by Tessa Wright
Women have entered the labour market in huge numbers in recent decades and now match men’s levels of participation in many previously male-dominated occupations such as law and medicine. Yet in sectors such as construction and transport, there has been very little change in the gender balance in the UK, with women accounting for just 1% of those in the manual trades, 12% of professional construction jobs, and around a fifth of those in transport occupations.
One of the reasons why this matters is simple – pay. As I document in my recent book, Gender and Sexuality in Male-Dominated Occupations, Liz was one of several women who chose to go into bus driving because “with a male-oriented job you get male-oriented pay.”
In choosing traditionally male work over less-well paid female-dominated retail or caring occupations, these women were challenging the common pattern of segregation of women and men into different occupations, which is one of the primary causes of the persistent gender pay gap (on average women still receive 9% less than men’s hourly pay, or 19% less when part timers are included).
Interestingly, in my study – which included interviews with 38 women working in a range of manual and professional roles in construction and transport – it was the women in non-professional jobs such as bus driving or the manual trades, who were explicit about seeking out jobs with “male wages”. Women in professional or managerial jobs did not emphasise pay as a reason for their choice of occupation, instead citing interests, abilities or family encouragement as motivations for pursuing gender atypical careers.
Women’s domestic responsibilities, and primary role in childcare, are a further cause of the gender pay gap. I asked women about their domestic situation and its relationship to working hours, and found much higher than average levels of breadwinning status (women as the main earner) among heterosexual women with partners in the study and greater responsibility taken by male partners for childcare. This situation is largely a reflection of the long and inflexible working hours that characterise these industries, with slower progress on family-friendly working practices than other sectors, which means that greater flexibility is required within the home.
Nevertheless, I argue that women’s greater earnings capacity from these male-dominated jobs provides an opportunity for shifts in the domestic division of labour – in how childcare and other domestic responsibilities are shared within the household. Thus the benefits for women from entering higher-paid male work may go beyond the economic sphere and challenge gendered traditions within the home and in expectations around caring.
This relates to a further reason why I believe that it is important for women to have greater opportunity to enter traditionally male jobs – the possibility for women’s empowerment. Women described the sense of pride and satisfaction gained from doing work “out there” in the world. For tradeswomen, they took pride in the fact that their work was visible in buildings seen by the public, and for train driver Lesley, her job proved to others that “women can actually do the same job as a man.”
Several women described feeling “empowered” by doing a job normally associated with men and saw themselves as role models for other women and girls. Again, this was a stronger sentiment among women in manual or operational roles than for professional women.
While those in professional or managerial jobs were often very positive about their work and the satisfaction this gave them, this was not expressed in gendered terms. This perhaps reflects the confidence already provided by their professional status within work hierarchies, and in society, as well as the increasing familiarity with women in professional jobs, even within male-dominated sectors, in comparison to manual jobs.
The difference between the experiences of women in manual and in professional jobs in male-dominated industries was a feature of the design of my study. In selecting women workers for interview, I wanted a sample that represented the diversity of women working in these sectors, but also included those who I felt had been overlooked in previous research. While many studies had looked at women’s underrepresentation in professions within Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering (STEM) areas, fewer had investigated women in the building trades or in transport.
Furthermore, studies of women in male-dominated work had often noted the highly sexualised working environment, but did not explicitly discuss women’s sexual orientation. Therefore I took an intersectional approach when designing the study, meaning that it would pay attention to how categories of gender, sexuality and occupational class all interacted in women’s experiences of work. Thus I ensured that the interview sample included women who defined themselves as lesbians as well as heterosexual women, and was split between those in manual/operational and professional occupations.
It’s a commonly expressed view when a woman enters a highly male-dominated occupation such as the construction trades that “she must be a lesbian” and several interviewees had met such comments. For men, it may be an attempt to define such women as “exceptional” and therefore not disturbing to the usual (male) order of things. However, for some of the interviewees who were open about their lesbian sexuality at work, this did reduce the “sexual tension” of many workplace interactions, enabling them to get on with the job. For some it meant they could avoid the unwanted sexual interest that many heterosexual women described.
In this way then, an additional minority status – as both a woman and a lesbian – in a heterosexual, male-dominated workplace – need not necessarily be a further source of disadvantage. On the other hand, some lesbians reported instances of harassment on the grounds of their sexuality – homophobic or anti-gay comments and abuse – indicating that minority sexuality may be a further difficulty to overcome.
In illustrating the diversity of women’s experience of male-dominated work – according to sexuality, occupation, age and ethnicity – the book highlights the advantages of male-dominated work for a wide variety of women, some of whom enter later in life after other careers, as well as the wider societal benefits of challenging narrow conceptions of gendered roles for both women and men.
The book gives examples, including from Canada, USA, South Africa and the UK, of a range of initiatives to increase women’s numbers in male-dominated sectors, illustrating the improved life chances for women as a result. Indeed, the book concludes that it may be an opportune moment for women to make progress into male-dominated careers, at a time when several major infrastructure employers in the UK have made public and high-profile commitments to increasing the numbers of women in their organisations.
Tessa Wright is Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London. Her new book is Gender and Sexuality in Male-Dominated Occupations: Women Working in Construction and Transport (2016, Palgrave).
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