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.
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.
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.
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.
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?