Women in Male Dominated Spaces

by Jill Nagel
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Look around your workplace. What do you see? Are there more men than women? More women than men?  It is quite likely that depending on your area of employment, these answers will change.  While Canada prides itself on diversity, gender gaps in the workplace continue to affect both men and women.

According to The Catalyst Research Centre, women are much less likely to be employed in the technical and trade professions, making up only 1.6% of electricians and 1.1% of heavy duty equipment mechanics in the country. The statistics are similar in related fields including pipe and seam fitters, bricklayers and carpenters, and millwrights. Other traditionally male dominated fields, such as policing, have seen a rise in female employment. Even so, women still only make up 20% of officers in Canada. Many other professions see opposite trends. Nursing remains an overwhelmingly female dominated field, with only 6.3% of male employees, as does early childhood development, and secretarial work.

Why is this the case? Why haven’t women sought out trade programs? Why do men shy away from child-based careers? There are many areas to consider. Education and socialization could play a part in which fields children gravitate towards. Stereotypically, young girls are given dolls to nurture while boys are given blocks to build with. Interests at a young age affect what we think we’re capable of in the future. Yes, these gender binaries are changing, but it is a slow process to break societal patterns.

Education is changing as well. Organizations like Blackberry have created scholarship programs for young women who are entering university for the STEM professions. Boys and girls are being exposed to a greater variety of career paths at a younger age, and through the internet kids are able to learn what else is available to them.

Women in Male Dominated Spaces

Emma Woolley, Peggy Nash, Claire Crossley, Laurie McCann

Another area to look at is the inclusiveness of these stereotypically gendered spaces. The White Ribbon Campaign’s “What Makes a Man” conference was held this November in downtown Toronto, and hosted speakers and panels dedicated to ending violence against women, and creating gender equality. Social justice advocate, Emma Woolley, hosted a discussion entitled “Women in a Man’s World,” which focused on the experience of female identified individuals working in male dominated spaces. Woolley, who currently works in the technology field, was joined by MP Peggy Nash; Police Officer Laurie McCann and co-founder of COMMsTO, Claire Crossley. Each of these women shared their experiences and offered their own insights into how workplaces could become more inclusive.

“I learned to conform. I learned how to golf,” Crossley explained. “Some of the most important meetings were held on the golf course. I made myself available for those meetings, even as a single mother.”

Women in Male Dominated Spaces - Fresh Print

Jeff Perera & Britta B from the White Ribbon Campaign

Crossley brings up an interesting point. Something as simple as where meetings are held can have a huge impact on the environment of a company. Holding after work meetings in bars or strip clubs, or in Crossley’s case, the golf course, can be limiting for female employees. Some may not feel comfortable in those environments even if they are every bit as qualified. Recognizing exclusionary practices is the first step to eliminating gender barrier in the workplace.

MP Nash took a different approach. “We have to support each other. I love this quote from a woman in British parliament. They said ‘Welcome to the most exclusive men’s club in the world.’ She replied with ‘Just so you know, I’ve left the door open.’ I love that.”

The panel agreed that women need to rally together in the workplace. Many times, women are forced into competition because of tokenism, limited positions, or the need to stand out in the crowd. Instead of bringing each other up, we create unnecessary tension.

Unfortunately, prejudices also play a factor in the workplace and women are caught in the middle. A strong, opinionated woman is labelled ‘bitchy’ while quiet or emotional women are called weak. It remains hard to find a middle ground. Appearance based assumptions play a part as well. Woolley remembers meeting the president of a well-known company and being told “No, you couldn’t do that. You’re a cool girl.”  On the the other hand, even compliments can shed light on gender inequality. Is it  appropriate to remark on the cut of someone’s dress instead of their capabilities? We see women in a variety of professions constantly asked about their clothes. Who are you wearing? Where did you get those shoes?

MP Nash wants to turn this on its head. “I wonder just how different our political discussions would be if we just talked about tie decisions?”

Simple questions like this one allowed the audience to start asking their own questions. What can we do to help create a better workplace? Why is a sexual or inappropriate relationship assumed when an older male colleague takes a professional interest in a young female co-worker? How can we change these stigmas? When should women fight and when should we go with the flow?  Regrettably, these questions aren’t easily answered, but the fact that they are being asked is remarkable progress. Gender is a difficult topic to discuss and there are plenty of people out there willing to start the conversation.


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