Gender equality has made tremendous progress over the past century. In Canada today, women are participating in the labor market at much higher rates than ever before — there are almost 3.5 times more women working today than there were in the 1950s .
The proportion of women in traditionally male-dominated fields has also increased significantly. The number of female medical residents doing residencies in orthopedic surgery, for example, increased by 111% from 2006 to 2016. Additionally, the representation of women in STEM fields has increased in recent decades.
Despite this progress in certain male-dominated fields, other professions are still difficult for women to access. The fact that many jobs in these fields are dirty, dangerous and physically demanding is frequently used to justify women’s lack of access, and women’s participation in the labor market often remains concentrated in less physically demanding jobs.
But what about professions that have become cleaner and less physically demanding over the years? While you might expect these jobs to be more open to women, as was the case with police work in the UK, our forthcoming study in Research in the Sociology of Organizations proves that this is not the case. is not the case.
The trade of longshoreman
For our study, we looked at the stevedoring professions (people who manage the transfer of goods loaded onto the quay) in France over seven decades. What we found was surprising: as jobs became cleaner, safer and less physically demanding, fewer women were present on the docks.
In fact, there are fewer women working in French ports today than 70 years ago: as our interlocutors note, there are absolutely none. Longshoremen in France are not alone – only 5% of longshoremen in British Columbia are women and women make up only 1.2% of the entire global maritime workforce.
To understand why, we have to go back 50 years. In France, before 1968, women were accepted as longshoremen but were relegated to “women’s work”, such as sowing and repairing bags containing transported goods or cleaning warehouses.
In contrast, men transferred heavy loads, which was considered work of greater prestige because it involved direct contact with goods and boats. Lower status tasks were assigned to women who remained inside the warehouse with little direct contact with the goods being shipped. A clear division of labor was put in place, which resulted in lower wages for women.
Longshoremen tended to view women as either too delicate and fragile to work on the docks, or too distracting to work alongside men. They justified their exclusion of women based on classic arguments of gender essentialism: women were not as strong as men and would be put off by the grueling nature of work in the holds of ships.
Cargo containers were introduced in French ports from 1970 and female labor disappeared as most goods were transported and stored in containers.
Due to this increasing mechanization, less physical labor was required and less dirt and danger were involved in logging work. However, mechanization has also reduced the total number of skidding stations. At the same time, the workers’ union has grown stronger, which means wages have risen and jobs ashore have become increasingly attractive and scarce.
In response, the men decided to support those who most resembled their existing group members by recruiting their sons and male family members. By hiring only men, longshoremen kept women out of the profession, even though the work became less physically demanding over time.
Gender inequality persists
How did these men justify their exclusion of women? We found that longshoremen used three tactics. First, the men claimed that their work was more stressful than before and that although physical strength was no longer an obstacle, another type of strength, psychological strength, was needed.
Second, the stereotype of distracting women was used to suggest that the presence of women on the docks would disrupt the ability of men to stand strong and united in the face of employers who wanted to cut wages and jobs.
Third, although there was now less physical labor involved in their work, the men decided that every longshoreman should be able to perform all tasks, physical and non-physical. This meant that men could, once again, excuse their discrimination by claiming that women would not be able to perform the few heavy physical tasks that remained.
Hope on the horizon
The job of longshoreman is not entirely unique in its exclusion of women: for example, in 2018, only three women worked on nuclear submarines in France. In the United States, in 2020, less than 8% of truck drivers were women.
The job of longshoreman is, to our knowledge, the only job in France that does not yet have any women. However, we saw hope in the attitudes of the young longshoremen we interviewed – some of whom were strongly in favor of women coming in, although they noted that “it might take a generation of longshoremen or two “.
Gender-based discrimination has existed since the beginning of labor markets and continues to be prevalent in many countries and professions around the world. Our study suggests that while justifications for discrimination can easily shift, moving discrimination is indeed hard work.
Meena Andiappan is Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Toronto.
Lucas Dufour is Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior at Metropolitan University of Toronto.
This story appears courtesy of The Conversation and can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.