The many burdens of women's work

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Author image: Miguel Tremblay/Wikimedia Commons

My younger sister, 18, is in her first year of college studying marine navigation. She sees herself travelling the world one day, the captain of a cruise ship or similarly large vessel.

Already, she has faced overt and repeated sexism, from her male peers. Both my sister and her female roommate have found themselves subjected to sexist jokes and unwanted sexual advances from those who do not appear to understand the meaning of the word "no." They have been told by a female teacher that for the two per cent of women in the industry, sexual assault is an inevitability.

My mother, an airline captain, has been counselling her on how to make it in an industry where women are not easily accepted. A great deal of her advice hinges on keeping the peace with male colleagues; knowing what to let slide, when to confront colleagues directly about their behaviour, and when to report them.

I understand her perspective. Finding that balance is how she was able to make it in her career. I also worry that this advice encourages silence and breeds shame when women like my sister encounter sexism in the workplace.

At the heart of the issue is this: do women benefit in the workplace from assimilating into the male-dominated culture, or from resisting it? Put another way, is it better to focus on the similarities between men and women workers, or to point out gendered differences and vocalize the ways women don't fit -- literally and figuratively -- into many non-traditional workplaces?

This is the question that runs through Karen Messing's new book, Bent Out of Shape: Shame, Solidarity, and Women's Bodies at Work, coming out April 5 from Between the Lines.

A biologist and ergonomist, Messing has spent the last 40 years applying a gendered lens to women's work, as she and her research colleagues at the University of Quebec at Montreal have spent hundreds of hours observing workers at the invitation of unions seeking to understand how to reduce worker turnover, for instance, or reduce workplace injuries.  

In North America, when we think of ergonomics, we think of lumbar support in our office chair, and the way our neck cranes to look at our monitor.

Actual ergonomics encompass much more than that. Ergonomists are work analysts and problem solvers in the workplace. For Messing, the process involves her watching workers for long periods of time -- easily around 100 hours of observation, she says -- and speaking with the workers to gain an intricate understanding of their experiences and challenges.

Bent Out of Shape offers a brief summary of Messing's years working as an ergonomist, emphasizing her takeaways and observations through the gendered lens that she applies to the workplaces she studies.

Messing walks the reader through an array of women's experiences in work. In addition to the misogyny and violence women in non-traditional workplaces are subjected to, Messing details the ways women's bodies are "second bodies" in many workplaces, in that most workplaces were designed with a stereotypically male body in mind.

This translates into women unnecessarily struggling to maneuver heavy technical equipment or grappling with too-large tools that were designed for men's hands.

It manifests as segregated cleaning tasks in hospitals (described as "light" versus "heavy" cleaning duties, but divided by gender).

And, it emerges when our systems of workers' compensation fail to believe women could acquire injuries from working long hours doing repetitive movements at a sewing machine, but easily accept and offer compensation for an injury from a more obviously dangerous and male-coded type of work, like a firefighter's burn, or construction worker's slipped disc.

The same, or different? It can't be that binary

It also strikes at the heart of an evolving feminist debate, one which Messing describes as the difference between "sameness" feminists and "difference" feminists.

"Broadly, 'difference' feminists should want more to be known about female-male differences in strength, physiology, toxin metabolism, pain experience, and reproductive biology, among other chromosomally influenced phenomena," writes Messing.

The importance of recognizing such differences is that so they can be considered in workplace design, labour standards, and regulations.

"Sameness" feminists would disagree, and instead might argue that "gender stereotyping exaggerates difference and tends to freeze women and men into rigid roles whose requirements vary enormously, unjustified by any dichotomy in chromosomal determination," Messing notes.

As a biologist, it is understandable that Messing would note the biological differences between male and female that make work as the former more burdensome, when workplaces imagine a man to be the default worker.

However, focusing on sex differences and applying them to experiences of gender is where Messing's argument gets tricky, and I would have liked for her to do more in terms of distinguishing the challenges associated with each.

A focus on sex-based differences is all too often code for trans-exclusionary radical feminism. It's not the first time this has been raised with Messing: in chapter five, she describes being asked by a young researcher: "In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir told us, 'One is not born a woman, but becomes one.' She meant that biology does not define women. Are you telling me that she was wrong?"

Messing recounts stumbling over her tongue and being unable to give a coherent response.

"I was disappointed with myself, so I went home and thought about what I could have said; those reflections gave rise to this book," Messing writes.

In an interview with rabble, Messing acknowledged that it's a difficult line to walk.

"We don't want to reinforce stereotyping, but we don't want to deny differences either," Messing said.

She pointed out that when tools are created with an image of a stereotypical man in mind, that man is also white. Other groups of men who share biological differences, such as differences in average height between races, very likely share some of the physical challenges that most women might face in some workplaces.

"But women are disproportionately affected by this. That's my point. And it's not just that women are disproportionately affected by it, it's that we don't feel we can talk about it because the minute [women] mention a difference, we get attacked for being inferior," she said. 

Swapping shame for solidarity

For women in the workplace, keeping quiet about sex-based or gender-based difference, sexism, or misogyny keeps the peace.

We're taught this implicitly, through the silence of our more-established female peers in the face of a sexist joke or comment, or in the reaction of our male colleagues, family, and friends when issues of sexism are broached.

It's why I kept quiet when I was sexually assaulted by my male boss at my summer-student office job two weeks after my 19th birthday.

Silence didn't help me. Maybe, what would have helped, is if I felt I could have spoken about what happened to one of my female colleagues.

In her book, Messing makes the case that the way out of silence is to get past the shame women have been taught to associate with speaking up for themselves, (or "making a fuss," as many would describe it). The way around shame is solidarity.

"I do think that if there's two of you it makes a huge difference," Messing tells me.

Indeed, in the first chapter of her book, Messing describes a meeting between a group of women communications technicians. Messing and her research collaborators had been hired by the union women's service to determine how they could prevent women from leaving this job.

The five women in that room knew of one another, but had not worked together before. The first two hours of that meeting were filled with the women denying that there were any issues of sexism in their workplace, and if there were -- they claimed it didn't bother them. It took until the third hour for the women to realize they could trust not only the researchers, but each other.

"By this time, the women in the room had realized that they all faced the same obstacles and they became able, even eager, to share their challenges and think about solutions," Messing wrote, calling it "a real moment of solidarity." 

So, some advice for my sister, who will cringe at my doing so: Keep supporting your roommate, as she supports you, too. Find other women in your field and do your best to foster a community with them. Don't accept sub-par treatment just because it will keep your male colleagues more comfortable.

You are more than capable, but as Messing points out, the "women can do anything men can do" attitude does erase the barriers you will face. The fact of the matter is you have chosen an industry where your job will nearly always be more difficult than it is for your male colleagues, because the work wasn't designed for you (your sex, nor your gender), and the workplace culture you are entering will do all it can to blame you for this.

Oh, and, join a union.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020-2021. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Author image: Miguel Tremblay/Wikimedia Commons

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