Smashing the Glass Ceiling: Winifred Davenport

Winifred Davenport
Winifred Davenport

In 1951, Win’s burgeoning engineering talents were recognised when she became the first female corporate member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia and in 1958 she followed this by becoming a member of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

In a 39-year career with the Department she assumed senior roles on core engineering projects around Queensland’s ports, helped design Brisbane’s iconic Manly Boat Harbour and in the mid-1960s designed and supervised construction of the Department’s hydrographic survey ship ‘Trigla’. She also became Official Measurer in Queensland for Olympic Class yachts.

Win also worked on the bridge and in the engine rooms of pleasure vessels including SS Koopa (a ferry that carried upwards of 1,000 passengers on day trips between Brisbane, Redcliffe and Bribie Island) and the MV Mirimar which, until 2009, was the vessel that took tourists to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Crawling over ships’ engines and getting covered in grease and grime is not everyone’s idea of fun, but Win was very much at home in this environment, and gained her Master Mariner’s Certificate through her work on these vessels.

It’s worth reflecting on what life was like in the Queensland public service from the 1950s to the late 1980s while Win was blazing a trail for women in the testosterone-loaded fields of engineering and shipping.

It was a period when it was difficult for women to strike any kind of balance between their professional and private lives – for many it had to be a case of one or the other.
Women were often obliged to give up work if they wanted to have families, were stereotyped into certain roles in the workforce and, if doing the same jobs as males, were generally paid less. Sadly we are still grappling with some of these inequities in the workforce today.

It was also very rare for women to rise to senior executive ranks but Win Davenport defied conventions as she rose to become an executive engineer in Harbours and Marine.

In addition to her fortuitous timing, one of the secret to Win’s success was her single-minded application to her work and continuous improvement from her very earliest working days.

If a quote from her in a 1989 edition of the Courier-Mail on the eve of her retirement is any guide, Win did not even notice the glass ceiling until the latter part of her career – in the 1970s and 80s.

‘It was a job. I’ve run into more (discrimination) problems in the past 15 years than ever before and I never struck it at the docks,’ she said.

Senior Cartographer Shirley Webb, who was a cadet cartographer while Win was in mid-career with Harbours and Marine and had numerous conversations with her, remembers a woman whose humility was the hallmark of her approach to people and work.

While focused and unquestionably good at her job, Win never lost a sense of perspective or her personal touch. She was the archetypal quiet achiever.

‘She was a very calm and pleasant person, gentle-natured and understanding and down to earth. She put a lot into her work, but was never strident about it,’ Shirley said.

In the years immediately preceding Win’s retirement, her passion for shipping, ports and the department she worked for saw her take on the task of writing the History of the Department of Harbours and Marine – a detailed account of the development of Queensland’s ports and harbours and the role the Department.

It now serves as a rich source of material for local maritime buffs and historians and it is a tangible reminder of Win’s service to Queensland and her own part in our maritime story.

Win Davenport passed away in 2003 aged 79 but her legacy is one that resonates today, and Queensland is the richer for it.