Gender essentialism is the idea that gender, gender roles, sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, identity, and everything in between is black and white. For example, according to gender essentialism, all men are masculine and attracted to women. This ideology is very engrained in our society, and not surprising shows itself a lot in the work place.
I wanted to look at this problem in the most heavily influenced gender binary field: blue collar union workers. According to the University of Virginia’s Demographic and Research Group, about 8% of manual labor jobs are filled by women. I found this statistic shocking. However, as I did further research on the matter, I discovered the really interesting part is the union aspect of the jobs.
WHAT DO UNIONS DO FOR WOMEN?
Unions were designed to protect their workers from big corporations, all of their workers despite gender. They ensure their workers are provided with clean and comfortable conditions, job security,pension security, fair wages, and additional benefits, which is obviously very advantageous to all union employees. Since women often face unfair treatment in the workplace, having the security and support from the union is especially beneficial.
The graph above demonstrates the economic advantage of women working for union jobs. However, there are far more non monetary benefits as well. In a Huffington Post article, When Woman Feel Lost, They Can Find Themselves in Unions, the author told a story of a woman who received help from sexual harassment in the workplace, not because her human resource department felt the need to intervene, but because the union did. Despite reaching out for help and exposing her supervisor, the anonymous worker still had job security.
WOMEN OF STEEL
The union has teamed up and associated themselves with Women of Steel, an activist organization for female laborers, to specifically support female union workers.
Women of Steel is one of many activist branches associated with the United SteelWorkers (USW) organization. Although Steel is in the name, the group supports and fights to protect all female workers despite their specific profession.
Below are graphs that demonstrate some of the women oriented rights that the Women of Steel fight to have and protect. The blues states represent states that offer these rights and white states do not.
Workplace breastfeeding rights Provisions for pregnancy accommodations
Protections against pregnancy discrimination
CASE STUDY #1: GREGORY (MY DAD)
I first wanted to look at how a union affects my local community, namely my dad, who is a union member. So, I sat my dad down, and I asked him a few questions:
As my dad, Gregory, said, he is a plumber and general manager, which means he not only does the plumbing but also helps to oversee the progress of the projects he is working on. He has been doing this work and in the union since before I was born. A few years back, my family and I went to a union-run pinning ceremony for him. It was a grand dinner at a nice hall to celebrate the people who had been a part of the local plumber’s union for 25 years. I can attest that when he says people treat each other like family, he isn’t exaggerating. Random strangers came out to me to tell me that they love working with my dad, or that they knew him since he first started in the business. Every person in the hall had a friendly face and quick anecdote about whomever you attended the dinner with. It was like being at a giant family reunion. Chances are, you don’t know more than half the people there, but you felt connected to them anyway.
Gregory is currently working on a project in downtown Boston.
The photos above are of the crew Gregory is currently working with. The two women on the ends of the photo are the only two women who do non-secretarial work for this project. On the left is Rebecca; she is a site engineer. On the right of the picture is Nicole; she is the superintendent and oversees scheduling and job evaluations for the crew. Unlike Gregory, the two women don’t meet with union representatives as often or as consistently. However, they still feel as though they have job security and financial stability thanks to the union. The two of them agreed that they don’t see it as a “men-workers, women- workers thing,” but unions fighting for all of their workers. I found their comment very interesting considering some of the research I discovered about the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL).
The WTUL was first founded in the same city of Boston, in 1903. The WTUL created a lot of reforms and protected more than 6.3 million women in the union from exclusion and discrimination. However, other social activist organizations gained popularity and by 1950, the year it was disbanded, the power of the WTUL dwindled to a halt. There was no gender specific branch of the union until Women of Steel was brought to the nation more than fifty years later. Perhaps that is why Nicole and Rebecca do not recognize “a men-workers, women-workers thing,” but instead just a ‘workers thing.’
CASE #2: DOREEN
I decided to get a female opinion, and talked to Doreen, a 58 year old electrician from Boston. At the age of 38, Doreen was a single mother of two and started her apprenticeship with the Local 103 Electrical Union. She wanted something better for herself and her daughters, Patty and Allie, and decided to go to night school at North Shore Community College. After five grueling years, she finished her apprenticeship and got her associates degree. She grew up in a blue collar family that valued handwork and lived by the phrase “life’s tough, get a helmet”.
Similarly to what Greg Nelson previously said, the Union, to use Doreen’s words “looks after their own”. Doreen continued and advised that women in the union are thought of as “mothers, daughters, and sisters”. I found her word choice fascinating considering it almost perfectly mirrored Gregory’s previous words. The family-sense within the union seemed to hold true across gender barriers and even across professions. “All in all, the men have shown me nothing but respect for me.” Sadly though, there wasn’t child services to help her out, so she enlisted her mother to watch after the girls while she was at work.
Although Doreen truly loves her career and has had a lot of fun even stating “I could write a book about it!”, she did warn that it is not to be taken lightly. You always have to be on guard and follow the protocol “danger is always around and you must be diligent and always aware of your surroundings.” Doreen has made a good life for herself, her two daughters and now is able to take her four grandchildren Disney every year, her favorite part of being a grandmother!!
What I discovered during this project was both unsurprising and simultaneously shocking. I started off knowing the immensity in the community and advantageous aspects of union. I also knew woman made up a small portion of the laborer jobs — a mere 8 percent! I was shocked to hear the long list of benefits that female union workers receive that nonunion female workers do not. However, the most surprising fact, by far, was that the union rarely, besides the association with Women of Steel, specifically advocate for or single out female workers. Instead, they fight for all of their workers equally. So, what started out as me hoping to look into one of the most gender discriminatory career fields, ended with me realizing I didn’t know much about the profession at all. I had images in my head of the stereotypical construction workers cat-calling and proving their ‘manliness’. Happily, what I saw was a group of people who respected and protected each other. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done towards gender equality. There is still progress to be made. You can help make it.