Undoing Gender at Work

By Joey Konrad

Picture this:

You are a trained physician on a flight to Hawaii. A flight attendant announces over the intercom that a passenger has become unresponsive and a doctor is needed immediately. You rush out of your seat and run to notify the attendant that you can help. However, the attendant simply brushes you off and refuses to believe you are, in fact, a doctor.

The enormous amount of money and time spent at medical school and residency to finally reach the status of a practicing physician, and all of it washed away by a simple refusal to trust your words.

This situation is not a nightmare or work of fiction, but a personal account of events that actually unfolded.

If that’s not wild enough, this is not an isolated event. In 2009, Elisabeth Kelan conducted interviews with working men and women at technology firms. She found that women reported frequently struggling to be accepted by customers as technology workers. Eerily similar to the earlier story, one women had a customer refuse to believe she was an executive and lead programmer. They had the nerve to refer to her as a secretary during meetings and told her to take notes.

The interviews suggest that our thoughts about gender inform our thoughts about who is suited for different work.

Let’s look at some statistics that back up that statement.

The prevailing idea in American culture is that individuals are free to pursue whatever passion or line of work they choose. However, the workforce remains significantly gender segregated.

The U.S. Department of Labor occupational statistics reveal that women dominate caretaker fields; 96 percent of secretaries, 95 percent of childcare workers, and 91 percent of registered nurses are women. Meanwhile, women make up only 14 percent of engineers, 9 percent of construction workers, and 6 percent of programmers.200

And we’re supposed to believe this is just a coincidence?

What if we look at the earlier examples to account for cultural bias and assumptions?

The customer can refuse to believe the woman was an executive programmer if information technology is considered  “masculine” work. Furthermore, the customer assuming the woman was a secretary shows cultural assumptions that tell us what work is feminine.

Kelan noted that all the women interviewed described struggles with not being perceived as competent and legitimate in their workplace. Since programming is assumed to be masculine work, women’s ideas and skills are often ignored, so women face pressure and anxiety to legitimize themselves in the eyes of customers and co-workers.

So let’s talk about where we go from here.

Well first, we want to give a shout out to all women working in male-dominated fields. Any frustrations you feel about being taken seriously in your workplace are absolutely important. Your work blurs the lines between what is “feminine” and “masculine” work, and shows that people should be able to follow passions that inspire them.

But in case our encouragement isn’t enough – and it most likely won’t be – Elisabeth Kelan found that some women used business cards as a strategy for establishing legitimacy. Presenting cards early at meetings and interviews allows professional women to define themselves instead of customer’s assumptions.

You go girl!

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