Maintenance still extremely unfriendly to female workers

Feb. 17, 2005
Women are still struggling to gain equal footing in numerous industries. In plant maintenance, it seems that women still have a lot of work to do before they are fully accepted as equals.

Even Harvard University President Lawrence Summers is guilty of undervaluing women in the workplace. In late January he addressed the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. During the course of his speech he slipped off the path from purveyor of wisdom to pedantic fool while trying to explain why there are so few women who work in the academic sciences.

In his mind, there are three possible explanations: the reluctance or inability of women to work 80-hour weeks; the fact that boys outscore girls on math and science tests as upperclassmen in high school; and that there might possibly be discrimination somewhere in the mix.

Several female Harvard professors in attendance were offended; at least one got up and left. These women often have to deal with slights from the male majority. Why listen to Summers’ pabulum any longer than was necessary? It’s tough enough to try to carve out their academic niches at a university in which they are the minority: 80% of tenured instructors at Harvard are male.

This story at first glance might seem to be a world away from the realm of maintenance, but it reminded me of a letter I received in response to my December column, “Are women welcome?”

To wit: “I read your article a few days ago and today printed it for a colleague. She was just turned down for a superintendent's job at another wastewater treatment plant in favor of some guy who won an event at our industry's “Operator's Challenge.”  That challenge event is essentially a rodeo for wastewater treatment operators — the best cowboys win, which reminded me of your description of the firefighter approach to maintenance. The superintendent's job does not require building pumps quickly or otherwise, and does involve maintenance management and working with regulators, both of which my colleague excels at.  I think it will be a long time before women are welcome in maintenance — they have to get in the door first.”

She continues: “Because we work in a not-so-friendly-to-women industry, I would prefer that you not use my name or company name because it would be too easy to figure out who my colleague is (there are so few women here!).”

Sound familiar? Change a few of the descriptors and it could have been written by a woman professor working at Harvard, or by women in myriad male-dominated industries such as engineering, automotive and other trades. 

Another revealing example is our most recent poll question, “How do you feel about the performance of women in industrial maintenance?” Some feedback from that poll included:

  • “There are too few women [in maintenance] to make a fair comparison.”
  • “They’re not inferior; women just don’t have the background growing up with mechanical and electrical exposure as most men.”
  • “I say there is no difference. However, there are also some women who should stay out of the field.”

There were also many positive comments demonstrating that the news for women in maintenance isn’t all bad. One reader wrote: “I feel under equal circumstances, [men and women] are capable of doing the same functions and have the same results.” Another said: “I like having women in the workplace. I work in a hospital, and the women here have nerves of steel!”

And then I read this bellwether statement: “I have been able to observe many women in the craft skills. They perform their jobs equally well — if the men would just let them.” I think women in all industries can agree with that statement. The message is simple: remove the prejudice against women, let them do their jobs and get out of the way.

Some men are noticing that hiring and working with women can make a difference. One reader wrote, “I have worked in maintenance and plant operations for 18 years, most of the time as a supervisor/manager.  I often had to encourage our HR staff and my bosses to hire women, noting especially their eye for detail. Hopefully it can sway some to rethink their long-held ideals of male superiority in the fields of maintenance, construction and operations.”

It might seem like a battle that’s already been fought, but for many women, fitting into or just gaining admission to existing patriarchal cultures is a drain on their time and energy, not to mention the economy.

So, take a look at yourself. Are you of the Harvard University President Lawrence Summers school of thought when it comes to women in the workplace? If so, given the pressure that has been put on Summers since his speech and the comments of your more enlightened fellow maintenance professionals, it might be prudent to rethink your position.

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