either. I was a solid middle achiever and gained a surprising 78% for my tool box. I was amazed and proud. I couldn't believe I'd cut this thing out of sheet metal, folded it, riveted it, made a complicated tray for it, and finished in time. I'd had help and guidance from my fellow students and my tutors and I'd made this thing!

Stick and stones

But then it started. From a ringleader and a group of boys who thought he was cool. Duncan Bower was a neighbour of mine from home. My brief encounters with him before the course involved him trying to set my hair on fire with a string of double happy fire crackers last Guy Fawkes. As I remember it, he got a pretty good mark for his tool box too but for some reason, he didn't like the fact that I was there or that I hadn't failed or something, but it started that very lunchtime in the cafeteria. He yelled across the hundreds of students there "Maybe if I fucked my tutor, I'd get a better mark in sheet metal work too!" I turned to see him, surrounded by his group, sneering and doing the fingers at me. I turned back, my face burning. I had absolutely no skills in dealing with this kind of attention, and no one to talk to about it. It carried on like that for weeks. Him yelling obscenities, writing things on the board such as the tutor's name and mine inside a heart, grabbing me in the welding booth when I had my mask on and couldn't see anything, shoving me, swearing at me, sneering and leering, remarks that I can't even remember. I didn't know what to do so I did nothing. Less as a decision and more of a state of not knowing what to do or how to handle it.

Although I kept a bit to myself, some of the guys were nice to me. I got on with a few of them including a Space Invaders aficionado, Manu and the adult apprentice, Ian. There was another couple of guys one who had a Ford Anglia and the other who had a nice smile and who later puked all over my lounge - but that's another story. We started having morning tea breaks together and getting on well. I started coming out of my shell a bit more - they found me funny in some ways and I was probably quite cute in my overalls in other ways. But Duncan's gang was relentless and unimaginative with their taunts sticking mostly to accusing me of fucking my way to passing my assignments.

Part of our course was welding. I enjoyed that a great deal. The smell of arc and hot metal reminded me of my childhood days and going to work with my father. Besides that, I really loved the idea of melting and fusing metal. My favourite thing was using the gas torch to cut metal. Flippin' loved getting the acetylene/oxygen mix just right to cut through metal plate - felt in charge and powerful and just plain gleeful at being able to operate that kind of equipment.

Our welding shop was a dark, windowless hole full of booths to weld in. Because of the dark, the welding helmets and the booth set up, I had no idea how was ever behind me watching what I was doing. Tutors would come around to check we were on the right track and see if we needed help. But it also gave Duncan a ripe opportunity to give me a fright without many people knowing or noticing. He'd done it a few times and so most of the time when I was in the booth I was constantly nervous.

After you weld a skin of oxidised metal forms across the seam. This is called slag and needs to be tapped off with a chip hammer. The bits of slag fly off in all directions so it pays to tap only with as much effort needed to move it and try and control when the slag goes as it's still super hot - if not red hot any more - and you don't want to be hitting your co-workers nearby. I had finished a particularly long and beautiful weld - tipped my helmet up and tapped at the slag, watching it peel off and fall to the floor revealing the shiny waves of fusion beneath it when I was suddenly grabbed from behind.

I got a huge fright from the arm around my waste and the firm grip on my arse that I hit the slag really hard. My tools clattered to the floor, I swore and pushed back and Duncan laughed, and let me go as I heard the gruff voice of the tutor give him an earful. Duncan was backtracking saying something about it only being a harmless bit of fun as I realised I felt pain. My neck, my shoulder and tinkling down my back I grabbed at the zip of my overalls trying to get them off.

A piece of slag had flown up and down the neck of my overalls. I now sported a nice ten-cent sized burn on my neck, with a skipping path down my back as it had made its way down under my clothing.

You're nothing without your network

After sorting myself out, I went outside for morning tea break to find that no one was in our usual sunny spot outside the workshop. Standing there for a moment I saw my group of guys coming back from behind the workshop. They settled into the sunshine, sitting or leaning. Ian asked me if I was okay and I said I was. I hadn't seen the burn on my neck yet, and although it stung and felt like it might scab, I was okay.

After a few minutes, a very sheepish Duncan also emerged from behind the workshop and, after looking our way, walked in the opposite direction. "He shouldn't bother you anymore." Ian said, "and if he does, let me know." Seems the guys had read Duncan the riot act behind the workshop. I never did have any trouble with him after that.

The scar on my neck has gone now, it disappeared after about 15 or 20 years, Interesting to note that my problems with guys during my tenure in a male dominated industries are very few and far between. Most guys are decent and fair in work situations.