Women Into Mining Jobs at Inco: Challenging the Gender Division of Labour – Jennifer Keck and Mary Powell (Part 4 of 5)

Submitted to the 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

While there was little publicity about the issue, sexual harassment was another reminder that the women were ‘different’ workers. Sexual harassment demonstrates the complex relationship between sexuality and the paid workplace and is one of the ways men used sexuality to maintain masculine dominance in the workplace. Harassment took many forms. Sometimes it involved foremen or shift bosses. One woman was assigned extra work shovelling asphalt after she refused the invitation to go to her foreman’s camp after work.

Another woman described a more threatening situation that involved a shift supervisor: “he would say to me, okay come with me and he would take another guy and bring us to this god forsaken place where no-one’s ever going to work there because it’s full of dust and muck and he’d say, oh, I forgot to get the tools and he’d send the guy down, then he’s left alone with me and he’d try rubbing his private area against my knee and I told him, if he appreciates talking in a deep tone he wouldn’t do it ever again. But then he tried calling me at home and asking me if I would meet him and I told him I’m not desperate for company and that I don’t sleep with a pig.”

While sexual harassment by supervisors was serious because management had more control over the women’s working conditions, women often found it difficult to deal with harassment by co-workers. This was a contentious issue with both men and women. Part of the problem was that masculine work culture was already highly sexualized before the women entered the workplace.

Men used sexual language to describe working conditions, make jokes and in the course of everyday conversation. One woman described the situation: “Like your whole body was insulted… it was either your breasts, or like they knew you were separated… so it was you’re not getting it. I wasn’t used to that.”

There were also battles over pornography and pinups: “the first thing that went up in the lunch room when we were there were pictures of naked women. Well two of us were quite upset. We didn’t think that is was appropriate but we were the minority this was their lunchroom. But two other women came in the next morning with Playgirl. Well it didn’t take long for the pictures to disappear because the men no more wanted to look at other naked men than we wanted to look.”

New women were the most vulnerable. One woman described her first experience in the lunch room: “some guy yelled out, Hey Shera, and I thought maybe it was one of the gentlemen that were teaching us so I turned around to look and this guy yells out, Do you suck cock? No one corrected him for it, nothing was said to him, but I didn’t leave the lunch room neither. I stood my ground by sitting down and ignored it. But I thought I was going to die. I had tears in my eyes.”

Most of the women we interviewed stressed that the more hostile behaviour tended to come from individual men, rather than groups of workers. Unfortunately one individual could make life very difficult for a woman on shift, especially if she was working alone.

The women’s experience with harassment and their response to the problem varied widely. Some women had no direct experience with the problem and therefore had few concerns. Others found some of the behaviour offensive but considered it to be part of what was to be expected in a male work environment.

One woman described her response to graffiti: “if they wouldn’t be writing that stuff they wouldn’t be guys… I mean nobody’s walking up and saying anything… like I’ll give you twenty 19 bucks or anything… they all talk behind your back and you never know who wrote it.”

Other women relied on humour and quick repartee to diffuse difficult situations. Regardless of their position on the broad issue of harassment, all of the women were clear that unwanted sexual advances or touching was unacceptable: “I don’t mind if someone tells a dirty joke or whatever, but I said as long as nobody touches me or harasses me directly… you don’t have to change for me I don’t care.”

All of the women we interviewed stressed that the resistance from men was far from universal. Many of the men provided support and helped the women adjust to the new work environment. The gender politics were varied at different sites depending on the workplace culture, the reaction of supervisors, whether or not the women were the first at the work site and the response of individual women.(21)

Some of the work sites were located in small communities that had once been company towns. Local women were hired at these sites and they found it easier to be accepted. A woman who had worked at the mill in Levack explained what it was like to come from a small town: “In a small community you knew them… they knew your father… they went to the Legion with your dad.”

Older men also seemed to be more accepting and willing to help the women adapt; sometimes because they had experience with women during the war years.

While problems persisted at different work sites, the tensions eased as the women were accepted as part of the shift. It was important to prove you could do the work: “At first it was hard because they obviously didn’t want us around. But when they knew we were sincere about learning they were pretty good. They treated us fairly, but you had to do your share of the work… if they had to run around doing all your work, well then forget it. They wouldn’t even talk to you.”

Mining culture proved to be conducive to both team work and the development of closerelationships between workers on the shop floor. Many of the women found themselves developing close friendships with the men in their departments and in some cases with the foremen and supervisors.

“From the guys who worked in the lab to the guys that worked on the floor most of them were just excellent people…. They are almost like my brother. They are human beings and they are sympathetic and they are everything that is great.”

Other women were more philosophical. They needed the job and were willing to put up with the problems: “I was there to give them my eight hours, whether they wanted to spit at me or shit on me or whatever they wanted to do. But I found the more you stood up to them the more respect you got. And on every shift there were some men who just hated women being there. And there were some guys who just got used to the idea.”

Shift Work and the Double Day ‘Shift work means missing your family’

The struggle to be a woman in a man’s job extended beyond the shop floor to the women’s lives at home. Like other working women- and unlike most of the men they worked with- the women were forced to balance their paid work at Inco with unpaid labour at home.

Trying to balance an eight hour day at Inco with their responsibilities for keeping up a household and raising children called for long hours. Most of the male coworkers had wives to perform this work: “No matter what shift I was on I wouldn’t stay in bed all day just because I worked grave yard all night. I had to get up… do the laundry… make them supper. Then I would get a couple hours sleep before I go to work at night and they were in bed by the time I left. It was just a mad run. It was no easy chore… I had to do baking and cooking and cleaning and doing floors. I told the guys they were really lucky all they had to do is go home and eat. I even had to buy the groceries before I could cook.”

Shift work was a major problem, especially for women with family responsibilities. Continuous production in industrial workplaces is one of the ways that the work is organized around the assumption that workers are male and that their incomes support women who perform unpaid domestic labour. None of the women had enough seniority to be eligible for steady day shifts which meant that they had to work on rotating eight hour shifts. It took some time to get used to the schedule and women found that it wreaked havoc on their bodies for the first while.

Women with children found it particularly difficult. One woman described the impact that shift work had on family life: “the 7-7-6 schedule where you work 7 days in a row… was a horrendous schedule, it was terrible for families you never saw your children… you had no choice you just had to work, but I mean you saw your family on day shift but on graveyard you slept, or 4 to 12 was the worst for me, because when I left for work he’d be in school and when I got home he’d be sleeping of course. I’d get up on the morning and he would have gone back to school.”

Many of the women felt that they missed out on important events: ‘You couldn’t get them to an arena first thing Saturday morning… and I had to book off sick to make it to my son’s first communion.’

Securing child care proved to be an on-going problem. There was no organized child care available for shift workers in the community. Most of the women relied on informal supports through family members or sitters from the neighbourhood, but arranging child care could be difficult, especially for single mothers.

When there was a breakdown in these arrangements it was difficult to explain the problem at work: “You would be getting ready for work at 11:00 pm and your sitter would not show up. My daughter would be in bed and I would be desperately trying to find someone who could come and look after her. Your foreman would never believe that you didn’t show up because you didn’t have a sitter.”

The problem was not restricted to parents of young children. Older children and adolescents also required supervision, especially during afternoon and graveyard shifts: “It was really hard when he hit the age where he was kind of too old for a baby sitter but too young to stay home alone.”

For many of the women the problem went beyond the provision of alternative care. Shift work meant they were missing out on an important part of their family’s, and in particular, their children’s lives.

The women developed a variety of strategies to accommodate their paid and unpaid work lives. Some women applied to work steady graveyard shift to ensure that they would be able to spend time with their children in the morning and after school. Others pressed male partners and older children to share in the household duties. Many women described to us how proud they were of older siblings who were often given responsibility for housework and the supervision of younger children. Single parents took in boarders to try and accommodate child care needs.

As difficult as it was, the job was worth it: “The kids didn’t understand it at first. Like, how come I’m not there at night anymore when I’m working afternoons. It took them awhile but they accepted it. There was more money coming in.”