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Wiscon panel report: Tools of Our Own

Tools Of Our Own: Women And Hands-on Work

Politics, Race, Class, and Religion programming track
Friday, 10:15-11:30 p.m.

Description from program guide: "Hands-on work (often blue-collar) can carry different assumptions than what we find in an office. Money, relationships, prestige, injuries, jail time—lots of things can be subtly or strikingly different. Are women ironically better equipped for such jobs? What strategies help reduce the blowback from colleagues and relatives? Do fictional characters ever deal with anything like this?"


Deb Taber - stage craft & teaching of stage craft, metal casting. Editor/Art Director, Apex Digest of Science Fiction & Horror. Dark fantasy writer.
Paula L. Fleming - college cafeteria dish room, HR at national food coop (handled nontraditional applicants), freelance copyeditor, gardening, caring for tropical fish, dogs & cats. Writer and Clarion graduate.
Elise Anna Matthesen - canning factory job (thinks any job where she can keep her clothes clean is pretty cushy). loaded trucks and railroad cars. jewelry and wirework. not happy doing only mindwork. (several panelists and audience members made this point.)
Anne Harris - novelist, doggie day care

General summary of discussion

(I left tons of stuff out; if you remember stuff I missed please comment.)

Both men and women do physical work - traditional blue collar jobs are mostly held by men, but women do childcare and cooking, for example. (Nursing is another example, but it wasn't mentioned.)

Men's jobs tend to accrue more pay and status. One excuse for paying women less is that their jobs are supposed to be inherently enjoyable. (For example, "teaching must be wonderful," or "you get to make pretty things all day.") However, as soon as you rely on a job to put food on your table, it's a different proposition, and jobs that might look easy from the outside can be very challenging.

Your tools are important if you are a hands on worker because they have to be kept in good shape to keep you safe from injury and keep you fed. (But in some lines of work there is pressure not to use safety equipment; it is seen as "sissy." Is this more common among men? Is it changing?)

Many anecdotes from panelists and audience of how sex roles play out in physical labor jobs. Lots of complaining about the rigidity of sex roles in blue collar jobs and how co-workers sometimes don't know what to make of you if they find out you also do mind-work or you are willing to step across the division-of-labor lines to do "men's work," e.g., heavy lifting. Also some examples of mentoring across gender lines.

Discussion of sexual harrassment / hazing in traditionally male blue collar jobs. This is commonly thought of as sexist, but competitiveness in blue collar culture also contributes to this behavior...also the desire to figure out where your co-workers stand and whether they can "laugh at themselves." Discomfort with competitiveness and hazing crosses gender lines; some men have benefitted from what was called "the feminization of the workforce."

Do women generally care more about process and men focus more on product? (Example: in an environment that had both male and female cooks, the male cooks were less likely to clean the kitchen as part of the job.)

Sometimes people who choose jobs involving physical labor get asked questions like, "You're so smart, why aren't you a doctor?" One answer was "Because I don't want to wear pantyhose."

Personal observations follow

I liked that the panel brought out different ways to view behavior in the workplace - the sex role implications can be analyzed, and the class role implications can also be analyzed; and it's important not to confuse the two.

The topic seemed to bring out a certain degree of moralizing. People sometimes talked about the sorts of physical labor they did with an implication or an explicit statement that other people should do it too or that they felt sorry for people who didn't. For example one woman said that she felt sorry for women who didn't know how to build something (meaning construction/carpentry work, I believe) because it was so empowering. Does SFF fandom really privilege the mind over the body, as elisem said? (Personally, I don't see it, but I might be looking from a different angle.) And if so, why is that a problem?



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)
Hey, that sounds like a pretty interesting talk, even with the moralizing. Odd; I don't think I go around feeling sorry for people who don't do HTML or wiki markup or run builds and work with dev and test. I like what I do, but I know it's not for everyone.
May. 27th, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)
My impression is that there has always been a fair bit of moralizing around being educated and thus qualifying for white collar work, and there's something of a movement against that among people who have shifted between blue collar and white collar work (in either direction) (a lot of artists do) or who have become disillusioned with corporate work.
May. 27th, 2007 09:29 pm (UTC)
My folks regarded having a desk job as something to aspire to - mainly because physical work is hard day-in day-out, and that's what they'd done most of their lives.

They did value the practical, tho, so yes, knowing how to swing a hammer or socket wrench was expected. I learned to change a tire as part of my Dad's "learning to drive" supplement.
(Deleted comment)
May. 29th, 2007 05:03 am (UTC)
Very well put!
May. 27th, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)
Nice writeup. I missed that panel, so I'm pleased for the chance to experience it vicariously. Thanks for posting it.
May. 27th, 2007 07:38 pm (UTC)
I feel sorry for one woman who doesn't know how to build something--myself!
May. 28th, 2007 01:41 am (UTC)
Interesting topic discussion, especially since I am bluecollar worker. Thank you for posting it.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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