Breaking with Tradition: Women in Blue Collar Work
BY CHANDRA RUSSELL.
Virtually every cliché or stereotype we have heard for many years about women in the workplace seems to become magnified ten fold for women in trades and other non-traditional occupations. As an employment equity practitioner, I have used investigative skills to uncover negative attitudes with the intent of providing positive experiences that will change those attitudes.
Women in the workplace are often measured by two yardsticks; how as "women" they carry out the functions of the job, and how they live up to the images of "womanhood." In the non-traditional or blue collar areas, mechanical abilities and physical strength are seen as critical characteristics which women are lacking; characteristics which have historically been perceived as masculine. If women possess these characteristics and are able to perform the job, they are perceived as selling out on their womanhood. Sex role stereotypes work against women in non-traditional occupations to the extent that they face a situation of double oppression, on and off the job.
To be more specific, one of the most visible barriers women who enter into non- traditional occupations face is fear and hostility in their male co-workers. The resentment may manifest itself in unwillingness to assist or train the new woman on the job, harassment, or complaints to superiors about the woman's lack of potential. At this point, the chronic complaint that "the guys' wives don't want a woman here" may surface. Fortunately, as the saying goes, the best defence is a good offence, and once a woman ignores the hostility and simply concentrates on the job at hand, the resentment seems to dissipate.
Another major barrier which women in non-traditional occupations may face is the unusually high performance expectations. If she does not meet those expectations she will have fulfilled the prophecy that she did not have potential for the job in the first place. For example, in my experience as an employment equity practitioner, I encountered a situation where a very competent woman had been hired as a field worker with a major oil company. Six weeks after she had been hired her supervisor and co-workers were complaining that she did not have the ability to become an operator. In discussions with the supervisor, information inadvertently slipped out regarding a similar situation with a male employee who had been given six months to allow for a learning curve. I pointed out the discrepancies in treatment between the male and female employees and successfully influenced the supervisor to allow the woman a fair period of time to become skilled at the job.