Making the Shift from Pink Collars to Blue Ones: Women's Non-Traditional Occupations

By Hulme, Kristin | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Making the Shift from Pink Collars to Blue Ones: Women's Non-Traditional Occupations


Hulme, Kristin, Labour/Le Travail


As GOVERNMENT STATISTICS INDICATE, men are disproportionately represented in the trades and industrial occupations. Women are quite simply so few in number as to be non-existent or invisible; hence, for women such employment is often referred to as non-traditional. Maria Charles and David Grusky ponder whether this gender imbalance "is best regarded as an organic feature of modern economics." (1) Gillian Creese characterizes it as "an important feature of contemporary labour markets." (2) Two factors help explain the persistent absence of women from the trades and industrial occupations.

The first is that the work itself is gendered (3) or sex-typed. (4) It is viewed by most people, almost without second thought, as men's work. The trades and industrial occupations are, by their very nature, understood to be masculine because those who fill them "have a gender and their gender rubs off on the jobs they mainly do." (5) As Cynthia Cockburn observes, work is designated male or female by "ascribing a series of polarized characteristics, complementary paired values, to the 'masculine' and the' feminine'. Normally men and women, things and jobs, comfortably reflect these complementary values." (6) The accumulation of experiences of working women demonstrates that the sex-typing of the trades and industrial occupations is deeply entrenched and highly resistant to challenge and change.

The second factor that explains the persistence of the dominance of men in the trades and industrial occupations is a 'de-gendering' of women as women by the workers themselves, unions, and the labour market. (7) Women often believe that gender should be an irrelevant factor in the workplace and that all jobs should be unisex. As a consequence of this de-gendering, they are able to ignore sex-typing. It also permits them to treat as insignificant or non-existent any systemic and structural barriers that prevent them and others from gaining entry to most industrial occupations and trades, and concentrate more than 70 per cent of them "in a few female dominated sectors related to traditional social roles: clerical or other administrative positions, sales and services occupations, nursing and related health occupations and teaching." (8)

Methodology

The absence and/or invisibility of female workers in specific occupations makes it difficult for researchers to find women in apprenticeships, the trades, and non-traditional occupations in unionized workplaces. To redress this imbalance, a research team composed of Margaret Little, Theresa O'Keefe, Sarah Riegel, and Kristin Hulme of the Political Studies Department at Queen's University, and Lynne Pajot of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers [CUPW] designed a programme to encourage female CUPW members to consider working in non-traditional occupations and to minimize any negative responses to women's presence in such sectors of the labour market. The project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and administered through the Work and Society Centre at York University.

We began with telephone calls and e-mail communications to union offices, asking about the extent and nature of women's employment in non-traditional occupations. In response, most of those with whom we spoke and corresponded about the issue expressed surprise at our inquiries. There appears to be a strong sense among many union officials that the integration of women into non-traditional jobs and trades is a dated issue. There had been a push in the 1990s to encourage women to move off career paths as administrative assistants, secretaries, customer service representatives, and clerks. The low number of women working as electricians, pipefitters, plumbers, technicians, and tool-and-dye operators, however, indicates that this push was short-lived and resulted in few of them making the transition. Out of 900 mechanic/technicians with the Canadian Union Postal Workers, for example, only one is a woman. …

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