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Deconstructing Gender Roles

Albright College senior Heather Prince researched how women fare in traditionally male-dominated roles, drawing on her own experiences operating heavy equipment at a quarry.

By Hilary Bentman

While operating massive excavators and front-end loaders at a dirt quarry, Heather Prince had a thought: This would make an interesting study.

After all, how many women operate heavy equipment at quarries? And what is it like for these women to work in such a traditionally male-dominated field?

Prince certainly had personal anecdotes of ridicule and snide comments from co-workers and strangers alike. “People would say, ‘You’re too pretty to do that work,’” she recalls. “It’s sexism disguised as compliment.”

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Albright senior Heather Prince has been operating heavy equipment at a dirt quarry since age 17.

But it wasn’t until the Albright College senior and criminology major found herself sitting in a sociology class focused on ethnographies that she had the idea to turn her personal experiences at the quarry into a full-blown research project.

That research has since morphed into an honors thesis examining not just her own experiences, but also those of other women in traditionally male-dominated roles. She has interviewed female geologists, mathematicians, firefighters and accounting firm presidents.

Ethnography is a method of firsthand research employed by sociologists, anthropologists, criminologists and others. Instead of observing a subject from afar, a researcher will actively participate in his or her subject’s life. In short, the researcher walks a mile in someone else’s shoes.

And in Prince’s case, those shoes were dirt-caked, steel-toed work boots.

“I love seeing the firsthand perspective,” she says. “I can have a better understanding.”

The New Egypt, N.J., native has a lot of firsthand perspective. She practically grew up at a family-owned quarry that specializes in custom soil blending. As a child, she helped out in the office. But by age 17, Prince was spending her summers and school breaks operating the heavy equipment onsite. For Prince, it was never strange to think she could run a front-end loader.

But others, she discovered, were not so open-minded.

“It’s an interesting experience being the only woman on a site,” says Prince, who has endured what she calls “workplace banter.” For example, if Prince was using a front-end loader to move dirt and some spilled, her male colleagues would comment that her slip was because of her gender.

Offsite, she encountered ridicule by strangers in a convenience store after her work clothes elicited questions about her job. She’s even heard snide comments from a few first dates. “Needless to say there were no second dates,” says Prince.

Interviewing women in other traditionally male-dominated jobs, Prince found experiences that mirrored her own. A female mathematician related that a man in her office didn’t believe in equal rights for women. A female president of an accounting firm told Prince she had her leg grabbed under the table by a man.

Prince is not surprised these incidents are still happening in 2017. “It disappoints me,” she says.

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For her thesis, Prince examined not only the challenges women face in traditionally male-dominated fields, but also their responses and the effectiveness of those responses.

In her own case, Prince found that if she dished the workplace banter back at her co-workers, it often worsened. But ignoring the comments might cut her off from the workplace camaraderie.

“Every person draws the line” of what he or she is willing to endure, says Prince. “If jokes make you uncomfortable, tell someone.”

A true remedy to such issues is the complete societal redefinition of gender roles, says Prince. And that has to start at birth. “The moment we’re born, we’re put into pink or blue clothes,” she says, to correspond with a baby’s gender.

And little boys are often given toy trucks and excavators to play with – the tot-sized plastic versions of the very machinery Prince operates in real life.

Albright associate professor of sociology Kennon Rice, Ph.D., who teaches the ethnography course, says Prince is “exactly the kind of deeply reflective individual who excels at field studies. She goes over and over (her experiences), and doesn't stop until she's gotten every ounce of meaning out of it.”    

And, says Rice, his student is committed “to the betterment of the social world and has the courage to take on injustice where she perceives it.”

After graduation, Prince is headed to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a master’s degree in criminology, and hopes to eventually earn her doctorate and become a professor.

In the more immediate term, she may be back at the quarry this summer, operating the excavators.

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