Women Into Mining Jobs at Inco: Challenging the Gender Division of Labour – Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell (Part 3 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
Getting Started: ‘You got dirty and tired but you showered… and the pay was good’

Like their male co-workers the women began as process labourers. The work involved shoveling, sweeping, hosing down dirty areas and in some cases painting and unloading supplies. The women responded to the first day with more than the usual apprehension.

“You have no idea what to expect… when we first walked in we saw these flotation cells and they’re all bubbling and its seems like it’s really hot, it was very scary… walking over the grating and looking down three floors…I had never seen this kind of machinery in my life.”

It took awhile to get used to the heavy machinery and the noise, dirt and smell of an industrial work environment.

“In the mill it was really dirty, from the time you walked in you were dirty. Like I got dirty just looking at it. There was a smell of lime, varsol and sometimes when the gas was coming in you’d have to sit in the lunch room. Lots of noise. It’s like nothing in your experience… it’s not like walking into an office cause everybody knows what an office looks like.”

One woman defined a process labourer as ‘a technical term for seeing how dirty you could get by the end of the day’! While the environment was foreign, there was also a sense of adventure:  “They took us on a tour of the place and from the moment they opened the door my eyes just continued to get bigger because I realized what I was going to learn here… the whole Inco experience was an adventure.”

Few of the women had experience with this type of physical activity, but this was something they could overcome: “It was hard to get out of bed the next day. The first three days you had to roll out of bed because your body was so sore… Just until it got used to the idea that this is what we had to do… it was hard on your body but you got used to it.”

Despite their initial trepidation, most of the women discovered that their jobs were not difficult to learn. Process labourer was the entry level classification for all blue collar jobs and most of the training was on-the-job: “I’m really pigheaded, I figured they wanted me to shovel, I’ll shovel this damn stuff, and there’s got to be a knack to everything… so one of the foremen came by and I’d ask what am I doing wrong? So he’d say well use your foot, cause if you try if you just used your arms if you start at the top of the pile you just get two rocks… use your foot to push the shovel underneath.”

While their first few weeks were difficult, the first pay cheque reminded the women why they had taken the job: “I remember my first pay cheque that I came home with… I was making double plus what I was making at my other job… I didn’t want to cash it right away. I brought it home and showed it to my husband and his eyes went wide. He said ‘Wow, we’re in good times now, eh baby?’”

A Woman in a Man’s Job: ‘this was their place and we were going to change things’

While the women had little difficulty doing the work, adapting to being a woman in a man’s job proved to be more of a challenge. After the first few weeks the women were assigned to work crews, primarily with men. Even if three or four of them worked in the same department, they were often not on the same shift.

From the beginning it was clear that the women were ‘different’ and that the difference reflected their gender. This was not just any workplace. From the names of their jobs and the size of their work-clothes to the reaction of co-workers and supervisors and battles over washrooms and change facilities, this was clearly a ‘man’s world’.

“Its strange because you got your hard hat on and you got a great big pair of boots and you have your work clothes on… and you figure you look stupid as hell… I’ve usually got makeup, dressed up and high heels and here I am 14 trucking in there with big work boots on… it was strange but you got used to it.”

The women soon discovered that being treated the ‘same as a man’ meant having to become more ‘like a man’ and adapt to masculine work culture. The term describes workplaces that have historically been male-dominated and where work is organized with the assumption that workers are male and that their incomes support women. As Cockburn, Willis and Luxton point out, the equation of work with masculinity is often an integral part of large scale industrial setting where the work involves manual labour and heavy machinery and where the work environment is noisy, dirty and noxious.(17) The idea that the work is ‘men’s work’ reflects the view that men and women are inherently different and that difference is attributed to biology.

In addition to having qualities that make them more suited to performing heavy, physical work, men’s status as primary wage earners means they have more of a right to high paying jobs in the industry. It follows that women are often perceived to be physically and psychologically inadequate to the work. The association of masculinity with work is also one of the ways that workers take pride in being able to do work in an industrial environment.

In the case of mining, masculine work culture had a long and rich tradition because of the harsh conditions that prevailed and the legislated ban against women in the industry.(18)

From the outset the women were sensitive to the fact that this was a different work culture and many of them initially felt out of place: “Just like you are intruding. Like you are going someplace where you are not supposed to be. Like wow what am I doing here and these guys how are they going to take it. There were guys hanging off the ladders and sitting on landings all whistling and I thought, my god this looks like these guys have been in prison for years. It was almost as if these men had not actually left the houses at seven o’clock this morning. They hadn’t seen women…You know they saw a few secretaries walking around but never women coming to work with them.”

The men were given little preparation that the women were coming and the situation was tense at first: “it was bad because nobody else would talk, the men were too afraid to talk to the women and we of course were scared… we found out later the company had a long talk with the men before we came and warned them about pictures and whatever… to make sure they were dressed properly and that nothing was hanging out… to urinate in the proper place the boss told them, okay now we are going to be having women working in here. You can’t be running around with holes in your crotch and can’t be swearing and everything else… they figured they would have to change and they resented us for that. Because they figured holy Christ they can’t say the F word or nothing any more.”

The reception the women received depended a great deal on the reaction of frontline supervisors. Most of them had traditional mining backgrounds and had worked with men for most of their work lives. They had little training or preparation for dealing with the integration of the new workers.(19) Many of them did not want the responsibility for supervising the women because they anticipated that there would be problems: “He was put in charge of us. And it was the thing that he didn’t want. I mean nobody wanted to be in charge of the women. Because they didn’t want to be you know, hey you having a good time with those women.”

Others were blunt about their opposition. These were men’s jobs, if women were going to take these jobs they would have to prove they could ‘be men’: “he said he didn’t want us new four girls, he didn’t want women working there at all. He pulled us in the office and told us from this day on you’re going to have to prove you’re a man.”

Other women were warned that this was no place to find a husband. This seemed like odd advice, especially for the women in the group who were already married: ‘I thought I have a husband, I’m not going to look for one, I’ve got one.’

While some men were supportive and helped women adapt, many resented the fact that women were being hired in what was for them a ‘man’s job’. Opposition to the women took many forms. Most of the men challenged whether or not women would be able to do the work and there was a constant testing of their abilities.

There were complaints that the women were getting ‘cushier jobs’ and had better dry facilities (shower and change rooms). Other men tried to undermine the women by using crude jokes, social ostracization and refusing to help train the women. There were also more hostile forms of harassment in the form of threats and physical assaults.

The women offered different explanations for this behaviour. Few of the men had experience working with women and they had a difficult time believing that women would be physically able to do the work. Mining jobs were for ‘tough’ men. There was also the view, widely prevalent, that good jobs at Inco were for male breadwinners.

Women with male partners were accused of not needing the job: “One of the men found out that I took my husband back. He said you got hired on here because you were separated, now you’re married. I said, no I did not get hired on here because I was separated. But he got all upset over that. He says, what are you doing here if you’ve got a husband to support you.”

Single women were more acceptable because they were supporting children, but even they found themselves having to defend their breadwinner status: “You could feel the tension in the lunchroom especially… the women are taking our jobs away and they’re taking food out of my kids mouths… it didn’t take very long before I’d say look, I’m a single parent, would you rather see me on mother’s allowance and you’re supporting me through your taxes or get me working.”

The situation was particularly tense during layoffs or when their seniority allowed women to compete successfully against men for positions: “One guy with less seniority threatened us with a shovel… he was peeved off because we had a month more than him and we had the choice of the jobs before he did. And he was a big guy.”

The debate over whether or not the women should be working in men’s jobs went beyond the shop floor and extended into the community. The women found they had to defend their jobs with friends, neighbours and others in the community. There were all kinds of allegations ranging from accusations that the women were stealing men’s jobs to rumours that they were having sexual affairs with the men.

One woman described her reaction to a radio talk show: “This guy had his own talk show the women would call in and the names that we were called. We were going to sleep with their husbands. And I called in one day, and I was just so angry and upset, I had been on welfare too with four children and I told them a man can work anywhere in an office or what, and if he’s going to run around, he’s going to run around.”

Women faced opposition in their own neighbourhoods: “down the street, believe it or not I’ve had women call me an Inco whore. And this really ticked me off because before I got hired on at Inco, about a month and a half before they hired me, I had asked for welfare assistance, and then I got called welfare bum. Then when I got on I got called Inco whore and I stopped a woman one time and I told her, you’re never satisfied, people like you, you’ve got nothing better to do with your time than put us down, now I’m working, and they thought we took showers with the men.”

While there was widespread concern that women were stealing men’s jobs, many of the women felt that the resistance went deeper, especially for the men at the plant. There was something about the job and the workplace that made it inherently male and therefore part of male privilege. Hartman argues that both employers and male workers have a vested interest in maintaining occupational segregation and the traditional division of labour at the workplace.(20)

Some of the women supported this view, suggesting that many men simply resented the presence of women in a male workplace: “that attitude was still there that we didn’t belong… that we weren’t going to survive… and we had no right to be there… in my mind that was the attitude we got.”