Gender pioneer Beryl ‘breaks the bias’

Working across aged care, community and pastoral care, disability care and family and relationship care, you don’t need to look far to find courageous people who overcome challenges to achieve what’s important to them.

One such person is Beryl, 93, from our Enoggera Social and Community Hub. Her push for equal opportunity made her the perfect person to talk to this International Women’s Day (8 March), the theme for which is ‘break the bias’.

In the 1950s, when men were regarded as the breadwinners and women, predominantly the home makers, Beryl managed a plumbing and hardware shop at Rosalie.

She shovelled gravel and sand into the backs of trucks, lifted the biggest tins of paint from the top shelves and carried bags of cement to people’s cars. She did this for the occasional female customer, but she also did it for male customers.

At a time when women were barred from certain jobs and ceased employment on marriage or the birth of their first child, Beryl came up against gender bias daily.

“Customers would often look around the shop and ask for a man to assist them,” she said. “I could talk plumbing and help them with parts – male customers weren’t always sure how to take this.”

Beryl started her working life at the tender age of 14, not uncommon for the early 1940s. She packed food and weighed sugar for Queensland Country Traders (QCT) at North Quay. She said it was “hard, constant work” but she speaks fondly of the company and was proud to represent them at the Royal Queensland Show.

She worked at QCT until she was 19, when she married into a family of plumbers. Their plumbing and hardware shops, S A Connell and Sons, dotted Brisbane’s inner suburbs – Riding Road in Balmoral, Campbell Street in Paddington and Nash Street in Rosalie.

Beryl, her husband Lyle and their two children Colin and Jennifer always lived in a house adjoining the store. “We grew up in the back of the shops,” said Jennifer, 72. “One of our houses was where the Paddo Tavern bottle shop is now”.

While not all women want the same thing, Beryl wanted to be part of the family business. She said challenging the status quo helped her live her fullest life.

Her tenacity and determination to defy expectation left a mark on her daughter. “Growing up watching mum, I thought I could do anything,” said Jennifer. “I wanted to be a policewoman, but my height and weight ruled me out. Then I decided to follow the family line and become a plumber. But I guess the world wasn’t ready for girls to be plumbers. In the end I found my niche as a telephonist.”

Equal opportunity has been fought and won across generations of women, but bias, whether deliberate or unconscious, still exists. It can make it difficult for women to pursue their passions and follow their dreams. Together, we must keep breaking the bias by taking action to level the playing field – just like Beryl did.