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By April 1941, it became apparent that Australia's workforce was diminishing. As more Australian men enlisted for the military, there was a drain on the labour force.

Non-essential industrial production was cut down and the labour forces employed in these industries were redirected by the Directorate of Manpower to military factories.
Shortages of items not related to war, such as food products and clothing, forced the government to introduce rationing. The Directorate of Manpower needed to find another source of labour and turned to women.

The number of women employed in industry between 1939 and 1943 exploded from 1000 to 145 000. The total number of women employed in various jobs in the Australian workforce numbered over 800 000.
Women found employment in traditionally male jobs but were often only being paid a fraction of a man's wage. Attempts to remedy the situation ended in defeat as women were repeatedly opposed by the male-dominated unions and the government, afraid that women would expect equal treatment after the War.
The huge increase in the employment of women in World War II was a significant social change, but it was not matched by a change in government attitude towards women. Wages were not changed and it was made clear that women were expected to return to their traditional roles when the War ended.

Women's jobs

The concern for the Directorate of Manpower was that munitions factories and industries relating to the war effort were at full working capacity to fulfil the increasing demand from the War. As more men were being drawn into military service, there was a shortage of workers for munitions factories. See image 1

Mary Miller was a union representative at a munitions factory in Adelaide. She said,
'the women who did come in from their homes, who'd never been in industry of any sort, they were marvellous - some were very young but some were grandmas. And there was a feeling that you were contributing, you were part of the war effort, and that was important.
And personally, sad as it was, most of us quite enjoyed the war - the conditions of working and so on. It was a happy war to some extent for those who were working in munitions and factories except, of course, if you had the sadness of losing someone.'
Women were introduced into traditionally male jobs in factories, activities ranging from munitions production to work in steel mills, production of planes to provisions and clothing for the troops.
The number of munitions factories increased from nine to 20 factories between 1939 and 1941. They were built in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Factories built in rural towns saw the growth of cities within months, such as Orange and Hay in New South Wales.
Married and single women were encouraged by the government to seek employment in these factories. There were factories which manufactured bullets, machine gun belts, aeroplane and mechanical parts.
Edna Macdonald was a young woman working in Melbourne,
'I decided to go to the Footscray ammunition factory. I worked at Myers for four years as a salesgirl, and one thing that attracted me was the money. I was receiving 26 shillings a week at Myers, working from 9 to 6, four days a week, 9 to 9 on Friday, and 9 to 1 on Saturday, and when I went to the ammunition factory my salary was 2 pounds, 1s, 6d which was marvellous.
And people started to flock in, they were employing by the hundred every week and we had all types of people, sports teachers, prostitutes, you name it, they accepted anyone and it was absolutely packed to the hilt. We were making small arms - 7.2 and 9 mm - and it was horrifying for the first few weeks.'
Women were also used in the transport industry, driving trucks and taxis, acting as porters and conductors for trains and trams. Traditional administrative roles as clerical workers, typists, secretaries and teaching jobs were readily available to women.

Working conditions

Women enjoyed the freedoms that accompanied their new jobs. Unfortunately, the majority of jobs were tiring and repetitive. Factory work was often undemanding, assembly line-style work.

Few women had experience working in factories. Facilities were poor. In one munitions factory, 20 women shared one washbasin. Cockroaches plagued the lockers and washrooms.
In a meatworks factory, water that was used to clean benches after animal carcasses had been cut and cleaned would flood the factory floor and reach as high as women's ankles. As women wore only ordinary shoes, the amount of dirty water on the floor bred bacteria and was a constant health risk. See image 2
Women employed in textile mills had equally dangerous working conditions. Dust and fluff from threads of fabric used in production were inhaled. Although fluff hardly seems life-threatening, it caused severe damage to women's lungs in the long term.
Working in munitions factories was often hot and noisy. Women did not wear much protective equipment. Materials used in production often caused serious headaches and health troubles. There was also the inherent danger of operating heavy machinery and handling explosives. There were many accidents and injuries.
Edna Macdonald described the situation, 'There were some very bad accidents - they didn't have any guards on the machines and I saw a women have half her hair dragged out with a drill, she happened to lean over and it happened in a few seconds. Of course that was the normal thing in those days, they didn't look after the worker at all.'
Women worked long hours in factories and employers had little consideration for their lives outside of work. Women did not receive payment for dependents and children. They were not granted leave to care for young children and there were no child care facilities at the factories.
This lack of consideration for women's duties with their families and households led to a fairly high rate of absenteeism. Many women were forced to take time from work due to fatigue, ill health caused by poor working conditions, and inconvenient working hours.


There was strong opposition to women working in industry. The government ran campaigns to encourage women to move into the workforce.

However, newspapers, the Catholic church, male-dominated trade unions and working men formed strong opposition to the new roles being assumed by women. They were concerned that women would abuse their newfound freedoms and take men's jobs.
In November 1940, employers of women in the metal industry applied to the arbitration court for a change of the award wage due to a state of 'national emergency'. The unions vehemently opposed the changes, fearing that further encouragement for women to work would signal a reversal of gender roles.
The arbitration court ruled that a rise in wages be limited only to women employed in war work. It was clear that women had to surrender their jobs when the men returned to Australia.
Women's roles in industry and munitions work were a valuable contribution to Australia's war effort and economy during World War II. Unfortunately, the social changes that could have led to more equality between men and women in the workforce went unexploited.
The focus of the war efforts were fixed on the battlefields.


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Question 1/5

1. From where did women encounter opposition to their role in the workforce?

The Directorate of Manpower

The male dominated unions

Their employers

Their families


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