This study, produced by the Coal Employment Project, was the first comprehensive study of women's experiences of sexual harassment in coal mines. Based on surveys of fifty-nine female miners, this report described the experiences of female miners and how the issue of sexual harassment arose among women trying to break into coal mining. This early publication reflected female coal miners' concerns and activism about sexual harassment.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE COAL INDUSTRY
A SURVEY OF WOMEN MINERS
Connie White, Barbara Angle
and Marat Moore
Coal Employment Project
Post Office Box 3403
Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830
The following pages contain the results of a sexual harassment survey developed by Coal Employment Project and mailed to women miners throughout the nation's coalfields. Many women miners not only answered the lengthy questionnaire but also wrote letters explaining their feelings and experiences with this sensitive subject.
This report contains excerpts from those surveys and letters, a comparison of the results to sexual harassment surveys of women workers in general, and a special section on advice that respondents offer to their daughters or to other potential women miners of the future.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE COAL INDUSTRY
A SURVEY OF WOMEN MINERS
"Things written on the walls. The girlie pictures hung on all the machinery and roofboards. Comments made by fellow workers. You try and go in there with the attitude that it is not going to bother you, but day in and day out for a long period of time, and it does."
— An Illinois Woman Miner, 1980
Clearly, sexual harassment has always been a problem for many women miners; however, it has only been in the past few years that most women have been willing to talk about it publicly. Even at the First National Conference of Women Coalminers, participants could not yet discuss the problem openly in discussion groups. A breakthrough came when one woman anonymously wrote an article for The Coalmining Women's Support Team News! Immediately we received several calls from women who told us they were very glad we had published the article. Many of these women told us how relieved they were to see the subject brought out in the open, and one of the comments at The Secon National Conference of Women Coalminers, Sexual Harassment Workshop, was this: "When I saw Coal Employment Project several months ago, when they did their first thing on sexual harassment … I wrote them a letter and said ‘At last! Somebody else has been going through all this! I thought it was just me!’" At that workshop, which was run twice and packed to capacity both times, we heard incident after incident told by women miners. They told of their reactions: fear, wondering if somehow they had caused the harassment, sometimes indecision regarding telling anyone else of the problem. But even though many women were understandably fearful and tentative in their efforts to deal with harassment, and hesitant to repeat what had happened, several women told "success stories" about the resolution of the conflict. One West Virginia miner reported this incident:
I couldn't imagine the problems other women had until … shut down and I went to work for …. This one foreman made it clear to me that either I played his game — went to bed with him — or I would only get four hours work per night. But if I played, I would get twelve hours work per night. And the way I handled that problem, I told him I didn't need the money that bad, and besides that, from his looks, it looked too much like hard labor to me …."
Workshop Moderator: "Did he retaliate against you?"
"I was put on the beltheads and I had four beltheads to take care of by myself. I didn't complain, I took care of the beltheads and then a few weeks later the union men, they didn't like the idea of me taking care of four beltheads. They said it wasn't fair, that up to that point they had had one person per belthead and they didn't want me taking care of four beltheads no more. So that ended that problem."
But not all the stories had such happy endings. As the miners talked with each other at the meeting, a strategy developed. Coal Employment Project should design a survey and get women miners to fill it out, they decided. It was important to know, had many women in the mines suffered from harassment, what forms the harassment took and what the women were doing about it. It was also important to know what their legal rights were in this area. And finally, it was important to share ideas of how to best deal with harassment, and to keep up the dialogue on the problem. These ideas were put in the form of recommendations, and were adopted by the conference as a whole.
A survey questionnaire was developed by Coal Employment Project staff. From talking with miners, we knew basically what some of the problems were, so we knew to include questions on physical attack, on suggestions that a woman might advance faster if she cooperated sexually with her boss, etc. But we also wanted to include questions on community and church response to the woman's choice of career, other occupations and rate of pay of participants, questions about support from other women workers, and more. After all the questions were typed and ready, the survey turned out to be six pages long!
We sent it out to a test group of six women miners, who sent back their comments, recommendations, etc. After a few minor changes, CEP was ready to send the survey out. We mailed out the survey to the two hundred women miners whose correct addresses we had. People who know about such things told us to expect a return of about ten percent or even less, since the form was so long. They said this low rate of return is normal when there is no "reward" to motivate people to take the time to fill such a survey out.
We mailed the two hundred surveys out in early September, and by the end of October, our cut-off date, we had received fifty-nine — a return rate of almost thirty percent, or three times what we were told to expect! Not only had all these people taken the considerable time it required to fill out the surveys, but many of them had written pages of extra information. Many of these letters asked for more information about their rights in a sexual harassment situation. Most contained words of encouragement to us in our efforts to get a clear picture of the pervasiveness of harassment in the mines. And many expressed the same hope as this Illinois miner: "My main concern at present is not for myself but for future women miners. I do not want anyone to go through what I have experienced this past year."
Of the fifty-nine women who participated in this study, fifty-four chose to identify themselves by name and by identifying the mine where they work. These women are miners in ten states: Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Their average age when hired as a miner was twenty-nine with several being in their forties when hired, as well as a few becoming miners while still teenagers. When they first began working as miners, twenty-three of them were married, twenty-one single, fourteen divorced and one widowed. The average study participant had 2.9 years mining experience, with some having worked as a miner for only a few months, and some working as long as six years. When asked what job other than mining they had held the longest, answers varied from store clerk to social worker to horse trainer, with probably the greatest number listing factory work and waitressing as
former occupations. There were also several former teachers, secretaries and homemakers among the study participants.
One of the most startling findings of the survey relates to the current and former incomes of study participants. These miners currently average $17,302 gross income for a full year's work. That is contrasted with an average income of $5,992 in the year before they became miners. That "women's work" pays only a fraction of what "men's work" pays is certainly evident here. [None: Since salaries have risen on the average about ten percent per year, and study participants have worked as miners an average of about three years, the figure of $5,992 could probably be adjusted to $7,789 to represent the average income of today, had those women miners continued to work in their former lowpaying jobs. Those women who were homemakers or otherwise held nonpaying jobs were not considered in this average.]
The Mine Environment
Some miners have told us that mining, especially underground, is "a whole different world" and that this contributes to the unique nature of sexual harassment in the mines. A former miner describes it for us:
"The mines are truly an alien world, peopled by individuals who must wear protective equipment, much like earthlings visiting a strange planet. Miners are supposedly protected by a self-rescuer that will provide them with a breathing apparatus in case of … an explosion. Thick leather belts support this device and also a portable battery with a cord and light attached. This [the light] is clipped onto the cap and provides the only illumination underground.
"The dark of the inner earth mocks the false dark experienced at night. Even in the blackest of winter's dark, some light breaks through, whether from cars, houses, stars or the reflection of life about. Underground there is no light except that carried by a miner on her hardhat. She learns to use it like another sense.
"Men … and women's … personalities change in this dank environment. Emotions become more intense. There is pride at doing a hard job few would choose to do; at working in the most dangerous profession existing. And there is resentment by some at women attempting and doing the same hard job."
But the women persist. Money was the overwhelming reason given for working as miners. There is also pride in their answers as to reasons for mining: "It was my calling." "I am the third generation in my family to dig coal." And this from an Illinois woman with two years' mining experience:
"I'm not the kind of a person to stand in a bank, pretty clothes and smile being happy making minimum wage. (I'm not knocking it because I know it's right for some people.) But I'm telling you I can come out of that mine some mornings dirty and tired and still feel like one of the luckiest people in the world."
Sexual Harassment in the Mines
This survey represents the first comprehensive study of sexual harassment in the coal mines. Before this time, we had heard stories of isolated attacks on women, had even helped litigate some of these cases, but still didn't know if these instances were very unusual or happened with regularity.
According to our survey, seventeen percent of the respondents have been physically attacked while working as miners. These attacks may be attempts at "initiating" new workers (a tradition whose revival coincided with the entry of women into the mines), spanking with cap boards, attacks or fights with co-workers, or efforts at sexual contact. There were no reported rapes.
An Illinois miner describes her experience with physical harassment:
"It has not been easy to say the least. I have been in three fights. One man literally picked me up and threw me against the wall. Nothing personal, really, he just hates women!"
Ten percent of the respondents say they have been searched for smoking materials in a sexually suggestive manner. (Federal law mandates that coal companies institute a program of physical searches of miners for smoking materials, since smoking is prohibited in the mines.)
Fifty-three percent of the respondents reported that they have been propositioned by their bosses on at least one occasion, and one-third of those women who were propositioned felt that their work environment or advancement possibilities would be negatively affected if they turned their boss down. Typical comments were:
"He told me if I played along with him I wouldn't have to shovel belt. I didn't play so I ended up shoveling half the belts in the mines."
— West Virginia
"It [the propositions] made me feel that I didn't know what would happen next."
— West Virginia
"I was told by my girlfriend who is a coalminer that if I went out with our foreman he would make it a lot easier on me. I never went out with him, but I do get a lot of shitty jobs. Come to think of it she has it a lot easier. I wonder …."
— West Virginia
Seventy-six percent of the women reported being propositioned by a co-worker. (That this number is higher than the percentage propositioned by bosses is understandable. During the course of her work, a miner has many co-workers but only a few bosses.) These propositions from co-workers seem to cause fewer problems for the women workers, since thirty-five percent of the women reported feeling "uncomfortable" at these propositions, while seventy percent of the women propositioned by the bosses felt "uncomfortable" or "mad." Sixty-five percent of the women felt neutral to positive about propositions from their co-workers or that their "reaction varied, depending on the man." One of the most common reactions to these propositions was "it was a joke," or "I just laughed it off." When a co-worker was causing trouble, it seems that more women are able to handle that successfully on their own, or with the help of other co-workers.
Sixty-three percent report that they know of other women at their mine who are bothered by sexual harassment.
The sexual harassment issue overlaps the discrimination question. A Kentucky miner has this to say:
"Sexual harassment can be in so many forms it's hard to describe. Most serious harassment comes from management. Especially to new women who are a little afraid, unsure and dependent. A type of hero worship develops with their foreman …. These men seem to be intrigued with the woman miner. I think it is because we are so different from the norm. Anyway, after the trap is set and spring, the woman's troubles are just beginning when she tries to get out. it's almost impossible. Even without a word being said, you know the pressure is on because you aren't cooperating. You are moved to a less desirable job — mud, low top, accusing you of sleeping on the job (called before upper management and reprimanded), just whatever is the worst they have to offer. And slurs on your morality, political beliefs and religion … "
The miners told us about other kinds of harassment they faced. This West Virginia miner echos a common complaint:
"The harassment I experienced was pornography. The men very soon became aware it offended me. I asked one young man to not bring it to the dinner hole, and the boss, a Christian, also asked him to not bring it underground."
And from Pennsylvania:
"I've had vulgar things written about me and my friends on the walls and timbers."
All sexual harassment is discrimination, but not all discrimination is sexual harassment. According to Federal law, any unwelcome sexual advance, proposition, or other sexually aggressive conduct can be considered sexual harassment when any of the following conditions are ment: (1) When submission to harassment is made a condition of employment; (2) When the worker's response to the harassment is used as a basis for decisions affecting employment, such as job training and advancement; (3) When such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Even though the focus of this survey was sexual harassment, we also wanted to know what other forms of discrimination the women are facing. Thirty-four percent believe they would have been hired sooner if they were men. Thirty-six percent believe that they have been given harder, more dangerous, or less rewarding jobs than their male co-workers. Forty-seven percent believe they would have gotten better jobs inside the mines by now, had they been men.
In fact, probably the most common complaint of the respondents concerned on-the-job discrimination, not sexual harassment. The comments below reflect this problem. [Editor's note to non-miners: "white cap" refers to an inexperienced miner, "younger" means less seniority, and "committeeman" refers to a UMWA safety committee person at the mine.]
"I do experience job discrimination. The mine foreman told me he would not turn me loose underground on a unitrac machine. He said I should come to work early and run it outside! My section boss would pass me over when a man was absent and each crew member should move up a notch. My local committeeman had a talk with the section boss and it is straightened out. However he still ‘plans’ for me to fail since I don't get task training."
— West Virginia
"I've had bosses who would give me the worse jobs in the section and give the men easier ones. I've had bosses who wouldn't let me have a buddy to work with. Even as a white cap, I was made to work alone."
"When I first started the job, I was hired in as a trainee with six men. They had me shoveling the first six months and the men that were hired in at the same time were on sections with the equipment. And now I'm classified as a motor operator and they have me running parts on a jeep. With a younger man on the motor!"
— West Virginia
Harassment is frequently from sources outside the actual job site. Thirty-six percent said they had been snubbed by miners' wives A Pennsylvania miner says, "I've had threatening phone calls from
jealous wives whose husbands have worked with me." While several other women miners said they had been "embarassed" or "verbally attacked" by miners' wives in public places such as the grocery store.
One miner told us, "It hurt my feelings. Underground I am a coalminer, but I am still very much a woman and have not acted ‘mannish.’"
Correlation of Harassment to Other Variables
As far as we can tell from our survey, harassment may happen to a miner regardless of her age or marital status. We could find no significant factor that would predict the incidence of harassment except this one: Of those women who suffered physical attack, only a couple were at or above the average age when hired of our sample, twenty-nine. Most were younger.
We conclude that no women miner can feel safe from harassment because she is older, or married, or considers herself less sexually attractive than other women. Our survey indicates that these things do not "protect" women from harassment.
Comparison to Other Sexual Harassment Surveys
Are women miners harassed more often than other women workers? We examined some surveys done with working women in general, and the overall incidence of harassment of women miners seems to be about the same as for those other women workers. However, it seems that the incidence of physical harassment is higher for women miners — especially if the "initiations" such as spankings, etc. are considered. Does this greater incidence of physical harassment reflect the kind of physical work done by coal miners? Does the darkness, the isolation of the mining environment, invite the more overt kinds of harassment? We can only speculate about this, but we did note some references to this from survey respondents.
Another factor in the harassment of women miners, and of other women workers in non-traditional jobs, is the resentment of the co- workers — the feeling that the women "don't belong" there in the first place. In some cases this resentment was the overriding factor in a woman's decision to quit her mining job — even more so than any overt sexual harassment.
From a West Virginia miner:
"I was the first hired …. The bosses were terrible and the men had a hard time accepting us. They resented us being there. Someone was always saying something smart. Five years ago I didn't know how to handle it, but now things would be different. I'd love to go back to work there for a while. I'd take the kinks out of a lot of them."
And from an anonymous woman miner:
"I feel I am lucky. I have had remarks made that I didn't like. If I Ignore it they usually don't say any more."
The fact that some women miners feel "lucky" that they have to deal with "only" resentful remarks probably says something about the prevalence of hostility toward women miners. We saw some encouraging trends, however, that are a tribute to these women's strength, courage and humor. The West Virginia miner, above, and the following Illinois miner exemplify the self-confidence and assertiveness that helps pull them through difficult situations:
"My boss didn't know how to deal with me. He kept me with the roughest guys and away from my good buddies. Deep down I know my boss resented me. So I was sure to keep him on his toes!"
The resentment sometimes was so great, however, that humor and assertiveness was not enough. A minority of women miners, such as this Kentucky miner, reported that at times their safety has been threatened by resentful bosses or co-workers:
"I was working on a dead section — often alone — and I was afraid for a time he would walk in — pull a rock on me — and leave me to be found an accident victim."
Support for Women Miners
Even though many miners told of harassment, survey respondents were almost as likely to report the complete absence of harassment as they were to note instances of it. From Pennsylvania:
"After hearing some of the incidents other women miners go through, I am happy to be working with the guys I work with and couldn't imagine anything like this happening at our mine."
Also from Pennsylvania:
"It really shocks me — some of the problems our sisters have in the mines. I guess I can't imagine these things because we don't have any serious problems at our mine. I have seen or been in situations where the bosses and co-workers have practically bent over backwards to help the women miners out."
Help from the Union
Many women saw a strong local union as their best protection against sexual harassment. From Pennsylvania:
"Personally, I believe that the Union can help more than anything … in order to make the Union work for you, you must be involved."
Even though a few respondents mentioned insensitive union officials as one stumbling block to eliminating sexual harassment at their mines, the majority clearly depended on their committeemen to help them with many problems including all sorts of unfair treatment on the job. Many women named union officials as the first people they would turn to when faced with a harassment problem. Others have pointed out that even if the harasser were a union brother, other men in the union would let him know that this was not the way to treat a union sister. During our workshops on sexual harassment, several women miners have recommended that union committeemen and officers receive more training on dealing with sexual harassment. (For a more detailed discussion of dealing with harassment through union mechanisms, see the
Coal Employment Project booklet, Sexual Harassment in the Mines: Bringing the Issue to Light. Ordering information to follow.)
Advice to Daughters and New Women Miners
Clearly, the pioneer women miners of today have learned a great deal and are anxious to pass their knowledge along to their daughters or other potential women miners of the future. Many women miners believe that the best way to avoid sexual harassment is to become a knowledgeable, competent worker, as this Pennsylvania miner recommends:
"My suggestion to help stop harassment is to become one of the crew, but not one of the guys. Always do your work to the best of your ability, but if you need help, ask for it …. Be willing to learn — in fact, make it a point to learn everything that you can about the mine and machines. Study and learn both state and federal laws. The men respect anyone (man or woman) who knows that makes that mine work. If you have finished your assigned job, go help someone else. If you are in the Union, go to the meetings and read the Journal. Have a sense of humor … laughing … makes the work day easier."
Many women miners say it's necessary to walk a thin line between caution and friendliness, between aloofness and becoming "one on the guys." Almost all stress the need for maintaining some psychological distance between themselves and men miners, and emphasize avoidance of behaviors that may be misinterpreted.
"Speak to everyone but don't be too friendly. Don't swear or involve yourself with stories or jokes. Keep conversations on jobs, children and family things."
"You have to make your own way and not let anyone get anything on you. If I had got mad at everything that has been said to me instead of laughing a lot of it off, I would have stayed in trouble."
"Set your own limits, and find a few friends you can trust. You should pull your share of the work and never say anything bad about anyone."
— West Virginia
In studying the results of this survey, the Coal Employment Project staff has concluded that although the majority of women miners do not experience overt sexual forms of harassment most of the time, sexual harassment is a significant problem for many women miners.
Again we were amazed (as we have been so many times in the past) at the courage and strength of these pioneers. We felt encouraged that, even as we read about the injustices and harassment faced by many women miners, their determinination to fight and overcome clearly came through. An Illinois miner said it all:
"The downright fact is no matter what kind of harassment is going on — a lot or a little — there should be none and I have no intention of being quiet about it. I would be very happy to work with you in any way to let people know that Women Miners Can Dig Coal But We Don't and Won't Dig Sexual Harassment! Even though there are problems … I really like being a pink hard hatted coal miner."
To assist miners and those working with miners, Coal Employment Project has produced a free brochure, Sexual Harassment in the Mines — Legal Rights and Legal Remedies, and a twenty-eight-page booklet, Sexual Harassment in the Mines — Bringing the Issue to Light. The booklet offers many ideas, most of them collected from women miners, on dealing with sexual harassment. It sells for $2.00, but no one will be refused a copy for lack of money. To get these publications, send your request to: Coal Employment Project, Post Office Box 3403, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830.
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