31 Jan 2019

Digging for an adequate portrayal of women in male-dominated fields

Reports on women in male-dominated industries are often sexist and sensationalist, focusing on their physical appearance and presenting them as exotic and delicate “flowers” among their rough male colleagues.

Editorial Team
Nataša Vajagić NewsMavens, Europe
Digging for an adequate portrayal of women in male-dominated fields - NewsMavens
Digger, PixaBay

In January 2019, the Croatian daily “Jutarnji” published an article with the header “A woman in a male business”, and the lead:


The article focuses on Magdalena Detel, a young woman who, along with her friend Marija, was the first female student enrolled in the digger-operator program at the Craft and Industrial Construction School in Zagreb.  


The article begins with a story from their first day in class at the construction school:

"Boys, you have to know that a digger is a powerful machine. It’s rough, expensive, gives you a sense of strength (..) but also fear, because it requires knowledge and it can be life threatening. (...)" This was the first thing Professor Marinković told the students at the beginning of new school year. And then two girls entered the room.  

"Hey, girls, you're at the wrong school", someone yelled from the back row. The professor initially also thought that maybe they [had gotten] lost. One looked like a pocket Venus with sky-blue eyes, the other, 1.82m tall with chestnut hair, looked like a runway model. They caused a real stir when they confidently entered the classroom.

The article continues with Magdalena’s retelling of how she and Marija had chosen the program, testimonies of her love for vehicles since a young age, and their experience of being the only female students in the class. She described the first day as traumatizing, but said that things gradually fell into place with both the professors and the rest of their classmates. Detel also described the attitude she faced in construction sites where the students did their practice work:

Of course, they were surprised when they saw us. ‘What are you doing here, kid?’ they would ask me and say ‘If you’re no good, we’ll have to kick you out’, [and then] burst into laughter. But eventually they would accept me and I’d finish my practice without problems.

The journalist also interviewed the school staff, who gave their own view of having two girls in an otherwise all-male program. The director of the school gave this statement:

We were surprised that the girls came here, among the wolves -- that is, among the boys. The boys can otherwise be a time bomb, you know, youth-madness, but every class that had at least a few girls was lovely. The guys would behave more responsibly and more attentively. I would love if we could attract more girls. We currently have only seven in the whole school, in the glazier and the sign painter courses. There were no more girls in the digger-operator program after those two. I hope this will change."

Their teacher stated that the girls eventually became his favourite students:

If you ask me who I would have entrusted with that robust machine now? I'd say one of these two. Why? Because they are organized and responsible. (...) It was really a shock to everyone when we first saw them in the classroom. Two beautiful and gentle creatures can hardly be connected to diggers, construction sites, dust (...)

To most people, their first associations with construction workers are digging, drinking beer and eating a large salami sandwich. The girls really worked hard and learned everything they needed to. After that, you realize there's no difference. Magdalena and Marija were eventually established as authorities in that class.


As with many similar reports of women in male-dominated industries, the first thing that was shared with the readers was that the girls are -- pretty. One is described as a “pocket Venus” and another as resembling a runway model, despite the fact that, at the time when they enrolled in the school, they were both minors.

Source:  Facebook page “Seksizam naš svagdašnji” (Our daily sexism).

Their looks continue to factor heavily in the story, including the testimony of the teacher, who first calls them “gentle and beautiful”, and only then proceeds to express how satisfied he was with their learning success and work ethics. Their capability to do their job equally or better then the boys is continually mentioned as well, but seldom without first pointing out “typical girl stuff” such as putting on make-up in class.

Information that would have been more newsworthy than details about the young woman’s “sky-blue eyes” is left out from the article. There’s no mention of several situations she described as traumatizing or denigrating, nor were the school employees questioned about this -- as if it’s a given that young women first must endure distrust, ridicule and rejection to earn respect from their classmates or coworkers. Moreover, the girls are portrayed as “calming factors” among “unruly” boys according to the statement of the school director, who expresses his wish to attract more girls to the school -- not because of the girls themselves, but so that the boys would start acting better.

We’re also left in the dark about the young woman’s choice not to go into the profession she was educated for, despite becoming an “authority in her class”. The article is illustrated with a photoshoot of Detel at a construction site and the headline presents her as the “first woman digger-operator”. However, later in the text we learn that this is not what she does -- she actually works at a coffee shop. There’s no mention of the other woman actually working as a digger-operator either. Did they seek work but were rejected? Were they discouraged from even trying, or was that never their plan in the first place? We don’t know, because those questions were never asked -- but we do know that they wore make-up in class.

Although it is good to write about women in industries which are mostly male dominated, writing in this way diminishes women, portrays them as objects and avoids the real issues they face not just in education, but also in employment in fields “not typical for women”.


The way the young women were described by both the journalist and her interlocutors -- referring to their looks while they were still teens -- we rate as sexual objectification of women. The statement highlighted in the headline and illustrated with construction site photos, that Detel is in fact a digger-operator is not entirely true -- she is trained to be one, but does not do that job. We rate this as manipulation of facts.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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