Why harassment threatens to keep women out of 'shovel-ready' industries

9 November 2020
Research team examines experience of women in male-dominated industries
After the federal government announced budget stimulus that prioritised male-dominated industries, new research from the University of Sydney reveals women already working in those sectors are experiencing a pernicious problem: gender harassment.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Gender, Work & Organization, the research was undertaken by the Women & Work Research Group and examined the experience of women working in male-dominated industries: investment management, automotive trades and airline pilots.

Women comprise only 6 percent of employees working as pilots and qualified flight instructors in Australia.

“These women love their jobs and are attracted to the technical aspects of the work and the chance to apply their problem-solving skills,” said co-author Professor Rae Cooper, Co-Director of the Women & Work Research Group.

“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.”

What is gender harassment?

The research team investigated a topic that has gone largely unscrutinised: gender harassment.

Co-author of the study, Dr Meraiah Foley, explained: “Gender harassment is targeted at individuals or groups because of their sex or gender but isn’t necessarily sexual in nature.”

“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.”

Conducting the research in three phases, the researchers found gender harassment has a cumulative and devastating impact on women. One participant, Melissa*, described it as being “cut down, little by little”.

Why recruitment is only half the answer

The researchers suggest 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,” said Professor Cooper.

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.
Dr Meraiah Foley

“Gender harassment is a stain on otherwise decent workplaces. It grinds against women’s expectations of what modern workplaces should be.”

Participants ranged in age from 19 to 54 in automotive trades, and 22 to 68 years in the airline industry. After conducting a survey of 119 women in automotive trades and 165 pilots, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 40 women working in both sectors.

Almost all participants reported that at the time of the interview they were the sole female in their team or workplace, and many were the first woman ever to have been employed in their workplaces. Accounts of gender harassment arose in nearly every interview.

As the federal government directs stimulus into male-dominated industries, the researchers say a gendered-lens that considers the experience of these women should be applied.

“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,” Dr Foley said.

The paper was co-authored by Professor Cooper, Dr Foley, Professor Marian Baird and Dr Sarah Oxenbridge

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