Workplace diversity produces creativity
In the 1970s, superstition and fear of women in the coal mines was a combination of macho pride and old-fashioned sexist notions of the role of women in society. Many miners believed having women underground would take the men’s minds off their work, resulting in careless and unsafe work on the male miner’s part. Some miners vowed to make the gender interlopers pay for making their work less safe. A portion of miners were determined to hinder the women in any way possible. Many times I heard a distraught miner exclaim, “Women belong in the home. If they can’t do the job like a man and carry their own weight, they shouldn’t be here.” Many of the women were single with dependent children. They were down in the mine trying to make a living for their family just like the men.
One of my first experiences with women underground occurred when at the beginning of a shift, my boss delivered a new female miner to my section belthead to shovel spilt coal. As usual, I left my crew in the dinner hole while I made the required gas and air checks. When I returned no one was to be found. I ran to the production faces and then to the mantrip to look for them. Then, I smelled a unique odor, perfume in the air. I followed my nose straight to the belthead where I found my whole crew encircling the new female miner.
Another situation occurred when I was assigned a female buggy runner, Donna, to replace an absent crew member. Although a new machine operator, she did an adequate job, every bit as good as or better than some male operators. During the shift, I needed her to go to a remote part of the section and pick up some heavy locust posts to support one of our next cuts. I sent a couple of miners with her to assist in the lifting. After they were gone a few minutes, I realized I needed more posts than I had originally asked for and walked to the posts supply area.
Just as I rounded the last turn, I watched as two men tackled Donna. I ran to her assistance but before I reached her, she used her feet to good advantage. One guy got it in the crotch and the other was sent flying across the entry. When she got up, I asked her if she wanted to press charges. She refused due to fear of union reprisals. Many of the violations and sexual assaults of the new women miners were ignored out of fear.
The disrespect women experienced as they broke the gender barrier was appalling. The leader’s responsibility is to protect all employees from danger and disrespectful behaviors. Research shows that diversity of race, culture, and gender in the workplace produces more creativity and productivity. The treatment of women in traditional male occupations has been as difficult as any other pioneering endeavor. As America evolves, all leaders must strive to make the workplace safe for all employees regardless of their demographics.
R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” call him at 740-629-4536 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.