The Devaluation of Women in the Workplace: Oppression by occupation or gender?
My mother grew up driving tractors, riding horses, and milking cows on a farm in Iowa. Her two brothers, one older and one younger, were competent in the same skills as my mother. I remember dinner table conversations that would reference the amazing talents of my mother due to the fact that she was a woman who was able to work “like a man.” I never thought about this as being oppressive language until recently when I realized the “compliments” my mother was receiving were in fact devaluing her abilities because she was and is a woman. Her brothers were not told that it was a great feat that they had accomplished tasks because they were “like a woman.”
Thus, the question of, “are women devalued because of the work that they perform or because of the fact that it is women who are performing the work” seems easily answered. I say it is easy because I believe that women are devalued in almost all aspects of society including the workplace. I hope to provide examples of male-based devaluing within several occupational endeavors in which women serve as employees, bombers, teachers, and presidents. Although my experience is framed through the male lens, I believe that what you do is not as meaningful as who you are.
Women pilot space craft in outer space, create corporations that earn billions of dollars, and are responsible for the creation of every person on the entire planet.
The traditional male occupations, law and medicine are no longer a male only domain. Women work as doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, postal service agents, college presidents, and physicists. Men work as nurses, teachers, social workers, and house cleaners. I do not see what you do as being the reason for devaluation. If this was true, men would not work in non-traditional occupations because they would have to give up their patriarchal system. I think that men oppress other men only if they are oppressing them as a way of bringing them back into the traditional fold. This seems to be the collective mechanism that men use to repress women. By separating men into specific job functions, male patriarchy sustains itself. When men try to move into non-traditional roles they are often ostracized. This could be due to a patriarchal need to maintain that devaluing is done due to the work and not because of gender. It has been my experience that men who are nurses and teachers are looked as “less than” by men who are doctors and educational administrators. Although, it does seem that this issue is felt more often in elementary, middle, and high school settings. I feel that higher education is slightly more egalitarian. However, this feeling is based on a perception that is through my aforementioned set of man eyes.
I was reading a news headline about a recent suicide bombing in Iraq. There have been numerous suicide bombings in Iraq since inception of the war. This headline caught my eye because it said in bold letters that a female suicide bomber committed this atrocious act. I have never seen a single news headline that labeled other suicide bombers as male. Suicide bomber is not an occupation in traditional terms, but it is a positional construct that I believe can be looked at as work, albeit short-lived. Why are females labeled? For example, no one says male suicide bomber or male president when describing these roles. Devaluing is occurring because of gender. From bomber to president, women are the targets of patriarchal oppressive devaluation. The jobs or positions are merely veils for men to hide their oppressive tactics.
My first job after college was working for Paula. She owned her own business and ran the companies daily operations. Her position as company president was one of prestige, power, and privilege. However, whenever Paula and I would go to meetings, vendors, mostly male, would oftentimes speak to me as though I was in charge. They would take away Paula’s power in the form of veiled humor. I have worked for women and men who have been presidents or owners of companies and every woman owner was treated as an aberration. Men as presidents are looked at as the societal “norm” while women were exceptions.
Another environment where women are devalued is the classroom. I have several teachers who are women. It has been my experience that women teachers who are strong, capable, and demanding are seen as undesirable and mean. However, male teachers who possess the same qualities are seen as challenging and competent. Female colleagues have actually said that they would have gotten along better with their “difficult” female teachers if they had been male. It would seem that male patriarchies ability to condition women to hate women is a shining example of who we are is more important than what we do. Therefore, women can do anything, but because they are women, they will be devalued.
My examples showcase the undeniable nature of the heart wrenching way that women are treated in the workplace. To me, this is a relevant problem because patriarchy seems to be losing its collective grip on the institutional idea that ones task determines ones level of devaluing. I feel that once that idea is lost, men will have no choice but to acknowledge the wrong that has been done to women. Patriarchy will have lost its veil of position-based oppression and people will see the true nature of women’s workplace devaluing.