Women Into Mining Jobs at Inco: Challenging the Gender Division of Labour – Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell (Part 2 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

The Women: ‘It was good money and I thought I could do the job’

It was just sort of a competition one day. Why don’t you go and apply and so I did. I just went at the beginning of the day and stood in line with all the men and all that. They would either say that we are hiring or we are not. … you would get some strange looks too. Here you are standing in this line with all these men… but actually there was quite a few women in the line.

While their hiring was of historical significance few of the women who applied in 1974 were interested in being the first women to break new ground for women in mining. Like the men, they were motivated first and foremost by the prospect of a ‘good job’ at Inco and its promise of better pay, benefits, and job security.

The women heard about the jobs from family, friends and the media. News that Inco was willing to hire women was widespread: ‘I don’t know anyone in that small community who hadn’t heard that Inco was hiring.’ While some women thought they would be the only ones interested in such work, they were surprised to find that there were hundreds of applicants.

Everyone seemed to be talking about the fact that Inco was going to open their doors and I thought here I am almost 5’8″ a 160 pounds strong and I’ll just go and apply… the woman behind the counter said I suppose you think you are one of the first… then she preceded to show me file cabinets full of applications… hundreds and hundreds… I would have imagined thousands of applications were in.

It was clear from the outset that they were a different type of applicant than was the norm for a labourer’s job at the employment office. At least one of the women who applied during the first few days had to insist on getting an application: he reached under the counter and threw an application at me… I looked at it and it said, um, it was for office work and I gave it back to him and I said no, I don’t want to do office work; I want to be a labourer. So, anyway, he thought that was a big joke and the whole place burst out laughing and I reminded him that he couldn’t refuse me an application. So he reached under the counter and threw another one at me and I filled it out and was called a few weeks after for an interview.

The interviewers at the employment office wanted to know how women would adapt to conditions in the industry and the masculine work environment. One woman was warned that ‘it’s dirty work over there’. Referring to her previous job as a nurse’s aide, she replied ‘well you know if I can wash men that have poohed and peed themselves, and I can lift men by myself to their geriatric chair I’m pretty sure I can handle any thing you dish out over there. So I guess he was impressed with that because I was hired.’ Other women were asked how they would react to sexual advances: one of them asked me what I would do if one of the men in the plant made a pass at me… that was such a big deal… every other woman that went after was asked that question too… I said I’d slug the guy… I ended up with the nickname ‘slugger.’

While the interviewers at the employment office were concerned with how the women would adapt to the new work culture, the women– like most of the men standing in line with them– were motivated first and foremost by the prospect of getting a high paying job. Their education backgrounds ranged from grade 8 to first year university, but most of the women came from low paying jobs in the female-dominated sectors. Even the women who had worked in traditional male sectors were caught in low paying and dead-end jobs. Both groups stood to gain from a job at Inco. The average wage for jobs in the service sector was $2.50 an hour compared to $3.99 for a position as a process labourer at Inco.(16)

All of the women we interviewed stressed how important the pay was: ‘like we all went there for the money. I mean nobody in their right mind would go and work in a dirty place like that for nothing. It was good.’ Many of the women considered this their only option for earning a good wage: ‘where else would I make this kind of money with a grade ten education?’ The prospect of earning a ‘man’s wage’ was particularly important for women who were struggling to support themselves and children on women’s wages. Of the 26 women we interviewed 18 of the women had children or other dependents to support when they were hired.

I had no idea what it looked like inside of the place. I just knew they paid really good. They paid good money and I had two kids to support and it had all of these benefits if the kids get sick. I had just asked my husband to leave. I had two sisters and my two kids to support. He was supposed to give me support but he didn’t. I had to find a job, a good paying job.

For many of the women financial security was associated with independence from male partners, creditors and the state. Several women described how the job at Inco became their ‘ticket’ out of a difficult relationship: I was scared of him because I used to get beat up every other day… so I thought I wanted to get out of here… I waited and applied to Inco… when I found out I got the job friends helped move me and the kids out.

For others it meant being able to escape the rules and regulations of state assistance: I was living in a low rental and on Mother’s Allowance… I didn’t want to raise my son there… my first cheque I moved out.

There was also the prestige attached to joining a large industrial employer with ‘lots of opportunities for advancement.’ While financial security was the primary motivation, there were other reasons for seeking a blue collar job at Inco. The physical nature of the work was attractive to some of the women: It was something I always wanted to do. I could never see myself sitting down at a desk and typing. I could never see myself waitressing… I figured that Inco was the best opportunity. I got lucky I guess.

Women were also attracted to the challenge of entering an industrial work setting and the promise of an adventure: ‘I was sort of goaded into going, friends were saying I would never make it… so I had to go. It was a challenge.’

Family background also seemed to play a role. Many of the women described households where they had been accorded ‘equal treatment’ with their brothers and where the traditional division of labour between male and female work at home had been challenged.

“There was no boy’s work or girl’s work at our house. It was an equal opportunity household. Whatever has to get done gets done… there was no his job to cut the wood and her job to do the dishes.”

These women often worked with their fathers on house construction and car repairs: “I’ve always been working with dad when he was working on the car… I could change a carburetor by the time I was 14… I taught my husband how to change the brake shoes on our car… so I guess I’m mechanically inclined.”

Other women challenged the view that they were moving from jobs in traditional female sectors that were less demanding on themselves or their families. One woman described how she had worked at two jobs as a waitress and school bus driver to support her husband and four children before taking the job at Inco: “I’d begin at seven in the morning with the school bus… then I would go to the restaurant in the afternoon… I’d get home around 10:00 at night… my first pay cheque at Inco was double what I made before… and for an eight hour day.”

Women also described their shifts as bar waitresses where they were expected to carry heavy trays, work long hours and deal with large crowds of men.

Regardless of their motivation, the women were determined in their decision to apply for the job; often defying the advice of immediate family. All of the women hired were from the local area and many of them came from families with ties to Inco’s workforce that extended back generations. Often their fathers, brothers, uncles and even mothers and grandmothers had worked for the company.

In several cases the women were hired alongside sisters and sisters-in-law. Many parents were ambivalent about their daughters’ decision to enter a man’s job in mining. While some fathers were proud that their daughters were joining them at Inco; others wanted ‘better for their children’: “I have two brothers, and when I was growing up he (my father) had always encouraged them to get a university education because he didn’t want them to wind up working at Inco, like he did… he was also concerned for my safety.”

Sometimes the concern came from familiarity with the workplace and the response their daughters could anticipate on the shop floor: “My Dad thought that this was not a world that I wanted to be in. I think my father knew that some men couldn’t get over my being a female and that would cause me problems. I don’t think he had any doubt in his mind that I was capable of doing the work and that I probably would run into situations.”

 Even mothers who had worked at Inco during WWII expressed their concerns. A women who had worked at Inco during the war expressed her dismay at having her daughter take the job at Inco, ‘It was ok when we worked there during the war… there were no men for the jobs… but mining isn’t a place for a woman.’

While many women found their partners supportive of their decision to apply for a high paying job at Inco, others faced opposition. In a few cases this was because the women got hired when their husbands did not: “He dared me to apply for the job in the beginning… but he wasn’t too happy when I got the job and he didn’t… I didn’t care, I wasn’t giving this opportunity up.”

Other women had husbands who did not like the idea of them working side-by-side with men: “Well he didn’t think too much of me taking the job because he didn’t like me around that many guys to begin with anyhow.”

Despite these obstacles, the women were persistent, contacting the employment office every week, and sometimes every day, to find out if the company was hiring. “I started pestering them. Every morning at 8:00 a.m… every afternoon at 2-3:00 o’clock I’d call them. I got them to take a file folder on me… and mark it in.”

Once they were told they had the job, there was little hesitation in taking it: ‘I got the call saying you’re hired and it was the happiest day in my life.’ While they were not interested in breaking new ground for women, the women soon found themselves on the frontier of working class feminism.