Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On gender

This is the first time that I have posted about gender. I have mentioned the fact that I am a woman working in a man's world and the fact that that is often commented on but that is about my sex, not my gender.

For those of you who aren't social scientists, let me explain the difference between sex and gender: sex is biological. On a basic level, your sex is determined by what bits you have. On the whole we are divided into male and female although there are people who have bits of both naturally (intersex) and those who have chosen to alter what they were given at birth (transgender/transexual).

Gender is social. It is about identity, it is about how you feel and how you express yourself. A man can be feminine, a woman can be masculine, and either can display a mixture of both characteristics. It is about performance and narration. It is about what you do and how you tell the story of what you do, to yourself and to others. It is about other people's perceptions of you. Gender is an aspect of personal identity that comes about through interaction with other people and their beliefs and expectations. It is socially constructed.

I'll start with masculinity and men. I will give you two examples:
One of my driving colleagues displays a lot of traits typically thought of as feminine - he is very clean and tidy, he gets upset by dirt and smells, especially those created by other people. He is caring and makes a point of trying to be helpful. On the other hand, he also displays some extremely masculine behaviour - shouting and swearing a lot, spitting on the ground, although this never strikes me as particularly convincing, especially as he doesn't swear at all if you talk to him on his own. While we were all waiting to clock out one day, a conversation took place about ballet during which someone said to him that they could just see him in a tutu and others agreed. I might have expected him to start arguing with the bloke who said it, but he didn't seem that bothered by the comment but did instantly start scuffing round the shed kicking stuff and spitting on the ground. He is clearly aware that by nature he is not the most masculine of blokes but in such a masculine environment he feels the need to conform to a standard image of what blokes ought to be. This isn't about being scared people will think that he is gay because he quite obviously isn't. I actually think it is just that he is young and hasn't quite worked out how to be gentle and caring and still be a bloke so he goes too far the other way with the spitting.

There is a divide in a builder's merchant between the inside people - admin, management, shop staff - and the outside people - yard staff and drivers. The outside is obviously more masculine than the inside because it is dirty, it involves heavy lifting, it involves vehicles and it is frequently cold and wet. The inside people don't need to wear gloves or steel toe caps and often only wear uniform t-shirts but not hard wearing trousers.

The second example of performances of masculinity happened when I had to go inside to collect a roll of damp proof membrane (DPM) from the shop. DPM is heavy - once it is on my shoulder I can carry it ok but getting it onto my shoulder or lifting it from the ground is sometimes tricky. One of the shop staff collected the roll for me and then struggled to know what to do with it. As a member of shop staff giving the roll to a member of outside staff he would automatically expect me to pick it up and take it out to my truck myself. As a man giving a heavy item to a woman he would take the roll out to the vehicle himself. In a work environment I would never expect someone to lift something for me, I have chosen to do this job so I will do it the same as the men. Occasionally I ask someone to take the other end of something with me if I really can't manage it. In the end he gave me the DPM to lift and one of his colleagues made fun of him for not being a gentleman. The question here was the perception in his mind of who was more masculine - me or him. I shall list the pertinent traits:
Him - male (m), inside (f), hair do (f), smart shoes (f)
Me - female (f), outside (m), had made no effort with appearance (m), tall and strong (m).
Obviously it is not as simple as him thinking 'I have a hairdo therefore I will not lift the DPM' but all these factors unconsciously made up his perception of our relative masculinity. If I had been wearing a skirt and make up, he would almost certainly have made a different decision. I could have made the decision for him by either picking it up straight away or asking him to take it out for me but I have to admit I was finding it entertaining to watch him squirm!

Monday, 22 March 2010


Another aspect of working for a company that I will be very glad to get away from is the uniform. I am an accessory to company branding, I wear the same uniform as everyone else, as well as all the vehicles.

From the ground up: steel toe-cap boots, black trousers, green sweatshirt with company logo over polo shirt with the same. The only area of my appearance where I have any choice is my hair which I wear as loose as my job will allow.

From a distance I can recognise one of my own species, both human and vehicular. The customer can too, obviously, and knows what to look for in the branch and who to turn to for help. Even if I can't help them because it isn't my job to know what they are asking, I am a representative so I have to answer them anyway. I am merely one of any number of identically clad people, it doesn't matter who we are or what job we are supposed to do. We are simply a massed whole. A company unit, not an individual.

13 days and counting.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Works sucks (you in)

Working the same job, at the same time, in the same place every day, following the same routine for getting in and getting home, turns you into an automaton. This is not wholly a bad thing because sometimes you just have to get your head down and work - to support your family, to save for a house - and the more mindless your job is the easier it is to switch your mind off completely and let your body go through the motions.

That is what I have done for the last few years and I now want to switch my mind back on again. This means, however, that I will be forced to appreciate the full horror of working for the last few weeks. I am hoping that by blogging it, it won't be so bad.

My working day starts when I clock in. I lose money if I clock in late. I have a card with my name on it and my working day starts when that card slides into the machine with that familiar wrrzh and clunk. If someone else clocks me in, it doesn't feel as if my working day has started properly, so I have to walk to the clock machine anyway. That's how much of an automaton I have become, if the processes don't happen in the right order, or one process is missing, it throws the whole system out. By this time I will have parked my car in the same place as I always park it and will have picked my truck keys from the hook where they always hang. I then climb into my truck, fill in my tacho, do my vehicle checks, drive to the front of the building and get a cup of 55 normal from the vending machine. I then drink my drink while checking my load for the afternoon and have roughly the same conversations with the other drivers as I have done for years.

There are reasons why we are creatures of habit. I am sure that a social anthropologist could give you a fine academic term for the process and the evolutionary reasons why it happens but I'm not a social anthropologist so this is my take: by doing the same thing at the same time every day, it makes sure that that thing gets done without you having to think about it. It is a short cut, a well-programmed function key on a keyboard. From the minute my alarm goes off up until the time that I drive out of the yard after my hot chocolate and inane chat, the same things have to happen every morning so by doing them the same way every day, I don't really have to remember them.

I am programmed.

But that is also the road to cabin fever. That is the road to the human equivalent of the chained up bear on television appeals for Worldwide Fund for Nature, rocking from one side to the other, his head lolling from side to side. Long after the physical chains have been removed his mental chains still bind him to his enclosed space. This is why some old people just keel over and die as soon as they retire. This is why so many former servicemen end up in prison. Once you have been programmed it is very hard to be that free thinking, fish catching, tree climbing bear you were born to be.

That's why I'm getting out now while I still know how to catch fish.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The countdown has started

Today I handed in my notice. In four weeks time I will be leaving the job that I have been doing since July 2007, that'll be 2 years and 9 months in the same job. This is pretty much unheard of for me and it will almost certainly be the only time I ever hold down a job for so long.

So was it a fantastic job that I wanted to stay in it so long? No, of course not. It was a 44 hour a week HGV driving job for a builders merchant. It has been hard work, I have had to work every other Saturday, lift heavy stuff, get patronised on building sites, stand outside operating a crane when my hands are so cold I can't feel them and then are agony when I get back inside the cab and warm them up again.

So why did I stay? It has been a means to an end and it has served that end pretty well. When I started the job I was in a mess. I had recently relocated so I didn't really know anyone. I was in a bad relationship - I knew it was bad but I didn't have the strength to get out of it. I was very unhappy, I had given up on all the careers I felt I ought to try and felt horribly ashamed of myself for it, but I had no idea what I did want to do.

All I knew was that whatever it was, I had to do it my way.

So in the last 2 years and 9 months, I have got out of the bad relationship, got out of debt, made lots of friends, sold a flat where I used to live and bought one down here, qualified in various things which I can do on a freelance basis and basically have set myself up for the next few years of living life in the way that I choose. And this job has been a constant in all of these things, something I could rely on and it has never mattered how mad I felt at times because I could just get in my truck and shout and cry and do whatever I needed to do, just as long as I still did the job ok and was passably nice to my colleagues.

So there we are. Another milestone. And hopefully soon, a new adventure.