The Value of Work

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Lately I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences about men and women.  I’ve been specifically thinking about how differently women and men are valued in the workplace and how we decide what kind of work is most appropriate to each gender.  We can have different expectations of men and women even when they are doing the same job or view the exact same action as positive or negative depending on whether it is performed by a woman or by a man.  The complications get dizzying, fast.

This line of thinking was prompted by my joining the primarily male-dominated field of winemaking.  Previously to this I had mostly worked in more traditionally female occupations as a teacher and child-care professional and as a barista (not necessarily considered a “female” job, but often considered “feminine” – a place for the over-educated, hipster elite).

These jobs were accorded very little social value.  I didn’t like telling people that I slung expresso for a living, would you?  They paid poorly and while supervisors were personally pleasant they had little ability to give their employees independence or real incentives.  Even at the childcare center, where the stability of the classroom is directly affected by the stability of the staff hiring practices look to reduce expenses by keeping all teachers on hourly pay and offering no long-term commitment to employees.  In both food service and in childcare the health of employees can directly affect the public, yet neither workplace offered paid sick time.  Though they paid lip service to not working sick it was made clear that there would be negative repercussions calling in sick.

Have you ever heard of the "Treat Receipt" at a famous national coffee shop?  This is how your barista feels about it.

Have you ever heard of the “Treat Receipt” at a famous national coffee shop? This is how your barista feels about it.

It could be quite frustrating.  These were not unimportant jobs.  Taking care of children is clearly important, they are our future after all.  It also requires a big personal investment, I was sick for months while teaching in addition to being variously bit, stabbed, and spit on by students.  And by the look of the folks who stumble into coffeeshops in the early morning, getting their coffee is of the utmost important.

And yet.

Because these jobs required mostly “feminine” tasks, taking care of children, preparing food, cleaning, smiling and being nice, they carry very little social weight.  Most jobs that are considered feminine are shown this social disrespect that is shown by poor pay, little job security, and little likelihood for promotion (at my childcare center, run entirely by women, was overseen by a male regional director who was, himself, never a teacher).  Traditionally men’s work offers a more decent work experience.  It is expected to pay enough to support a family, to have long-term job security, and, for the hard-working, to offer step or two up the social ladder.  Of course, in the recent times, even men are having a harder time finding jobs that meet these expectations, but the expectations of women’s work makes it even harder for them to find decent work.

Back to my personal experience of this phenomenon.  When I decided to go to work in a winery I didn’t expect to have a work experience that was different from my other hourly wage positions even though I was moving from traditionally feminine work to traditionally masculine work.  Hey, I figured, I am still female, so the work environment won’t really matter.  My work experience will remain essentially feminine.  I was not quite right about that.

Making wine or coffee, ought to be the same thing, right?

Making wine or coffee, ought to be the same thing, right?


One thing you might ask, why is winery work masculine?  It is essentially a kind of hybrid between agriculture and manufacturing, both traditionally male occupations (other than Rosie the Riveter how many images of women working in factories can you conjure?).  It is physical – requiring lots of lifting and carrying.  It is mechanical – requiring and understanding of machinery (mostly requiring troubleshooting that same machinery).  There is math and laboratory work involved.   But more importantly, there is little feminine work involved.  No children, elderly, or sick to be cared for.  No customer service to  be rendered.  There is cleaning, but it is more akin to maintenance of machines than dainty dusting.

Some laboratory work, testing malolactic fermentations for completion.

Some laboratory work, testing malolactic fermentations for completion.

There is definitely SOME cleaning that needs to be done around the winery...

There is definitely SOME cleaning that needs to be done around the winery…

I found, very quickly, that this work was better respected and considerably more enjoyable and fulfilling.  That masculine work was better respected was not surprising.  Of course it was.  The masculine is always respected more than the feminine.  But my own reaction was much more surprising to me.  Why did I feel better?  Why did I appreciate my own work more even when I know it’s not the hardest job I’ve done (that was getting bit, regularly, by small children)?  My days involved physical labor in occasionally uncomfortable conditions (wet, cold, or being constantly buzzed by wasps), but I was excited to get in every morning.  This was not how I ever felt about my feminine jobs.

I was genuinely surprised to find how much I had learned to value masculine work above feminine work.  When I began a masculine job I newly appreciated what it is like to have purposeful and respected work.  I like the work, but I don’t like the gender norms it revealed in me.  The depth to which this enculturation goes (even in me!) is scary.  I plan on staying in this industry, for more than just it’s masculinity, but I’m trying to learn to see all honest work as equally valuable.  Won’t you join me?






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2 Responses to The Value of Work

  1. Scott Erb says:

    Way back when I was in college I was working at a law firm, thinking I’d become a lawyer. I did research and ran errands, and had my desk out with the secretarial staff. One day I said, “you know what’s weird – all ten attorneys here are male and have their own offices, while all secretaries are female and work in this big room.” One woman looked up at me said, “well, duh – that’s the way it is.” I just shook my head, “it’s really weird when you think about it.” The staff there got a kick out of how something so obvious struck me as weird. Since then I’ve really tried to notice that kind of work place difference. I think it’s improving. I teach in college in a division with 20 faculty members. The first female joined back in 1992 – before then it was a male dominated profession. Now there are 9 women, almost half. When I was younger I’d choose female doctors because I figured they were just out of med school and better trained, now that profession seems more even.

    On the other hand the school I teach at has a large education program for future teacher. That is about 80% female, with early childhood education almost 100%. My wife is a CPA and has a much more stressful job than I do. Therefore I do most of the “mom” stuff (and Parenting magazines drive me crazy with their mom stereotypes!), and am one of the few dads at the PTA. Change comes slow, but it certainly involves embracing an appreciation for the “other” work — for you it’s in the winery, for me it’s the “mom” stuff. I think the key is to have a balance, first personally then as a society.

  2. I have a close friend who is much more involved in his child’s life than parenting magazines would suggest is normal. I hear about how he gets odd looks from moms when picking up his child and how he feels left out from the culture of parenting. So, you’re not alone. I think this is changing both for women in the workplace and men in the home but sometimes, when we can see how much has been accomplished, it only shows us how really bad the situation was to begin with.

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