The Experience of Women in Men-Dominated Industries in Malaysian Army

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This research topic was motivated by my personal experiences and perceptions as a woman working in the mining environment, a historically and still highly male-dominated industry. I felt the contribution of women was undervalued and not highly regarded by our more populous male colleagues. I experienced the environment as sexist, gender-oppressive, coupled with a patriarchal culture and “boys club” mentality. The organisational structures and decision making were militaristic and difficult for me as a woman to function under and fit into. This made me question how other women working in various historically male-dominated environments and professions experienced their work. Were there similarities or differences between women who found themselves working in such positions? What strategies were employed by them in order to have tenure and succeed in these environments? As a woman, I personally felt deterred from pursuing a career in such a male-dominated environment as I perceived it to be highly stressful and difficult, if not impossible, for women to be appreciated and valued in relation to their male counterparts.

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Historically, male-dominated environments in South Africa such as heavy manufacturing and production were built upon and embedded in intense racial and class struggles (Webster, 1978). These environments only provided room for a male workforce, mostly due to the immigrant nature of the labour. White and black fractions of the working class were irreconcilably divided to the point where the economic and social position of the former rested on the political and economic oppression of the latter (Webster, 1978). In such heavy manufacturing and production industries, which historically made no provision for women and even in present day remain highly patriarchal in nature, it comes as no surprise that the role of women is still mostly confined to clerical and support roles.

The Department of Minerals and Energy Database of Mining Operations (2004) reported that of the total number of women employed in the mining sector, the highest percentage (32%) were employed in clerical roles. Often, women working in male-dominated organisations and positions are less inclined to see themselves as leaders or to seek leadership positions (Jackson, 2001) which is often where the lowest concentration of women are placed. The Database of Mining Operations (2004) illustrated that only 3% of women in the mining sector were employed as senior officials, managers and owner managers. In general, women still have to contend with the problem of being able to manage themselves and fulfil both their age old stereotypical obligations as homemakers and their obligations as paid workers (Franks, Schurink & Fourie, 2006).

Prior to examining male-dominated professions and environments, it is worthwhile to look at the macro-economic picture, as policies, legislation and structures at this level often cascade down, directly effecting individual organisations. There is a neglect of gender analysis and an inability to take into account the impact on women in the drafting of economic policies (Taylor, 1997). This is not surprising as males dominate the process of national planning in business, government and labour sectors (Taylor, 1997). Coupled with this are the traditional sex stereotypes that women’s primary social roles are wife and mother whereas men play the primary role of breadwinner (Franks et al., 2006). In essence, the macro-economic policies reinforce unequal power relations pushing women to the periphery of the work sector (Taylor, 1997). Although this is changing and some women are becoming increasingly significant in male-dominated spheres, I feel the rate at which this is happening is disconcertingly slow and nowhere near the level where sex inequalities and discrimination are alleviated to satisfactory levels.

A study of women working in male-dominated professions and environments is of great scientific value for reasons that will henceforth be discussed. Historically, studies of women in employment have focused on investigating preconceived concepts and themes predominantly in professions and environments where women are conventionally employed, namely in domestic work and education systems (Kretzschmar, 1995). Previous research has highlighted particular themes such as: legal and legislative policies that directly affect women (Walker, 1990; Bazilli, 1991); work-home interaction of working females (Van Aarde Mostert, 2008); stress in high level career women (Van Den Berg & Van Zyl, 2008); gender perspectives on career preferences (Urban, 2010); and women and affirmative action (Mathur-Helm, 2005). Relatively few studies published in South African journals have taken a purely qualitative approach to experiences of women employed in male-dominated professions and environments with the goal of determining emerging trends and themes.

In South Africa, women’s participation in the work force has risen and in total, women’s percentage share in employment increased from 39.1% to 43.3% between 1995-2002 (Oosthuizen & Bhorat, 2004). By the first quarter in 2011, labour force participation rate for women was reportedly at 47.6%, increasing by 0.9% to 48.5% in the first quarter of 2012 ( Where female employment has grown, it has mostly been in self-employment and in the informal sector (Casale & Posel, 2002). This illustrates that females are still a minority within the formal sector, a minority status that is exacerbated in male-dominated professions. However, heavy investment in women’s education, changes in labour legislation, and the sharing of family responsibilities with men have established the preconditions for women to equally participate in labour markets (International Labour Office, 2009). This equal participation in the labour market has given women unprecedented options to pursue previously male-dominated professions. With the increasing availability of such options for women, questions arise as to what has been done to prepare women (beyond merely being encouraged to enter such environments) for successful integration into male-dominated professions and if such environments are at all suitable for these women in their current state?

It was of value, from an Industrial and Organisational Psychology perspective, to explore the implications of employing women in male-dominated professions and environments. A study conducted by Benjamin and Louw-Potgieter (2008) found that Industrial Psychologists spend 34% of their time in the workplace carrying out interventions and consulting activities, a clear move towards a strategic direction for the field. In light of this, exploring the experiences of women working in male-dominated professions and environments may enable informed recommendations based on solid research to be outlined. These recommendations may support Industrial and Organisational Psychologists and their respective organisations to assist women with better integration within male-dominated professions, thereby increasing their chances of retention and success. Comprehensive preparation and intervention for females entering such environments should be given more focus and not be left to chance.

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