Gender harassment blocking women in male-dominated industries

Gender harassment harming women in male-dominated industries

gender harassment

The University of Sydney has published study findings that show women working in male-dominated industries encounter daily gender harassment. 

The paper, titled “‘I’ll never be one of the boys”: Gender harassment of women working as pilots and automotive tradespeople’ was published in the peer-reviewed journal Gender, Work & Organization.

Co-written by four academics — Meraiah Foley, Sarah Oxenbridge, Rae Cooper, and Marian Baird, it examines the experience of women working in areas including investment management, automotive trades and airline pilots.

“Significant research has examined sexual harassment in male‐dominated occupations, but gender harassment — harassment that is not necessarily sexual in nature but is targeted at individuals, or a group of individuals, because of their sex or gender — has received relatively less attention,” the paper opens.

Drawing on a range of interviews, the researchers found that “women in these occupations face a daily barrage of belittling jokes and demeaning comments from colleagues, managers and customers.”

Professor Rae Cooper, co-Director of the Women & Work Research Group, believes inculturated behaviours continue to damage the daily experiences of women working in these fields.

“These women love their jobs and are attracted to the technical aspects of the work and the chance to apply their problem-solving skills,” she said. “But the uncivilised and gendered harassment they face threatens to drive them out of these industries. Businesses urgently need to take action to keep these talented women in the sector.”

Part of her research was aimed at defining and interrogating the historically unscrutinised nature of gender harassment. Her colleague, Dr Meraiah Foley, Deputy Director of the Women and Work Research Group, is also a researcher focusing on how concepts of merit and the meritocracy shape inequalities at work. She believes that gender harassment is “not necessarily sexual in nature.” 

“Gender harassment is targeted at individuals or groups because of their sex or gender,” Dr Foley said. “We found that women working in male-dominated sectors face a barrage of belittling jokes and demeaning comments, which can come from colleagues, managers or customers.”

Prof Cooper added that gender harassment is a “stain on otherwise decent workplaces. It grinds against women’s expectations of what modern workplaces should be.”

The paper also stated that “women found these behaviours humiliating, intimidating, and offensive, they lacked a comprehensive vocabulary to define or condemn them.”

Dr Foley and Prof Cooper’s team of researchers conducted the study in three phases, finding gender harassment had a cumulative, damaging impact on women. Accounts of gender harassment arose in nearly every interview conducted with the roughly three-hundred women who were interviewed. One participant described it as feeling “cut down, little by little”. A majority of interviewees claimed that at the time of the interview, they were the only female in their team or workplace. Many were the first woman ever to have been employed in their workplaces. 

The women involved in the study who worked in automotive trades (a total of 119) fell between the ages of 19 to 54. Those interviewed in the airline industry (165) were between 22 to 68 years old. 

In Australia, women comprise just 6 percent of employees working as pilots and qualified flight instructors. In March this year, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced a federal government initiative called Women in Aviation — a free three-month mentoring program that helped young women get a better understanding of the range of career opportunities in the sector.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne remarked that women needed to “take some stock of what we tell ourselves and other women” in pushing against conservative ideologies about their career options. Minister Payne said only three per cent of global airline bosses were women and the gender pay gap in the industry was 38 per cent compared to an average of 14 per cent across all industries in Australia.

“Breaking the glass ceiling can be tough, but flying through it, even more so. We need a steady drum beat of role models and mentors,” she told SMH. 

The numbers in the automobile trades aren’t more encouraging. In 2014, Matthew Hatton reported that in the mechanical trades, men out-number women 113 to 1. So what are the solutions?

The authors of the study recommend businesses and policymakers need to do more to not only recruit women into these sectors, but also make the work environments more equitable.

“Good practice in terms of workplace policies is a magnet for talented women in these sectors. But recruitment is only half the answer – the other half is retention,” Prof Cooper said. Dr Foley believes research like this is only one step towards achieving gender equality in the work-place. 

“We need to remember that as we’re encouraging women to take up the tools, we still have a long way to go towards achieving gender equality for those women who do make it into the pipeline.”

The authors of the research paper hope the study will contribute to emerging literature that argues for gender harassment to be more organisationally and legally problematised as a form of sex‐based harassment constituting unlawful sex discrimination.


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