The steel industry is one of those industries where women are clearly underrepresented. To be fair, things have improved from the day when I started my studies, but even now there’s still a male bias.
When I started my first year of engineering studies, there were five girls in an engineering student population of several hundred in my year. This could no longer be explained by the fact that, as in previous generations, girls tended not to go to university, and other branches such as biology, psychology or the languages showed a male / female balance that was closer to parity.
Consequently my metallurgical studies, and my subsequent years as a researcher at university were virtually female-free zones. To be fair, there was the occasional female student, but amongst the staff in Professor Dilewijn’s lab the only female members were the cleaning lady and the secretary – and his laboratory was not atypical in that respect.
The situation was less skewed at Iscor : there were a larger number of female engineers, and some of the shop floor jobs such inspectors and crane drivers were for whatever reason reserved for women. Presumably this was because the work force had to be filled from a smaller pool of whites-only people, meaning that discrimination of the black population in some ironic way reduced the discrimination against women in the work force.
Mind you, some jobs must have been reserved for males in the actual job description, because I still remember that they had to bend the rules somewhat when one of the technicians in the testhouse had a sex change, and post-operation no longer officially fulfilled the criteria of the job.
Back in the UK, at Allied Steel & Wire, it was back to a male-dominated work force and management team. Again the female roles were reserved to the classic ones of secretaries, cleaners and the office of clerks handling the accounts. Things started to change somewhat when I joined British Steel, although this may have been in part because an R&D environment is possibly thought of as more suitable to female sensibilities than the rough-and-tumble of the shop floor.
Still, it has become clear over the years that a larger proportion of the graduates were female, to the point that in the later years they were in the majority. Hence what would have been an unusual occurrence started to become fairly commonplace, with female graduates taking up middle management positions interacting directly with the shop floor.
But then I noticed something that’s still puzzles me : even though the number of female graduates continued to increase, the same could not be said of the number directly interacting at shop floor level. On the other hand, if you moved from one of the office blocks on plant to the central General Offices, you noticed a vast increase of the number of women. I still haven’t figured out whether this is a matter of self-selection, where individual decisions for a cleaner, less noisy environment meant you have larger numbers of women staying in their preferred environment rather than in the muck and grime of the shop floor.
Another thing that’s also noticeable is the sharply diminishing representation of women as you climb up the corporate ladder : whereas graduates now have a majority of women, and the middle management ranks have their fair share (even though it is distributed in a patchy way), senior management ranks are still predominantly male. Is it only a matter of time until the male bias is eradicated at this level as well, or is the way people are promoted in the steel industry still biased towards males ?