The employees we interviewed held contradictory attitudes toward the gender equality policy at the plant. In fact, some of the interviewees simultaneously supported the policy and ignored it. Nevertheless, almost none were against the policy. The reason why they supported the policy was not necessarily that they believed in the same jobs for both genders. Rather, they just liked the aura of modernity they thought the gender equality policy itself brought to the plant, regardless of whether the policy would actually be fully carried out. Yet, the local setting is also important—a small town in need of jobs for both genders. The interviewed managers were committed to the aim of hiring an equal number of women and men to the plant and, as claimed by one of the top leaders, “It is not only nice words. Any goal other than 50/50 is not acceptable because we live in [a] community [with] 50 percent women, 50 percent male. We will get there. But it will take years.” This quote demonstrates that achieving equal representation is a long-term goal and that they feel pressure from the local community to hire more women to the plant.
Despite the policy, the percentage of women working at the plant decreased and the turnover rate was high, up to 30% for both men and women. One of the managers pointed out that when they analyzed the turnover rate 3 years after the startup of the plant, they found, to their surprise, that men were just as likely to leave the plant as women were. The percentage of women working at the plant decreased, not only because they quit, but also because, despite the policy, fewer women than men had been hired at the plant across divisions. This turnover rate is partly because young people do not like to settle down for many years in the small community where the plant is located. When couples move to the community to work at the plant, women are usually the first to move back to larger communities after a year or two, according to one of the managers, and husbands follow soon after. Many interviewees reported that the problem is not simply the work itself, but that most employees prefer to live in communities that offer more culturally than the one where the plant is located.
Nevertheless, a common reason the managers gave for the lower percentage of women was that too few women applied for positions and that they did not have the “right” education for the plant. As one manager stated, “We need more women educated as tradesmen, technicians, engineers. We try to open the young women’s and girls’ eyes on that.” The plant’s public relations department has tried to do just that. Special women’s days are held locally during which women working at the plant present job opportunities to other women in the community. In addition, employees visit the elementary and high schools in the area, educating children about the work of the plant and encouraging both boys and girls to acquire the “right” education for the plant. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that many of the plants’ jobs do not require any special education, but simply job training.
Support for the Policy
Though employees supported the policy, they did not believe it was necessarily achievable. Our analysis revealed three main reasons behind their support, in addition to the business perspective we mentioned previously: (a) the gender equality policy is seen as modern, (b) more women working at the plant can enhance the work atmosphere and morale, and (c) women are perceived as safer and more skillful workers than men are. Rather than representing deep commitment to gender equality, the last two reasons reveal essentialist understandings of gender. As a means to comprehend the persistence of gender segregation in this context, we examine each reason in greater depth to better understand the connection between support for the policy and disbelief that it can be achieved.
The Policy is Modern
Despite the decreased percentage of women working at the plant, managers at Metalicorp were generally positive about the gender equality policy. They saw the policy as decorative—as branding that would paint the plant as progressive and cutting-edge. In the words of one woman middle manager: “I think it is a good publicity thing, but I don’t really see the need for it.” Although the publicity garnered by the policy is helpful for the image of the plant, she does not see the gender division in work as problematic. The policy was, in her mind, more like a modern “blue-sky branding.” Nevertheless she was not opposed to the policy, even if she was a bit tired of ongoing discussions about women’s position at the plant. Many of the interviewees, both women and men, referred to Iceland’s number-one standing in the world stage in terms of gender equality and saw that as a reason for the plant’s policy: “This is the way we do things in Iceland.”
Upper management supported the policy, but in part for different reasons than the employees generally. One of the managers expressed the importance of the policy in this way:
Why is it [the 50/50 policy] important for us? …Honestly, it’s nothing but business. Call it philosophy, but it’s really business because we will only be allowed to be here as long as we have a good relationship with the community.
A good relationship with the community means that the plant needs to serve and employ both women and men. However, although they were aware of the policy, most of the interviewed employees did not believe that in practice the plant would ever reach the 50/50 target, at least not in the near future. Interestingly, this gap between support for and doubt about the achievability of the policy was not seen as problematic for the employees interviewed. One young man reported: “It is good at least to have it as a goal, even if it’s not realistic.” This man, and many other interviewees, saw the gender equality policy as positive, but utopian.
Women Enhance the Work Atmosphere
The atmosphere at the plant was described by interviewees as a traditional masculine working-class culture. However, one of the most frequent answers given when asked why the plant has implemented the 50/50 policy relates to enhancing the working atmosphere. “If anything, it’s…just good for the morale, I think,” reported one male operator. A woman in production claimed that when women and men work side-by-side, the employees talk together more and are happier. “I don’t know how to describe it…it is just more lively on the shift when genders are blended.” “Women beautify our life,” said one of the male operators who supported the policy but nevertheless perceived that the position of operator was too physically demanding for women. However, he told us that he liked having a few women on each shift. Many interviewees, especially men, asserted that women have more concern for others, that they are kinder and more understanding, and that men and women make better teams “because they are different.” For example, one male employee said, “The atmosphere becomes softer and more polite when women are around.” When asked why he supports the gender equality policy, another male operator said:
You have heard about when a man says, “My wife makes me a better man.” That is the concept. We make each other better because we have a different point of view. And most women are better in caretaking than men…It’s about stability and it’s about caretaking…So a team has to be mixed with both genders…so that is the reason.
Even though both men and women opined that increased gender balance improves the working atmosphere in the plant, men more frequently voiced essentialist ideas about the presumed differences between women and men. Women were more likely to say that gender did not matter in terms of job competence and that women and men could accomplish the same working tasks. And even if the employees talk about the benefits of gender integration, our observations show that the dining room was predominantly divided by gender.
Women are Safer and Better Operators
Another reason frequently cited by both men and women for supporting the 50/50 policy is that women are considered better and safer operators. Because they possess “built-in responsibility” and “take care of everything,” women are perceived not only as caring more about their coworkers, but also as better at doing some tasks. It is widely believed in the plant that women work better than men at tasks requiring precision and tolerance. One male employee claimed, for example,
Less error is made if you have women, because they often stop and think and ask…she knows the danger, she never takes any risks, she is always particular with the pre-flags (warnings), you know, there are all kind of things like that.
Referring to driving oversized trucks and operating cranes, another male employee said, “I have seen women better at things…concerning safety…They are more likely to stop and ask…making sure that they are doing the right things.” Making mistakes in this environment can have some serious consequences so safety is an important issue and another reason why women’s presence should be solicited, according to many interviewees. One man summed up this assumption by saying: “Women are [by] nature more careful…these are known facts.” Because women are assumed to “naturally” be risk-averse, more caring, more careful, and more responsible, employees supported the 50/50 policy. We again see here that their support for the policy rested on essentialist notions of difference rather than a commitment to gender equality per se.
Hindrances in Practice
Even though the interviewees report that they support the gender equality policy in the plant, they identify clear hindrances to achieving the 50/50 objective, barriers they more or less believe will persist. The gender equality policy guarantees that at least a steady trickle of women will be present in the plant, but a gender-egalitarian plant without horizontal gender segregation is, despite general support for the policy, not of a special concern to most interviewees. Employees gave three main reasons for why they think the policy is unrealistic and ultimately will not succeed: (a) Traditional views on gender persist in the region, which will prevent adequate numbers of women from seeking employment at the plant; (b) 12-h shifts interfere with women’s domestic duties; and (c) jobs available at the plant involve too much physical strain for women. We examine each reason in greater depth to better understand the contradiction between support for the workplace policy and disbelief that it will be achieved.
Traditional Views on Gender and Work
Several interviewees told us directly that the main obstacle to reaching the 50/50 target rests in the stereotypical perspectives of potential and actual employees. As one of the male operators explained: “I have [a] lot of girlfriends, and they always say, like, ‘I would never, never in my life work that kind of job.’”
Beyond what we heard directly from interviewees, it was clear that traditional attitudes regarding an appropriate gender hierarchy persisted. A survey conducted by the plant’s gender equality committee shows that skepticism about the 50/50 target is strongest among young men employed at the plant. Some of our interviews helped to explain this skepticism. For instance, one woman who worked as a middle manager reported that she experienced some resistance to her authority from younger men:
The worst age is the thirty to forty. There is something in there, they are themselves trying to balance home, new babies, wife, the work, climbing up … and then big mama comes and tells them off. No, that’s not the deal (laugh).
Some employees were uncomfortable with the fact that women are sometimes hired over men to achieve gender balance. For example, one young male operator told us he supported the gender equality policy and the 50/50 target; it is “…a good idea, of course…because I just think that everyone should be equal.” A few minutes later, he relayed that he and a woman friend applied for the same job at another plant, but because that company was trying to improve its own gender balance, he was turned down. He explained his reaction:
It pissed me off. Yeah. Because I really needed a job. And it pissed me off because my friend got a job…I didn’t get the job but she did get the job. Just because she was a woman. I—yeah, I have to be honest. It pissed me off a lot.
He supported the gender equality policy, until the ideals behind it affected him adversely. A male administrator echoed the same sentiment: “Overall, I think people are pretty satisfied with the policy,” although he knows men who have “been pissed off” when they were not promoted. Similarly, a female technician, who also said she supported the policy, noted that other employees, both men and women, were tired of the extra attention the female employees received by working in a male-dominated area, and she agreed: “It is getting a little bit too much sometimes about these women.” She relayed that her male coworkers call for men’s days or men’s lunches, which are similar to women’s days and lunches that are used to call attention to and celebrate women working in the plant.
Shift Work Interferes with Women’s Domestic Duties
Most of the interviewees, but not necessarily the mothers themselves, said that the 12-h shifts at the plant work against women’s equal participation at the plant because they are not family-friendly, especially for mothers of small children. One male operator explained: “Usually the women spend more time with the children, so 12 hours away from home is a lot of hours.” Or, in the words of another male employee, “The shifts are too long. And keeping in mind that in general I think women are still more responsible for running the home, it’s proven more difficult for them to adapt to that.” An ongoing discussion has existed about offering the female operators the option to job share. It was frequently mentioned in our interviews that women do not return to the plant after pregnancy because of the shifts.
Only a few interviewees mentioned that shiftwork is not good for fathers. One of the male interviewees described it this way: “I think it’s more acceptable to have the mother in the house taking care of the children in the nights while the men go out, you know, working the night shifts…It is just a culture thing.” Nevertheless, in 2011, the plant conducted a survey about employees’ preferences for 12- versus 8-h shifts. The results showed that the majority of employees, and more women than men (60% versus 50%), wanted to maintain the 12-h shifts. “This came as a shock to me,” one male worker, who thought that most resistance to the 12-h shifts came from women, told us. A female operator, a mother of three children, told us that she liked the 12-h shifts because they gave her more days off from work compared to 8-h shifts. Thus, the discourse constructing 12-h shifts as problematic for mothers was strong in the plant, even if it did not necessarily come from the mothers themselves. Despite the survey we mentioned, the plant has now changed the shift system from 12 to 8 h.
Too Much Physical Strain for Women
The interviews illustrate that norms of dealing with physical strain, dirt, and dust are related to what it means to be a man in the plant. Even with management support behind the 50/50 policy, more male than female managers and operators asserted that an operator’s working tasks are too difficult for women. The perception that this work is too difficult will keep the plant from reaching the 50/50 target. For example, speaking about a section of the plant where the work is considered to be dangerous and arduous, one man in administration reported: “Actually I think it is questionable whether it’s ethical to try to stuff [this section to] 50/50. I think it’s highly doubtful. And I fear that many women who have left [this section] have not done so physically unharmed.”
Some of the female employees who work outside of production, which includes the section in question, share this opinion. One of them said:
Women are not built for this work…in general, this is not a woman’s job…We women are smaller; most of us are smaller than men. The equipments (sic) are made for bigger people, and you need to use muscles that we women don’t have…That’s just biological. There is nothing we can do about it.
However, the plant redesigned the equipment to be more ergonomically appropriate for a variety of physical sizes. Nevertheless, a female supervisor who works outside of the production side said:
Personally, I think that some women are just not made for it. And a lot of women just go into [this section] and…they’re getting scared. And if you’re scared, you’re doing mistakes. And if you’re doing mistakes, there will be accidents.
However, as we pointed out before, women were seen as making fewer mistakes than men. The plant had analyzed the accident rate by gender, although management did not share the findings with us.
Despite these arguments, the female operators we interviewed who worked in this physically demanding section of production—some of them quite small, slim, and “feminine”—disagreed with the picture that was drawn of these jobs being too demanding for women. When asked which tasks were the most difficult or physically demanding, one of them said: “None of them. It can be tiring to walk long distances, but no, none of the tasks is heavy or physically demanding.” The employees also pointed out that not all men are strong: “You can find both women and men who can and cannot do this work,” one male operator told us. Another man revealed: “We guys sometimes help each other.”
The gender equality policy has been enforced at the macro level in the plant through the institutionalization of the policy itself, the establishment of a gender equality committee, official statements, public announcements, and meetings. Much less attention has been paid to how gender operates at the micro level interactionally within the plant or how traditional masculine working culture can (re)produce gender stereotypes and facilitate horizontal segregation. Employees who support the policy are not bothered by inattention to these details because, generally, they do not seem to expect any action on behalf of gender equality, other than to welcome women to the plant and ensure that the working tasks are as secure and easy as possible for both women and men. These two initiatives are seen enough to brand the plant as “modern.”