Episode 97: Women's Work

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…we talk a lot about women in traditionally male office cultures. But a number of professions are female-dominated and have been for a long time. And they bring their own challenges…

“What the analysis has really showed is there’s just a lower value placed on work done in an occupation with a higher number of women. When women start doing work, that work becomes undervalued and under paid.”

Still, working mostly with members of your own sex can be rewarding in other ways…

All the women I work with have quite a feminist angle to it…we are very aware as a team of the need for women to help eachother and to work together.”

 Coming up – we take a look at the female dominated workplace.    

I spoke to three guests for today’s show. One is a sociologist. Two are listeners on different continents – each of them works largely with other women. Each has things they like about it, and things they wish could change.

We’re gonna start in London.

“My name is Lucie Goulet. I work for a British luxury fashion company and I also run a website called Women in Foreign Policy about gender equality in foreign policy.”

Lucie was born and raised in France. She came to London to go to university and she’s been there ever since. Her site, Women in Foreign Policy – it’s a bit like the Broad Experience in that she took it up on top of her other work because it’s something she’s always been passionate about and wanted to be involved in. Foreign policy of course, is an area with few women – fashion, on the other hand is full of them. And fashion marketing has been Lucy’s day job for six years.

She doesn’t feel comfortable telling tales about her firm. But she points out something that’s common in female-dominated workplaces: you won’t find many women in the top jobs.

“I think it can be frustrating sometimes as women to see a lot of the decision making process still sits with men. There’s a couple of examples in fashion…without speaking directly to my company. I don’t know if you’ve seen The September Issue…which is that documentary about Vogue…Anna Wintour is really powerful and then you watch the September Issue and you realize she answers to the powers that be at Conde Nast. You see her go into a room and All the people in that room are men. I think it’s quite a recurring theme in fashion.”

 And in plenty of other professions as well. We’ll get to the why a little later.

Lucie says one aggravating thing about working in her industry is other people’s attitudes.

AM-T: “You talked about fashion being a field that isn’t taken particularly seriously in general.”

“Yeah, if you go to people, like for instance like I say at the start, I do a lot in foreign policy. And at the beginning when I mentioned I worked in luxury fashion they used to find it very amusing, to think it was a bit of a fad and something --not very serious – but working in marketing and all the things we do you’ve got big stakes involved whether in terms of money, for instance, it’s a really huge company. But I think because it has to do with clothes people have this thinking you can’t be serious and be interested in clothes. You know there was that whole debate in the news earlier this year or last year – I think you had articles that question whether you can be a smart woman and be interested in clothes. That was the gist of it. Even though it’s 2016 and you would hope we have moved away from this, I don’t think we have.”

There’s been a lot written about British prime minister Theresa May and her love of high fashion. And she is one serious woman. If she can’t change that perception I don’t know who can.

Now maybe you’re someone who’s had a bad experience working with other women. It happens. It’s a stereotype about women that they’re nastily competitive at work, undermining, eachother. We’ve talked about this on the show before. But of course that’s not the whole story. I’ve had brilliant experience working with and for other women, and I’ve had bad ones.

AM-T: “It’s your whole career really you’ve been working in this female dominated arena, so maybe you can’t compare it to working with mostly men. But what does it feel like, working with predominantly women? Do you like it, are there things you love about it?”

I like it because I think that all the women I work with have quite a feminist angle to it – for instance I read Feminist Fight Club.”

Feminist Flight Club is a new book by journalist Jessica Bennett.

“And I turned up to the office with it and posted quite a few quotes from it on Instagram. Quite a few colleagues have borrowed it and read it – and I think we are very aware as a team of the need for women to help eachother and work together. I’ve heard some women say women are the worst to work with because they’re really bitchy and undermining to eachother but I haven’t experienced this in a gender way. I think you have people who are like this to eachother,and when they are I think it’s because of their personality not their gender.”

She’s found her female workplace to be very supportive. But she says structural problems remain.

“Fashion as a whole is not the best paying industry. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it’s very in demand and if there are 20 people applying for every job there’s less incentive to pay people incredibly well. Not that I can complain about my salary. But on the whole I think fashion pays less than other industries and for me it goes back to the fact it’s not taken that seriously because it’s a woman-dominated field.”

I wanted to talk about all this with someone who knows the research.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist, She’s based at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She’s also the author of a book about inequality in the US called Cut Adrift.

First I asked her about the positive stuff – what are the benefits when women work largely with other women?

“So when women work with units with more women, they report lower levels of gender discrimination and harassment, higher levels of group cohesiveness, coworkers considering them friends, and also strong organizational commitment so commitment to their jobs or their companies and overall lower levels of disagreement and conflict.”

I was interested to hear that part about women being more committed to the job when they work with more women. I wondered why.

“It may be related to when there’s more women working together there is perhaps more social interaction and friendships and things like that, that can – and of course when you’re friends with the people you work with you’re more committed precisely because you’re friends with them.” 

And staying at a job for a long time can be a good thing…but sometimes you need to leave to get to the next stage of your career or up your salary. And all those friendly relationships can hold you back.

Next, Marianne got to the less good stuff – and one of the points Lucie raised.  

“Even in these female dominated occupations often men are still over represented in leadership and it’s even more glaring in those kinds of environments because the staff is largely female.”

AM-T: “Why does that happen?”

“Well, it’s an interesting thing. And what sociologists have pointed out is when men enter female dominated jobs or occupations they experience something that sociologist Christine Williams at University of Texas at Austin – she coined the term the glass escalator…which are invisible pressures that men have to move up in their profession. So when men are in a female dominated occupation, within that occupation there can be roles that are seen as more fitting for a man, such as administrative roles or leadership roles, because we tend to think men are a better fit for those kinds of roles. So men can be encouraged to take that next step to leadership or offered opportunities. Or sometimes even men themselves can experience an internal conflict, a feeling like, ‘I know I’m in a female dominated job and it doesn’t quite fit with who I think I am, and I’m gonna move up into a position that’s more culturally male.’ That’s not explicitly the thought process that a lot of men have but it just feels like the right move. And so that’s how you end up getting these odd situations where in teaching for example where women make up, it’s about 76% of teachers but only half of principles and only a quarter of superintendents.”

AM-T: “Yeah, and I mean, I’ve thought about that a lot and someone wrote to me, she’s been a teacher her whole life said - she’s in younger childhood education.  She said I’d go so far as to say a male who wanted to teach young children is looked at askance. She said, ‘I’ve had a director tell me point blank she wouldn’t hire a male teacher because she didn’t think the parents would like it. Which is so interesting…”

“Sure, and it’s true that just as women can experience gender bias getting into male dominated occupations men can as well, and there’s studies showing – like resume studies, or job application studies, and when men apply for female jobs, particularly in childcare, they don’t get the callback rate that women get and it’s related to our beliefs about what men and women are good at. And women are thought to be good at caretaking and nurturing, and when men do that there’s a suspicion about what their motives may be.”

Last year I read a piece in a business magazine about male nannies in New York – apparently there’s a growing call for them. But they’re still unusual.

Marianne says kids are growing up, seeing men and women doing certain jobs, and they begin to imagine themselves on those same paths.

“But what’s interesting too is how easily jobs can be reinterpreted along gendered lines – and there’s a great book by Robin Leidner, another sociologist, and she studied fast food restaurants, and in some restaurants men were at the stove cooking the hamburgers because it’s kind of a tough job, you might get burned. And in other places women made the hamburgers because women cook. So pretty easily we can gender jobs, most jobs in different ways, depending on what we choose to emphasize and de-emphasize.”

Several listeners have got in touch with me over the years about their work in female-dominated areas. I’ve heard from nurses, teachers, social workers. And one topic they’ve all raised is pay. One woman asked, ‘How do we disentangle the relationship between profession and gender when gender is why the profession started with such a low status?’

I wanted to ask Marianne about this. Now at this point in our conversation we ran into some major technical hurdles. We ended up having to finish our discussion on the phone. So that’s why you’ll hear a difference in voice quality.

“So in general occupations that have a higher number of women, they tend to pay less even when you control for things like education, skill requirements, things like that – what the analysis has really showed is there’s just a lower value placed on work done in an occupation with a higher number of women. So it’s not just that the work inherently should be lower paid – it’s that when women start doing work, a certain kind of work, that work becomes undervalued and under paid, so that kind of analysis has showed that occupations that have gone from more male to more female, you see a decline in pay over time.”

As with teaching, for instance – that began as a male profession and flipped in the 19th century.

She says female-dominated professions are a story of social class and race – and which groups of women have always worked more…

“Women have always worked and the fact that we don’t have that as a cultural narrative just shows the larger belief that women really shouldn’t be working, and they should be just taking care of families and other things. But women have always worked and some groups have always needed to work for economic reasons. But typically because of ideas about men being breadwinners and taking care of their families even when women are doing that work they are not granted that same belief that we should pay them a wage to support the family. And we see that today, there’s the fatherhood bonus. Research has found when evaluators are looking at a resume between a father and a man who’s a non-father, very similar, they’ll give the father the higher salary.  And in contrast when evaluators are looking at resumes of a mom and a woman who doesn’t have children the mom is offered less money – so these beliefs about who works, who contributes money to the family, and who provides, are still bound up with very traditional gender ideologies.”

But again, she says, it’s amazing how quickly we can alter our thinking on this stuff.

“So when we needed women to work in WWII, all of a sudden we had childcare and women could work in factories and all that kind of stuff. And when men came home and needed jobs we stopped thinking that. So the malleability is what’s really interesting because it shows how fast we can really change these things when we want to.”

But perhaps when it comes to one area – caring for others – we’re not so quick to change our ideas. Recently I heard from a woman who works in Silicon Valley – but she’s not developing the latest app. She works in social services, with young people at risk of dropping out of the education system. All her colleagues are women. She says software engineers get paid three times as much as she does, and wonders why her work with other people is so much less valued.

“Care work in general is devalued – caring for people, doing that work of feeding children and caring for the elderly and all of that, it’s devalued work, and people who work in these jobs, they often are getting paid less than everybody else even though it’s the work that keeps our  world and our society going. It’s a big contradiction and any job that is related to caring particularly for children tends not to be valued as much as other kinds of jobs, despite the fact that we know how important it is. So you have people working in preschool and daycare centers who are paid such low wages that even when working full time they are paid barely above poverty wages…so it’s a values system, really.”

 These professions that involve caring for another person in some way – they’re associated with female-ness – with stuff women just do – for free – because we’re women, nurturers. Marianne says the only way she can see that lower pay changing – at least for some of these jobs - as if there were a shortage of workers compared to the numbers of people who need care. But she’s not optimistic there’ll be a revolution in how society sees these roles.

Kailah Carden works at a university on the east coast. She’s a sexual violence prevention educator. She sees her role as very much a caring one. She’s in her late 20s and everywhere she’s worked or studied has been female-dominated.

“My other major was community health, which was also primarily women, and definitely

in women’s studies, in my classes, and in women’s centers, it was really celebrated as being a female space, it was empowering and viewed as something that was positive, and beneficial, and spaces that were different from mixed gender spaces that new and exciting things could come out of.”

Now, though, in her current job, things are starting to feel different. And not in a good way as far as she’s concerned. She says traditionally this area of sexual violence prevention has been full of women – makes sense – but now there’s a lot of pressure to get men involved as allies. And to do that she says everyone’s being urged to lighten up, to make anti-sexual violence discussions less dark, more appealing…she says it’s a tough sell.

“The shift I see at work is that you know, we really need men involved because only men can reach men, men will only listen to other men, and we need to find ways to make this fun and engaging and not heavy and depressing because that’s the only way men will be involved. Whereas I look around the room at myself and my colleagues and I feel very saturated in content that is not fun or engaging or light but it’s work that I feel obligated to do…so it can be frustrating the way it’s framed as an expectation for women to do the heavy emotional lifting around sexual violence, and then lamenting the absence of men but their involvement being much more about them having fun and being engaged in very different way than women are.”

We talked about emotional labor in the last show. Kailah says there’s a lot of it when you work in this realm. And she understands the need to work with men. But she says there’s this whole history of female scholarship and activism in this area, and it feels like it’s being shunted aside.

AM-T: “Moving away slightly the topic of sexual violence…because you’ve worked women’s spaces before…you were telling me when we first spoke that you really enjoy working with a lot of other women. Why?”

“That’s a great question. I do really enjoy working with women, I enjoy women in general. I enjoy a collaborative environment, I enjoy bouncing ideas off other people, I also enjoy not having to have an artificial separation between my personal life and my professional life. I definitely believe the personal is political and I can do better work professionally when I can bring my whole self, including my personal life, including my personal beliefs and opinions into my work, and I’ve often found in female dominated spaces that is something that can happen.”

AM-T: “I mean do you mean just talking about personal stuff in the context of work sometimes?”

“Yeah,  definitely talking about personal stuff, using personal experience to inform the work you’re doing, I think again thinking about care, I do think the ethics of care are really valuable and important in a workplace and often it can be pushed to the side – so I think caring is important, it should be part of our work, I think attending to emotional wellbeing should be part of a professional workplace…and I do find that to be more common when there are women and when women can be in charge and women can set the tone.’

What do you think? If you work with lots of other women does that jibe with your experience? I’d love to hear from you if any of this rings a bell – or if your experience has been quite different from what we’ve talked about today.

As usual you can comment at The Broad Experience.com or on the show’s Facebook page.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Kailah Carden, Marianne Cooper and Lucie Goulet for being my guests on this show.

A big thanks to all those of you who have supported the podcast with a donation or who give a monthly amount. I’m really grateful. I also love hearing from listeners. This is a one-woman show and your support helps keep me going – mentally and otherwise. To donate just go to the support tab at The Broad Experience.com.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.