Episode 4: Women in Trade in Rural Australia

To Larissa Bamberry and Donna Bridges, asking why more women don’t move into male–dominated fields is much more complicated that it seems. On this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Larissa and Donna argue that rural Australian women face attacks from two sides: judged for leaving their communities yet often facing limited opportunities and strict gender roles if they remain.

Larissa argues that there is a social and cultural element that shapes what fields we go into and how others respond to our career decisions. In other words, if you’ve ever judged a man for becoming a nurse, then you’re responding to the ideas of who a nurse is. For Larissa, these ideas around what work is appropriate can shape the opportunities an individual feels they can go for and still be accepted by their community.

Building on this, Donna argues that even if one tries for a feminist interpretation of sociology, they’re often hamstrung by an upholding of the wisdom of old white men. And while there is no doubt these men have done a lot for sociology as an academic discipline, she argues that this focus often leaves out … well, everyone else.

Together, they call on Australians to think about how their expectations of each other (and yes, their gender) see us judging and critiquing each other. From this, they believe that Australian workplaces can move to accommodate a far wider variety of norms and sociology can move beyond positioning male whiteness as universal.

As mentioned in the episode, Larissa and Donna wrote a piece called Risky Business: how our ‘macho’ construction culture is killing tradies. If you want to contact Larissa, she is on Twitter @elby326, while Donna is @DonnaVBridges.

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript: Women in Trade with Larissa Bamberry and Donna Bridges

[00:00:00] Larissa B: [00:00:00] And, for me, it’s about ‘how do young people go from training and education into the labor market?’  And what implications does that have and and what are the barriers that they face? [00:01:00]Sarina: [00:01:00] Thanks for joining us on What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Can I start by asking you to tell us about your research?

Anyone can go.

Larissa B: [00:01:15] Sorry. That’s not really great for the recording, is it? Can I-can I do a little generic one first about what I-what my general research is before we start talking about our project together?

Sarina: [00:01:24] Go for it. Go for each one.

Larissa B: [00:01:26] Brilliant. Yeah, my name’s Larissa Bamberry, I’m a sociologist working in a School of Management and Marketing and there’s often a perception that anyone working in a business school or a faculty sees the world through an economic lens and sees society as a bunch of individuals who are focused on self-interested utility maximization.

 But of course that’s not the case. Individuals are not always driven by economic imperatives and they don’t always act selfishly. And markets are about the social relations between individuals with various types of power and various levels of power in [00:02:00] society.  So we need to recognize how the social underpins the economic and we need to explore how social relations of power, advantage and disadvantage interact to create inequality in our society.

 My work is focused on how those social relations of gender, ethnicity, class and difference  intersect with the labor market. But it’s also about recognizing that the labor market is structured by the social relations of the household and how both the household and the labor market impact on how the social relations of work in organizations.

Sarina: [00:02:35] Larissa, I’m going to jump in there. Can you just for our listeners explain what you mean by the social relations of the household?

Larissa B: [00:02:45] Yeah. Whatever choices that we make about work and employment, are always going to be structured by our levels of caring responsibilities, our relationships with other people in our households and how those factors contribute to [00:03:00] how we want to actually access work.

It’s important to understand that bigger picture of how people live. We aren’t all individuals, we are sometimes household units and we act in ways that are social to our own household. As much as we act in ways to actually be an individual worker  in a larger organization.

I always say, so my project,  my research is essentially about work, but work’s one of the key factors in our society that helps us understand inequality. So my broader sociological project, if you like, is about looking at in quality in society and what are the causes and the impact of inequality and how that translates and explains itself in work.

Sarina: [00:03:42] So suddenly, you have the whole nation interested in your work at this moment through quarantine, and everybody wants to know ‘how does the labor market work’ and ‘what’s going on in households?’

Larissa B: [00:03:57] Absolutely. The whole COVID pandemic has [00:04:00] been so amazing from a social perspective of it just has opened up so many sort of schisms in our society in so many levels of inequality. I mean, I think we really need to take this chance to explore those factors and be looking at what that means for us as a society.

Sarina: [00:04:16] And also I think made visible, many of these things that are almost invisible to lots of people about how we access work or our workplaces, how who we’ve got at our households impacts that, it’s very different leaving your household to go out to-

Donna Bridges: [00:04:35] Back to work.

Sarina: [00:04:36] -versus trying to do it at home with children as I’ve discovered.

Larissa B: [00:04:41] That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. So Donna and I are working on a project that is explicitly looking at young women who are tradeswomen or trying to get into the skilled trades. So that’s really about those intersections of the labor market. And, for me, it’s about ‘how do young people go from [00:05:00] training and education into the labor market?’ And what implications does that have and what are the barriers that they face if they’re trying to get in a really-if women are trying to get into male-dominated areas.

Sarina: [00:05:12] Fantastic. Donna, have you got anything that you would like to add at this point?

Donna Bridges: [00:05:17] Okay. Do I start with my name and everything? Do you want me to do that?

Sarina: [00:05:21] You can start what you like.

Donna Bridges: [00:05:22] Okay. So hi, I’m Donna Bridges. I’m a sociologist teaching in the School of Social Science. So you’d think I was well-placed there with my research being around gender and feminist issues concerned with work. However, I feel like as a sociologist that is doing feminist studies that sociology seems to exist in this feminist void. And I struggle with that. I feel like teaching sociology and particularly teaching Sociology 101 or [00:06:00] teaching inequality is very much about tracking out the dead white privileged man’s theories and ideas about society and that it excludes issues that are particularly about anybody who’s not white, so about ethnicity, and women’s issues. So it’s almost like a marginalized area within sociology and has a lot more traction if one’s looking at the environment or rural issues. And then those studies are often done in a feminist void. So women’s issues aren’t actually being looked at when we look at rural issues.

Sarina: [00:06:47] Donna. I’m so pleased to hear you say that because I’m towards the end of my PhD, which was three or four years ago now, it was brought to my attention that you’d gender color code your [00:07:00] reference list to see how many different voices you brought in. And I was shocked at how skewed my reference list was towards males and, in particular, white males and, in particular, Western white males.

And I was like, ‘am I really doing the thing that is a bit new or radical if I’m just basically repurposing Western white males? Of course, much too late in my PhD thesis writing at that stage to radically rethink who I was referring to, but it is something that has stuck with me as an epiphany moment: whose work you build on, who you read, who you thinks their voice matters in all of this has a huge impact on what we do as researchers.

Donna Bridges: [00:07:51] Yeah, it so does, and I didn’t even know why I was going to say all that, but then it just, because it does overshadow my [00:08:00] research a lot. And sometimes I feel like in that marginalised space. Say you do a introduction to sociology program. You do a week on women.

And it’s not that you’re doing a week on women, it’s that you’re doing a week on feminism, but in all the other weeks, it’s the male theorists that have been prioritized. And so from those textbooks and from those introductory courses, we eliminate the women who were actually there at the time and having a voice at the time, or we put them all in the same week and we try and address it all there and they get eliminated because we can’t fit them all in.

Sarina: [00:08:42] Yeah.

Donna Bridges: [00:08:42] So we just choose a few. And I have found that they choose different ones depending on which courses you look at or which textbooks you look at. The people who put together the introductory texts do exactly the same thing. [00:09:00] And I think it’s a real problem in my work and I feel that it’s done in the research environment at CSU, too. There’s no focus on gender anywhere, that I can find any way.

So my work is around the inequalities that women face at work. So I mostly look at the experience of women in male-dominated environments. So, I started off looking at the military and I was looking, at the time, at the combat exclusion, not just the gender inequality of such an exclusion, but the policy framework of that and how you exclude some people from policy and you make special policy around them because you’re saying that they are different. So I started off looking at that and I’ve looked also at aviation and now I’m looking at women in trades and we are, in the [00:10:00] project that I’m doing with Larissa, focusing on regional areas.

So we’re looking at women in trades in the region. So we’re looking at the country basically. And I do find that that women in rural areas are in a special place, I suppose you could call it, in that the environment that they’re working in, living in, growing up in, being educated in, and then working in is highly gendered. And I think much more so than in urban areas.

 There’s quite a-a homogeneity. So everybody in the country’s expected to be the same. People who are different, don’t integrate well or aren’t accepted as easily as in city areas. You grow up gay in the country and everybody’s advice to you is, when you get to 18 or 19, leave; you want to have a good life, you need to leave this place, you can come back later when you’re more [00:11:00] comfortable with yourself and you’ve got a wider friendship circle, but get the hell out of here.  And I think  that can be the same for women too.

And in Larissa’s studies, she often finds that young women are out migrating from the country, much more than the boys. They want to get out more so than the boys. And I think this is because gender roles are really enforced. You step outside of the expectations of gender and other people make that very difficult for you.

If you’re going to be different or unusual, then that’s easier to do in an urban area. So if you want to be a woman in a male-dominated area, you’re probably going to have more success at that in an urban area than in the country where your beliefs and your attitudes and your vales around gender are more divided. There’s more difference between men and women, less merging, those gender roles more strictly enforced.[00:12:00]

Sarina: [00:12:00] How does this translate into your research on young women trying to enter a trade when they’re living in a rural or regional area?

Larissa B: [00:12:08] So one of the things that, just to pick up on what Donna was saying about the out migration is that because we have such strict sort of gender expectations in regional areas, this actually extends to the opportunities that women have for education and training. And so there is an expectation-both from the women that they will leave the region, but also from their parents and their families, that they will leave the region and go to university in a big city. There’s not this perception that they can get any form of training in the regions.

And as a result, almost a self fulfilling prophecy that’s that’s become a situation now where apart from regional universities, women don’t get access to the trades and the type of training that might get them into a skilled trade position in the regional center. And so we find that a lot of them are leaving, even to get [00:13:00] trades level qualifications, which they’ve denied access to in the regions because of the gender expectations of the society as well.

Donna Bridges: [00:13:09] And I think when you’re in a socio cultural environment where difference is constructed as wrong, then those that aren’t different, those that are the same, feel that they can criticize. They can try to dissuade people, make them be the same. So it gives them that legitimized position. And I do find this in my research, the way that other people will speak to women, it’s the whistling when you walk past a construction site-which is a stereotype about men working in construction, isn’t it, that they’ll wolf-whistle at women. They feel that’s a legitimate thing for them to do to treat women however they like. So they get a woman that joins them at work and they do that in that environment as well. So I find that kind of [00:14:00] milder, sexually harassing of women is quite legitimate.

Sarina: [00:14:03] Yeah.

Donna Bridges: [00:14:03] And is probably more so in the country, ‘that’s what you do,’ but also because the woman has stepped outside of the traditional gender expectation. And so the person who is the same and who is conforming is entitled to criticize or harass or bully somebody who is different. So I think that really stands out in our research so far, that authority to harass and intimidate anybody who stepped outside of gender stereotype in the gender expectations.

Larissa B: [00:14:39] And that process can be quite subtle. And then we’ve got an example of a woman who  was applying to become an apprentice with a building and construction firm. And the first question they asked her was ‘you’ve got really good results on your HSC. Why would you want to be a tradesperson or an apprentice?’ And she’s like, ‘I want to work with my hands and I want to do things.’ But there [00:15:00] was just this subtle judgemental process going on that you’re a girl, you got good results, this is not your last resort, you should be doing something else. You should leave this job for somebody who is less capable and therefore, less able to go to university or, almost as the judgment about whether or not people are entitled to take up the sorts of training opportunities they want.

Sarina: [00:15:21] Does that still exist, then? Then the idea that girls entering trades are taking jobs from the boys?

Larissa B: [00:15:27] It’s certainly a sentiment that we have received when we’ve published papers on The Conversation or other public sort of areas. We’ve received feedback from people that this is the last bastion for boys and that we shouldn’t be encouraging women into that area because what will the boys do then? Which is a bit absurd because. I’m sure there were probably as many boys out there who’d got to be childcare workers and teachers and nurses .

Donna Bridges: [00:15:51] We get a lot of comments, don’t we, where people are afraid that women are being privileged and men are being [00:16:00] disadvantaged by this push to get women into trades. However, of all the occupations in the trades in Australia, women make up between 1 and 3% of them. So I don’t think there’s any privileging really going on, but they do perceive it as so, which interesting in itself that they would construct it that way.

Sarina: [00:16:22] My normal question at this point is what are the benefits of applying a sociological lens to your research; I feel like we might’ve already covered that.

Larissa B: [00:16:36] Yeah. I guess just to emphasize that the sociological is the underpinning way of understanding these things. So it gives you a much deeper and broader and also a better understanding of what’s going on. I was always like sociological conceptions of power to understand what are the power relationships between people in different roles. And I think that sociology can give us a lot of help on that. Yeah, I think, yeah, it’s [00:17:00] interesting.

 Picking up on Donna’s point about the stale white males who have been the fathers of sociology, I think the potential for sociology into the future is something we should also think about as well. And I think there is a lot of potential for us to start being more inclusive and recognizing a range of different cultures.  I have to say, I teach a subject, public sector management, and in the past that’s been very much focused around federal-state relations, funding mechanisms, all sorts of things like that. But this year I’ve tried to actually bring an Indigenous focus in and talk about accountability and self determination as a form of accountability, and trying to actually get people to think from that other perspective a lot more, as a mainstream role.

And I think that’s the potential for sociology, isn’t it? That we can actually challenge people to think in new ways and not rely too heavily on the stale white males.

Sarina: [00:17:55] That’s it is as well, I know for myself that once you are taught [00:18:00] how to see those power imbalances, the world looks totally different. It’s like somebody’s put on a different pair of glasses on your face or something.

From your research with, women in trade, how do you hope to change the world with this?

Donna Bridges: [00:18:15] We find that question really difficult, don’t we, ’cause-

Larissa B: [00:18:19] We ask ourselves, all the time, yes.

Donna Bridges: [00:18:22] How do we make a meaningful difference? And we think that on some level you have to achieve a critical mass in work places, which means to get a certain amount of women working there.

So you normalized the role. That women can be in this role. It’s normal. It’s not weird and-and all of that kind of thing, but we know that doesn’t necessarily work a hundred percent. It’s not always super successful. So there has to be changes that are cultural. There has to be different ways of being, different ways of behaving, [00:19:00] relating to each other at work.

So we do find in these environments that sense of entitlement where you might treat somebody who’s different badly. And we do find that there are differences in the way people behave on construction sites to how they might behave in an office. So there’s lots of things said and things done in these workplaces that would never be done in our  workplace-quite shocking, to me, that they would occur, but they’re normalized in those environments. So we’d like to see changes at that level. And I think a lot of the time that’s got to happen through policy. It’s got to come from above with good leadership, but it also has to happen informally. And I’ll leave answering that to Larissa.

Larissa B: [00:19:50] Yeah.

We’ve just been working on a paper where we were looking at the way that culture regulates our behavior in the workplace and trying to look at both formal [00:20:00] regulation-which is the legislation and the changes that comes down from abovebut also the informal regulation of the social, cultural attitudes and beliefs that comes from the ground up.

And what we were finding is that, particularly in a field like construction, where a lot of the businesses are small businesses or micro businesses that only have one or two employees, these organizations operate much more in that sort of informal area of regulation that they’re less likely to have an HR manager who will teach them about how to implement gender equity. They’re less likely to have formal systems for workplace health or they have formal systems for workplace health and safety, but they’re less likely to police it. They’re less likely to follow up on it. All those Train structures of the workplace are that much less formal when you get down to the lower levels and that a lot of the time that’s driven by culture and-and norms and expectations. And so it’s about how do we change those at that [00:21:00] level?

Sarina: [00:21:00] That’s fantastic. Where can our listeners find you on social media, or if they’re interested in your research to read more about what you’re doing?

Larissa B: [00:21:09] We have a couple of pieces in The Conversation. We have one about risky behavior amongst men on building sites and construction in the construction industry

Donna Bridges: [00:21:18] It’s called ‘risky business.’ So you can Google that.

Sarina: [00:21:21] Okay. I’ll find it and put a link in the show notes as well. Are either of you on Twitter, LinkedIn, or other types of social media, if people would like to connect with you?

Larissa B: [00:21:31] yeah, I’m on Twitter and at elby326, I think, or 236. And I’ll check that for you. I’ll send you the link and the details. I’m just trying to think; I am on a few other pages, but not for my work. I don’t really promote my work.

Donna Bridges: [00:21:47] I’m on Twitter just as Donna Bridges, I think.

Sarina: [00:21:50] Fantastic. Larissa and Donna, thank you so much for joining us today and talking to the listeners of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?

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