In many respects, women have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic more than men, so it makes sense that 2020 is the year Canberra got its first women’s shed.
Similar to men’s sheds that can be found in many towns across Australia, Canberra’s women’s shed is a place to learn new skills and connect with other people.
Skye Haffner counts herself lucky she still has paid work, unlike other members of the group.
“It started off with a lot of women unfortunately losing their jobs during the pandemic,” she said.
“The women’s shed is there to help women upskill or learn new roles or things like that so I think if anything, the women’s shed has been birthed out of the pandemic.”
The shed is the baby of friends Sunita Kotnala and Robby McGarvey, who conceived the project while working alongside each other at their local community garden.
“We primarily really wanted to focus on tools competency, because while growing up no-one really encouraged us to use any tools or repair things,” Ms Kotnala said.
But what do you do when you have ambitions for a women’s shed and no shed? You ask for one — in this case a big one.
Sunita and Robby walked into Fyshwick recycled timber business Thor’s Hammer and requested regular access to its commercial workshop.
“We had a chat with Thor and he said ‘yeah, that’s a good idea, I would like to consider it’, and we sent him a proposal and he accepted and that was it,” she said.
Owner Thor Diesendorf agreed to free up a workbench for the women and a cabinet to keep tools, goggles and high-vis vests.
“We’ve got quite a lot of women working here doing apprenticeships and it just sort of seemed to fit in with the business,” he said.
“We let them use our space on a Saturday morning when we’re not quite as busy in production and it’s been working quite well.”
Every woman has a different story to tell
Ms Kotnala admits she was “really bored” with life under coronavirus, before deciding to set up the women’s shed in September.
She had experienced the concept in Sydney and was surprised one did not exist in Canberra when she moved to the capital in March.
Ms Haffner, who also recently moved to Canberra and is working in the administration side of a major construction firm, said joining had been a learning experience.
“But it’s also made me a lot more confident in potentially if I buy a house soon … renovating, things like that, it just makes me a little bit more empowered to pick up a tool or use things around the home.”
The group now boasts 64 paid-up members who are discussing offering a “pay it forward” option to help more women who may be struggling to join.
The women come from a range of backgrounds and ages — from skilled carpenters to young mums wanting to repurpose old furniture and retired women who desire the confidence to hang a picture frame.
The workshops so far are as diverse as their members — covering chair upholstery, sustainable flower arrangement and “edible suburbia” but the main focus is on learning how to use tools.
“How to hold a drill, how to hold a saw, how to measure things,” Ms Kotnala said.
“Many of our members are living on their own now, living in smaller apartments and they really wanted to learn new skills and work with tools and do basic handyman jobs in their residence, and also express their creativity.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more inspiring place to learn than Thor’s Hammer, a Willy Wonka-like factory for lovers of bespoke floorboards, doors and furniture.
The Women’s Shed projects are more modest — Sunita’s working on a wooden cover to conceal a downpipe — but just as full of purpose and heart.
While the women bring in their own trainers, they can also draw on the guidance of the professionals around them like apprentice cabinet maker Lola Munday.
“It makes me realise how far I’ve come because when I first started I didn’t even know the difference between a drill or a driver,” Ms Munday said.
The group also hosts workshops at the Jerrabomberra Wetlands Education Centre and from next year the Hughes Community Centre.