By Savanah Mandeville
I recently watched the 2005 film, “North Country” – a fictionalized account of the landmark 1988 class-action sexual harassment lawsuit, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.
“North Country” follows Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a single mom who goes to work in a coal mine to support her family. At the time, women are outnumbered by men in the mine 30 to 1. Aimes and her female coworkers deal with unspeakable sexual harassment every day, and Aimes’ complaints to upper-management are always dismissed. The other women keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs. Aimes is quickly ostracized for speaking out and tormented so horribly at work that she’s forced to quit for her own safety.
Seeing the horrendous things the women in “North Country” went through, I began to wonder what life is like for women in male-dominated fields today. The movie takes place in the ‘80s when there were less laws to prevent sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Obviously things are better now, but laws only solve part of the problem. Sexist attitudes prevail.
I have never worked in a male-dominated field. My current boss and all of my coworkers are women, and it was the same at the social work job I had in college. So I reached out to a few friends who work/worked in male-dominated occupations and asked them if they had ever experienced being treated differently at work.
“It happened all the time,” said my friend, Stephanie, who did sales for a tooling distributor for eight years. “I lost count of how many times I heard, ‘Is there a man I can speak to?’”
“After spending various amounts of time finding out information from vendors to determine what would best suit our customers’ needs, I would call them back only for them to ask to ‘speak to a man’ about the information. Thankfully, I had a very understanding boss who did not doubt my competence. I would hand him my notes, and he would relay the exact information to the customer.”
Another friend of mine, Ashley, runs a business with her boyfriend doing car wrapping and other car related jobs.
“It’s a daily frustration when people message the shop and say ‘hey man’ or ‘hey dude’ just assuming they are talking to a guy,” she said. “Or someone tells my boyfriend he did a great job when I spent day and night wrapping and other other jobs. No one believes a girl is capable of doing a good job.”
And then there’s Mel who has played drums in the band Brutally Frank for 16 years.
“So many times the sound guy or someone else at the venue starts shaking everyone’s hands and introducing themselves, and they always skip me. They always think I’m just the girlfriend or something,” she said. “But I always just step right up and stick my hand out and say, ‘Hi, I’m Mel. I’m the drummer.’”
I thought about what Stephanie, Ashley, and Mel had in common. They all did jobs commonly held by men and dealt mostly with men at work. They were regularly met with shock, skepticism, and/or condescension. Why? Have we, as a society, still not accepted that women are just as smart and capable as men? That women can do any job a man can do and do it well?
So what exactly is a male-dominated occupation? According to The United States Department of Labor, it is any occupation that comprises 25 percent or fewer women. These occupations span a range of fields from blue collar jobs to entertainment to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
I also learned that my friends are part of a very small group. Only 6.6 percent of all women in the United States worked full-time in male-dominated occupations in 2017.
So what’s the problem? Maybe women simply don’t want to do the jobs that men happily take. Maybe Ashley’s customers or those sound guys had simply made an honest mistake.
I decided to do some digging. I queried:
- What’s wrong with gender segregation in the workforce? Is it even a problem?
- Do the 6.6 percent of women already in male-dominated fields really have it that bad?
Is Gender Segregation in the Workforce a Problem?
After doing quite a bit of research, I found that gender-segregation in the workforce basically results in two negative things: it reinforces gender stereotypes and it makes it harder for women to break into male-dominated fields and excel once they get there.
For that 6.6 percent, they will be constantly hitting roadblocks on the way to promotions, pay raises, and just getting the respect they deserve for a job well done. It’s the age old, “you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.”
I also found that it isn’t true that women simply don’t want to enter male-dominated fields. A study by LinkedIn looked at data at over the last 40 years and found that female-representation had grown in all sectors, albeit slowly.
These male-dominated occupations have seen the greatest increase of women:
Test Development Engineer (+243%)
Automotive Salesperson (+154%)
Technical Sales Professional (+133%)
So we can see that women certainly are entering male-dominated fields, but what’s the hold up?
I thought about it. Why didn’t I enter a male-dominated field? I could definitely be making a lot more money. And if I’d gone into a trade, I could have bypassed five years of college and a mountain of student loan debt. The truth is, it never occurred to me. I never once thought about going into something like construction or engineering. Why? No one ever told me it was possible. No one ever encouraged me to. I specifically remember the women in my family telling me, on multiple occasions, that math and science are hard and boring so I believed that to be true. When I was in high school, I briefly thought about taking welding at Franklin Tech because I thought it seemed fun, but I didn’t go through with it because it just seemed too out there. And as I got older, those types of jobs became more and more far-fetched.
According to this study, the lack of women entering male-dominated fields boils down to two societally-ingrained assumptions: 1) That women can’t do “manly” jobs, and 2) that women are the homemaker and men are the breadwinner. The latter leads to women choosing jobs with more flexibility because they expect they will have to sacrifice more, career-wise, to care for the family.
So, young women and girls don’t view themselves in traditionally masculine occupations because they don’t see women in those roles. They have no mentors. Therefore, they don’t view themselves as capable of entering those fields and dispose of any interest in them at a young age. Then, women working in those fields remain outnumbered and the cycle repeats.
Problems for Women Working in Male-Dominated Occupations
Perpetuating gender-stereotypes in the workforce is harmful because it can lead women to being perceived by their male coworkers as outsiders threatening the norm.
This can partly explain why there is so much aggression and sexual harassment in male-dominated workplaces.
According to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of women in male-dominated industries said sexual harassment is a problem in their workplaces.
Why are men so threatened by women in their ranks? Why do they lash out at their female coworkers?
Dr. Abigail Saguy, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles, conducted interviews with more than 60 women in male-dominated trades in an attempt to answer that question (read more here).
“Sexual harassment is often a way in which the men reaffirm women’s femininity, say this is who you are, back in your place,” she said. “At the same time, women will play up their femininity and flirt a little bit, and play along with some of the stereotypes of femininity to be accepted.”
Professor Saguy also said that for men in rugged jobs where they work outside, do a lot of manual labor, and have to get dirty, there’s a link between the occupation and their identity as a man.
“Even if they have to tolerate bad working conditions, the compensation is they were real men,” she said. “Then women were moving into these occupations, so what does that mean? If women can do the job, maybe it’s not so masculine after all.”
In short, women among their ranks spur an identity crisis.
And then, of course, there is the pay gap. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 women made less than men in median weekly earnings in every male-dominated occupation. Men get payed more because they are still viewed as the breadwinners, despite the fact that 49 percent of employed women in the United States say they work primarily because they are their family’s main breadwinner.
Looking to the Future
Young girls need to be more aware of what career choices are out there for them so they can make informed decisions about their future. All career paths and opportunities need to be made available to girls, and when they express interest in a male-dominated field, that interest needs to be nurtured by their parents and teachers, not ridiculed and squashed.
There has been some progress made with new toy lines emerging geared toward encouraging girls to go into STEM occupations. Lady Geek is a campaigning agency that makes technology more accessible to women and girls and works to get more women into tech jobs. GoldieBlox toys introduce engineering concepts to girls through storytelling and building. There is also “Poppet” a tech-focused UK magazine for girls aged 7-10.
Furthermore, parents must teach young boys to view girls as equals. Phrases like “boys don’t cry” and “you throw like a girl” not only reinforce toxic masculinity, they reinforce the notion that supposed feminine behaviors (crying, being bad at sports) make girls inferior to boys.
Things are getting better, but there is still a lot of work left to do. I’m optimistic that we will one day live in a world where every woman can work in the field of her choice and find respect, fulfillment, and fair pay.