Women Into Mining Jobs at Inco: Challenging the Gender Division of Labour – Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell (Part 1 of 5)

Submitted to the The Institute of Northern Ontario Research and Development (INORD) Working Paper Series, June 30, 2000

Jennifer Keck, Ph.D. Associate Professor – School of Social Work

Mary Powell, Ph.D. Associate Professor – Department of Political Science

Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario


In 1974 Sue Benoit was a single mother with a five year old daughter living in Levack, a small mining community located outside of Sudbury, Ontario. After leaving an abusive marriage she was living with her parents and working as a cashier at the local grocery story. She worked long hours for low pay: “That was rough because the total pay to take home was seventy dollars a week and I had to pay $25 for the babysitter and $25 for rent. You’d have to be there at eight and the store didn’t close until six and then you’d usually have to balance the tills… by the time you got home it was seven o’clock. It was hard, really hard with a baby.” When she heard that Inco was hiring women for hourly rated blue collar jobs at the Levack mill for the first time since WWII: “it was just like heaven.”

It was an historic occasion when Benoit and other women were hired as blue collar workers at Inco. While the women were not the first generation of women to enter the mining industry, they were the first to enter as permanent workers. With the exception of a brief period during WWII, it was illegal in Ontario for mining companies to hire women at surface operations. The law was changed in 1970.(2)

Between 1974 and 1976 the company hired 100 women for hourly rated jobs at the company’s surface mining operations in Sudbury. The company’s decision was significant because it opened up highly paid, unionized jobs in an industry that was historically closed to women. Access to these jobs had a particular significance for women in a local economy dominated by a single industry- mining- and a labour market shaped by the hiring practices of two multinational mining companies. At the time Inco was the community’s largest and most prestigious industrial employer and its workers earned one of the highest industrial wages in the country.

Few of the women who took the jobs at Inco in the seventies set out to be pioneers. They took the job for ordinary reasons- better pay, benefits and job security. Their experience became extraordinary by virtue of entering a male dominated workplace and challenging the sex/gender division of labour. Whether the women intended to or not, taking these jobs meant confronting powerful ideologies of masculinity and femininity on the shop floor, at home and in the community. While the women earned equal pay, were covered by the same collective agreement and were expected to perform the same work as men, the workplace was not gender neutral.

This paper focuses on the experience of the women during their first decade on the job: getting hired, adapting to male work culture and early signs of resistance. This research is part of collaborative project with Women’s Committee of USWA Local 6500 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the women hired in 1974. In 1994 members of the committee approached the authors to do a history of the move of women into blue collar jobs in the 1970s. The project has since expanded to include women in three periods: WWII, the 1970s and the 1990s. This paper is based on a series of in-depth interviews with 26 of the 100 women hired between 1974-76, including 17 women who were still with the company in 1998.

Women, Blue Collar Jobs and Mining

The women who moved into Inco during the 1970s were part of the first generation of women to enter blue collar jobs in mining in the postwar period. While few of them were aware of it at the time, they were breaking into an industry that had been virtually all-male since at least the nineteenth century. Male domination in the mining industry reflects more than social convention and the historical hiring practices of mining companies in Canada.

Laws prohibiting mining companies from hiring women were part of a series of protective legislation introduced in the late nineteenth century. Public opposition to women working in mining was led by middle class reformers who viewed women’s primary role in the home and by unions who viewed women as both a group in need of protection from exploitation and a potential threat to male labour.(3)

The first prohibition against hiring women was introduced in the Ontario Mining Act in 1890. The original legislation prohibited the employment ‘of any girl or woman…in or about any mine’ but amendments in 1912 and 1913 allowed companies to hire women in a ‘technical, clerical or domestic capacity.’(4) The prohibition was lifted temporarily during WWII, but it was not until 1970 that the law was changed allowing women to work at surface sites.

Inco is in many ways typical of companies that dominate the mining industry in Canada. The company has been the main employer in Sudbury, a community of approximately 90,000 located in Northeastern Ontario, for over sixty years. A Canadian-based multinational corporation, the company has operations in Ontario, Manitoba, Indonesia, Great Britain, Japan and most recently Voisey’s Bay, Labrador. The company’s share of the market has diminished considerably in recent years, but it is still the world’s largest supplier of nickel. The mine, milling, smelting and refining complex in Sudbury is the largest in Canada and one of the largest in the world. When the women were hired in the mid-seventies, the company was one of the largest industrial sites in the country, employing between 14,000 and 16,000 hourly rated workers.

The pattern of gender segregation at Inco has been shaped by provincial mining legislation but it is consistent with other industrial workplaces. The company’s highly paid hourly rated workforce on surface and underground is almost all male. These workers have been unionized since 1944, first with the International Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Union, and later after a bitter struggle between the two unions, with the United Steelworkers of America in 1965. Most of the women employed by the company were clustered in lower paying office and clerical jobs. Inco was given federal approval to hire women as hourly rated workers to counteract the labour shortage during WWII, but the women were laid off at the end of the war to open up jobs for returning soldiers.(5) There were no new hirings of women until the mid-1970s.

Historically, the combination of single industry dominance, high wages and dangerous work contributed to Sudbury’s image as a ‘man’s town’. This image reflected the impact that mining had on the local economy. Men who were fortunate enough to get a job at either one of the two mining companies earned a high enough wage to support a wife and dependent children. Conditions were considerably less favourable for women.

Because there were few jobs outside of the traditional mining sectors, women who were in the paid workforce were concentrated in service and trade occupations. Low wages in these sectors meant that it was difficult for women to support themselves or children outside of conventional marriage.(6)

During the 1970s both Inco and the mining industry were poised for dramatic changes. The company responded to the threat of increased international competition, investments overseas and militancy amongst its unionized workers by introducing new technology and transforming the workplace. Employment followed a pattern of hirings and layoffs. Sudbury’s  economy was booming when the company’s workforce reached a peak of 18,966 workers in 1971, but by the end of 1972 the company had reduced its workforce by 3000, mainly through layoff. The company began re-hiring in late 1973 but announced major layoffs again in 1978 and 1982.(7) It was in this context– a temporary expansion in a period of employment decline– that the first women were hired in the postwar period.

A number of factors set the stage for Inco to begin hiring women in the 1970s, including the broad pattern of social change affecting the status of women, the postwar increase in women’s labour force participation, changes in the structure of the family and the emergence of a vigorous second wave women’s movement with its demands for economic equality and affirmative action. Public policy both reflected and influenced these changes as governments increasingly viewed women as full-time participants in the labour force.(8)

In 1970 human rights legislation in Ontario was changed to include gender as grounds for discrimination for the first time. The same year the Ontario Mining Act was amended to allow mining companies to hire women for production jobs at surface operations. There were also important changes in the nature of work as increased mechanization and automation meant that physical strength and endurance were less critical for job performance at Inco and other mining operations. The combined impact of these changes meant that for the first time since WWII women could imagine themselves working at a ‘man’s job’ in the mining industry.

The company: ‘We’re all for women’

Inco’s decision to hire women for its hourly rated workforce in Sudbury can be traced to the early months of 1974. On January 23rd the Globe and Mail’s business section reported that several mining companies had begun to hire women as mill workers and truck drivers on surface to address a continuing shortage of male workers in the industry. There was no such shortage in Sudbury and a spokesperson for Inco indicated the company planned to recruit 100 men ‘from district sources’.(9)

Two days later Inco’s public affairs director in Sudbury was asked by a local reporter to clarify the company’s policy on hiring women. In an article that received front page coverage in the Sudbury Star, Don Hoskins announced that he was ‘all for women’. The only reason that women
had not been hired at Inco’s operations in Sudbury was simple, ‘they just haven’t applied.’(10)

The response to the company’s ‘willingness and definite intention’ to hire women was described in The Triangle, the Inco’s in-house publication, as ‘immediate’ and ‘overwhelming’.(11) Within days of the announcement, women began to flood the company with applications. The prospect of women getting hired for a ‘man’s job’ in mining attracted widespread media coverage as outraged radio talk show hosts debated whether or not women could do the work and whether or not they should be allowed to take ‘men’s jobs’.

One woman remembered hearing the Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau commend Inco for its decision to hire women on an evening newscast. Even prominent feminists entered the fray. When asked to comment on Inco’s plans to hire women Laura Sabia, Past-President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, accused the company of ‘tokenism’ and not going ‘far enough’ in its plan to hire women.(12)

In its public statements the company stressed that it was ‘business as usual’ at its recruitment office. Standard policies applied and female applicants would be ‘treated exactly as males.’ Women who were interested in a job would have to meet basic qualifications, pass a medical examination and undergo established training. If hired they could expect to receive ‘equal opportunities, equal benefits and equal pay’.(13)

The first three women were hired at the nickel refinery in May and another 21 were hired by the end of the summer. By August the company was meeting with representatives of the union to discuss plans to expand dry facilities for up to 100 women ‘if the need arises. ’ That plan was confirmed in the company’s 1974 report. Describing the move of 57 women into the surface plants as ‘successful’, the report announced plans to ‘substantially increase the number of women’ working at its surface plants.(14) The company reached its target of hiring 100 women in October 1976.

At least one senior manager was sympathetic to the prospect of hiring women as hourly rated workers. Chris Dunkley was the superintendent responsible for overseeing construction of the newly built nickel refinery. Trained as an engineer in Britain, he had memories of women’s work during WWII and was convinced women would be able to handle work at the nickel refinery because the new plant was largely automated and therefore did not require the level of heavy lifting associated with the industry. In an interview with Mick Lowe in the Financial Post twenty years later he admitted that few members of senior management anticipated the reaction the decision would have on the shop floor or in the community: ‘those women were in for a rough ride.’(15)