Partners on the Periphery: Personal Ambiguity and Unpaid Labour in the Australian Mining Industry. (In/visibles Subjectivities)

Article excerpt

Wives associated with the resources sector have little public profile, either within the mining industry or in the wider community. Indeed, the economic, technical, political and social environment of the Australian resources sector is overtly masculine, not only in composition and culture, but also in public perception. Such profound gender bias has been an accepted characteristic of the mining industry throughout its history, a circumstance which obscures the significant contribution of women to corporate activities and denies the reality that wives, too, have always been part of the mining experience. (1)

Drawing on evidence gathered for a recent doctoral study, this work challenges the popular perception that the mining industry and wives belong to distinctively separate spheres. It argues instead that mining careers in the context of the Australian resources sector are two-person careers in which the focus of both partners in a marriage is necessarily limited to the personal progress of one--the engineer. Such an arrangement arises because mining industry philosophy, policy and practice are so intrusive that, despite their marginalised status, wives are also obliged to construct their own identities in accordance with parameters established by the industry. To a large extent, their lives are governed by the expectations, goals and demands of the mining men they have married, the management strategies of their partners' employers and the entrenched work practices of the industry. Female partners are thus re-shaped into the role of `mining wife', an unpaid but important position that insidiously requires them to extend their domestic, maternal and public relations skills, along with their good will, from the domestic context into the corporate world. Though the diversity and extent of a wife's incorporation may vary across time and space, the control of the rhythm, pattern and location of her life by `his' work, `his' career and `his' aspirations will be constant and pervasive. The result is that many mining wives lead what is often an arduous lifestyle dominated by repeated relocation, stressed relationships and diminished personal autonomy. The failure of industry patriarchs to recognise the social impact of their well-entrenched policies leads firmly to a pattern of exploitation.

The Two-Person Career

Hanna Papanek defines a two-person career as one in which `a combination of informal and formal institutional demands is placed upon both members of a married couple, though only one is employed by the institution'. (2) Central to the concept is the incorporation of a spouse into the paid work of a partner. Such circumstances arise not as a result of an individual's own achievements or potential but as a consequence of being tied by the sexual, economic and emotional bonds of marriage. Most often it is wives who are drawn into the domain of a husband's employment. Unlike `husband', the term `wife' has connotations which extend its meaning beyond that of a female spouse to imply a specific role of service and deference to the male partner, which enables him to increase his prestige at the cost of hers. Therefore, for participants in a two-person career, the focus of both partners rests upon the career of one--the husband. Such careers thus become occupations in which the cooperation and active participation of a wife in her husband's work are taken for granted as essential to enable the husband to progress along his chosen career path. Central to the arrangement is the development of a three-way relationship between the employing institution and the two partners in a marriage.

The participation of wives in the work of their husbands is neither new nor limited to the mining industry. Though the best-known two-person career is perhaps that of the corporate executive, the pattern is clearly evident across a number of predominantly male professions. However, mining wives are particularly susceptible to this type of incorporation and its potential stresses because of the frequency of geographical change in their lives, the distances across which it occurs and the environments to which it may take them. …