Are we occasionally confusing questions about confidence or competence with workplace sexism?
I grew up in Kalgoorlie during the 70s and 80s. I worked on mine sites for 15 years in residential and FIFO roles before joining Mining People.
I’ve experienced harassment, discrimination and sexism.
Even in recruiting I’ve had applicants feel the need to explain something — because obviously, as a woman, I could never have worked in a site-based mining job. Once I even had an applicant throw his unsuccessful letter across our reception desk, whilst telling me I knew nothing about mobile maintenance.
It would be fair to say that as a woman who worked in the industry when female participation was less than five per cent, there aren’t too many stories I hear about workplace sexism that don’t resonate with me.
However, recently while reading the comments on an online article on sexism, it raised a question with me: is it possible that what was once considered a question about ability or perhaps even confidence now risks becoming a sexist remark because it was directed to a female colleague by a male colleague?
I’m not talking about:
- As an applicant for a job, being told “you’re a girl, there’s no way you could drive a road train”
- Or when a Shift Super states: “I’d never have a woman on my crew; they’re too much trouble”
- Or the time when the delivery driver said: “bet it’s easy for you to get what you want out here being the only girl on site”
- Or a female graduate being told there was no need for her to do the management training, as she’d “soon be a housewife”
- Or the men from the workshop having bets on the likelihood of the women having to call for help “because they’re too weak to dig themselves out from being bogged”. (Not only did we succeed but a few weeks later we had to tow the workshop crew out of the same spot! And yes, it cost them a carton back then).
All these comments are real-life situations either myself or my colleagues encountered whilst on site. They are sexist, discriminatory and treat someone unfavorably.
The times I am talking about are when a question is about competence, confidence or ability. When it is directed at a female, there is the real possibility that the question is assumed to be a sexist one, because it’s a male asking a female. But that’s not necessarily the case.
What does this look like in reality?
Here are a few real-life examples I can share.
I’m part of a group of men and women playing indoor cricket. One of the men asked one of the women if she wanted to be the wicket keeper. The response was: “why, because I am a woman?” There was nothing about the question that implied sexism; it was a question that could apply to anyone on the team, regardless of gender. It was about confidence and ability. (As an aside, wicket-keeping is hardly an easy job and I know, for me, there is no way I would be comfortable behind the wicket and I would be grateful I’d been asked and given a way out!)
We’re in the midst of a shutdown. The shutdown has gone over time and, as I walk back to the gold room with a bucket of concentrate we’d just dug from a sump, I’m asked to go to the workshop to grab a specific tool. I had no idea what they were talking about, so said so. Now I actually worked in the lab on site and I expect anyone else with my experience wouldn’t have known what this tool was either. The Maintenance Superintendent then asked the supervisor to “send one of the boys” to get it.
I later had one of the other women on site ask if I was offended he had sent one of the men to get the tool. My response? “Umm, why? I didn’t have a clue what they needed from the workshop!”
Each of these incidents became a gender issue, whereas clearly it was a question around ability, confidence or knowledge.
Neither question had anything to do with gender.
And what about these examples?
A female colleague asks her male counterpart if he is ok to work late “because he has a family”.
A male employee is doing the dishes in the communal kitchen and a female colleague says: “Gee, it’s nice to see a man in the kitchen”.
Here’s the test: just reverse the genders and ask the same question and consider the response.
Sexism in mining in summary
The mining industry, like many industries, has a gender imbalance. But it’s not the cause of sexism as we see it occurring in all workplaces. Recently in the press there have been stories about harassment, sexism and discrimination across many industries. As horrific and shocking as they are, I truly believe it is the action we take now when we see, hear or experience harassment, sexism or discrimination that will have the greatest impact — not highlighting what happened years ago.
Every company, site, crew and individual has a responsibility to prevent sexism, discrimination, harassment and bullying.
Your voice, regardless of your gender, will be more powerful if you speak up at the times when it really matters, not in the times when it’s a question about ability, skills, competency or confidence.
Want to know more?
If you’d like to take advantage of Mining People’s HR services, get in touch.
men and women were largely in agreement on the subject of the mining industry’s provision of female friendly workplaces.