Should men's sheds open the door to women?

When women first started asking if they could join the men’s shed in the Victorian town of Ballarat, member Lynton Roberts had a standard response.

“My answer was, if I can join Fernwood Gym, you can join the men’s shed. It’s never going to happen.”

But, three years ago, it did happen.

The 15-year-old Ballarat East Community Men’s Shed came about in response to community need: to address the depression and isolation among local men, primarily farmers and retirees.

Now, community need was pointing the shed towards women and it couldn’t ignore them.

“It’s really about doing stuff for the community,” Mr Roberts says, of the shed’s purpose.

“We recognised the need, we have the equipment sitting here, we have people with skills too. And we thought [opening up to women] was just a really good thing to do,” he says.

Space in the calendar was carved out for the shed to serve as a women’s shed one day a week.

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as we can,” Mr Roberts says.

Researcher and author Barry Golding says there are roughly 1300 men’s sheds in Australia and more overseas in countries including Denmark, the UK, the US, Iceland, Kenya and the Cayman Islands.

They offer “huge benefit” to men’s health and wellbeing, Professor Golding says.

But he argues that some sheds are “less good” at opening their doors to the wider community – people of different cultural backgrounds and genders, for example. But he says “it need not be like that”.

Two men in shorts and dark shirts stand smiling in front of a large, open shed with people milling inside and outside it.
Lynton Roberts (right) has been a member of the Ballarat East Community Men’s Shed for about a decade. (Supplied)

The model could be “tweaked”, Professor Golding tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra

And he says those who think openly about their membership are not just being inclusive – they’re ensuring their sustainability.

“Thirty per cent of Australians were born in a non-English speaking nation, and I think we have to get better at involving not only people from diverse cultural backgrounds, but also crossing boundaries in relation to gender and First Nations peoples,” says Professor Golding, whose latest book is Shoulder to Shoulder: Broadening the Men’s Shed Movement.

“There’ll always be push-back in some sheds. But I think a lot of sheds are realising that in order to be sustainable, they’ve got to move with the times [and] find new ways of reaching out to a broader demographic,” he says.

We spoke with four sheds – in Tasmania, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria – to find out what they think about broadening their membership.

A shed bought with sausage sizzles
Mr Roberts has been a member of the Ballarat East Community Men’s Shed for about a decade and for the past six years he’s been the shed’s secretary.

Locals chipped in to purchase a property with three large buildings on an acre of land – “bought with sausage sizzles basically”, he says.

A large, curved-roof corrugated iron shed with rust covering the roof.
Part of the Ballarat East men’s shed, bought with the earnings from sausage sizzle sales. (Supplied)

Membership of the shed sits at around 100 people. They include men, women, Vietnam War veterans, people living with disability and people leaving prison looking for help to reintegrate into society. Their ages range from 18 to nonagenarian.

“There are guys that come along here that are widowed or single [or] who get to retirement age, who are at a loss, basically, as to how to spend their days.

“It gives them an avenue to come along and get on with like-minded people,” Mr Roberts says.

For Mr Roberts, being at the shed “fills a need to be involved”, and clearly it fills a need for many others too. Numbers are so strong that some interested in joining the shed are turned away due to capacity limits.

But while community engagement with the shed is strong, its finances are less so. The shed space is a 1950s post-World War manufacturing facility in need of refurbishment.

“We keep trying to find sources of funds, grants [and] voluntary donations that can help us to get the improvements running,” Mr Roberts says.

Space for all, even the local coffin club
In Ulverstone, a town of 22,000 people in northern Tasmania, there’s a big, blue shed behind the showgrounds. It serves as a men’s shed, a women’s shed and, on a Thursday morning, a coffin club – with plenty of crossover membership.

Middle aged woman with white hair in a shed holds up craftwork
The Ulverstone shed welcomes all cohorts. (Supplied)

Over its 10-year life, the Central Coast Community Shed has been a space for everyone, and it still is, coordinator Melissa Budgeon says.

“It’s not for one cohort,” she says.

People of all genders, abilities and backgrounds are welcome at the Ulverstone shed.

“It is about respect and diversity,” Ms Budgeon says.

Roughly 40 men come through on the three men’s shed days. The women’s shed runs one day a week, usually with a group of around 20. And on the allocated day, the 12 members of the coffin club use the shed’s facilities to make funeral caskets for loved ones.

Ms Budgeon describes the future of the Ulverstone shed as strong; the members make it so.

And though, amidst the diversity of members, there have been “little bumps”, ultimately people have worked together to get through it.

“We’ve tackled all these little things … we’ve nipped it in the bud,” she says.

Group of older men wearing Santa hats crowd around a table that has a reindeer display.
There are different days dedicated to the different Ulverstone shed groups. (Supplied)

When older shedders have passed away, Ms Budgeon says, at their funerals the shed is “always mentioned [as] the best thing that happened in their lives”.

A safe place to talk’
Between 100 and 200 people a week attend The Shed in Sydney’s Mount Druitt. Most – around 85 per cent – are Indigenous men, but Indigenous women and non-Indigenous people attend as well.

“We find it actually hard to describe the typical client,” says Nicole Anderson, who manages The Shed.

Four Indigenous men stand leaning against a large didgeridoo, smiling and squinting into the sun.
Between 100 and 200 people a week attend The Shed in Sydney’s Mount Druitt. (Supplied: Western Sydney University)

Now more than 12 years old, The Shed has evolved with its members. For example, by welcoming women, more younger men are accessing The Shed, as mothers will often bring their sons along with them.

As well as opening up to other cohorts of people, it has “morphed into a support agency for Indigenous men who are facing mental health issues”, Ms Anderson says.

In that way, she says “it’s slightly different from your typical men’s shed”.

About a dozen outreach services will visit there “to have a better conversation with their clients that are mutual clients of The Shed”, Ms Anderson says.

“So you’ve got someone from Centrelink who comes out and sees the client there because they feel safe here. They feel supported. It’s culturally appropriate. And they’ll talk.”

The Shed was formed because there was concern in the community about the risk of suicidality among Indigenous men, which is significantly higher than among non-Indigenous Australians.

Aboriginal males have the highest rate of suicide in Australia. In 2018, the ABS stated that intentional self-harm ranked as the fifth leading cause of death for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, while ranking 13th for the non-Indigenous population.

People who attend might want to talk about a physical or mental health problem, a financial or family law issue, a problem relating to drug and alcohol or homelessness.

The staff at The Shed, who are all Indigenous, are there “to listen and link to the appropriate service”, Ms Anderson says.

“It really is an intrinsic part of the Mt Druitt community now and of the Indigenous community.”

Pioneering shed has change on the horizon
One of the oldest men’s sheds in Australia – at 22 years old – is in Port Augusta, the South Australian town of around 13,000 people.

The shed has about 26 members, all of whom are aged over 65. Bronwyn Filsell has been the shed’s coordinator for the past 18 years. She agrees with Professor Golding that increasing the diversity of the membership would help it to live on for another 18 years, and beyond.

Five men stand smiling around a large, wooden cupboard.
The Port Augusta Men’s Shed is one of the oldest men’s sheds in Australia. (Supplied )

Ms Filsell says the men who attend are mostly those who are at risk of social isolation and mental health problems after retiring from work.

But in recent years, membership has plateaued and she thinks welcoming in a broader spectrum of the community could increase it. 

“It has to be more diverse,” Ms Filsell says.

“The world keeps changing. You have to go with the flow, don’t you? Otherwise you get left behind.”

She thinks a broadening membership base is likely and that, in future, younger men and perhaps women might be brought it.

“Like anything, adjustments can be made. You know, I think everybody’s flexible.”

“Nobody would ever want to see [the shed] discontinue,” she says. “We need each other.”

The Port Augusta shedders make Christmas pageant floats, take on local joinery jobs and help with making or repairing things for the town.

“The men are being really valued for the work that they do. And to them they’re still working. They haven’t actually stopped working,” Ms Filsell says.

There’s no one way to be a shed
Professor Golding acknowledges that the question of men’s sheds opening their doors to more people is a complex one.

For some men, the company of mainly other men is “beneficial to them in terms of their health and wellbeing”, he says.

Other men, he argues, “probably benefit from a mixed environment”.

“[So] all sheds are different.”

He’s not prescribing what every shed in every community should look like.

Rather, he argues that “sheds have to find ways at the local level of dealing with what the community wants”.

If they can get that right, they’ll continue to claim their valued place in communities across the country and across the world.

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