“Look, it’s just a really blokey environment. Some people just can’t hack it.”
I was in a meeting with my manager (a woman) and the store manager, after making a complaint about a 23 year-old new male work colleague. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure if safe workplace environments accommodate someone who: throws things at you; lunges into your personal space as you walk past; feigns hitting motions; ignores anything you tell them; grabs your shoulders and shakes you. I seemed to be the only one affected.
All such actions seemed to me a display of imagined dominance disguised as ‘joking around’. The last ‘man-handling’ incident led me to make a complaint; the response left me speechless. Somehow, it was my ability to handle such behaviour that was the focus, not the behaviour itself. I could hardly comprehend how such conclusions had been drawn. I didn’t dare mention any concept of gender equality, victim blaming or sexual discrimination.
Having worked in either all female environments, or at least places of work where there is relative equality in genders represented, working in a field dominated by men was a whole new world. Hardware stores are teeming with testosterone. The women that do work in such places are generally older and in admin positions, or conduct the retail sales at the counter. Men almost completely staff the timber yard, work as sales reps and man staff the hardware floor.
Enter Emma: young, female, and completely inexperienced in any trade. Beginning work at a hardware store full of thousands of products and needing to know not only where they all are, but also what in hell they are used for, was pretty daunting. Lots of blank stares. Lots of “Uhhhhhh… Let me get someone…”. Lots of longing for a new job where I could contribute more helpful advice to customers. Despite such doubts, I continued work there for over a year, befriending many of my co-workers, slowly learning what exactly joist hangers and Dynabolts were, and growing more and more confident in assisting customers (instead of hiding behind a stack of silicone and hoping to God they wouldn’t ask me something).
My hardware knowledge was progressing; some people’s attitudes to gender equality were not. Countless times customers would walk straight past me as though I was invisible in order to question a male staff member. On several occasions a male co-worker would be asked to paint something – and I would be instructed to clean up after him. An older co-worker once complained about a female customer being rude to him, proceeding to condemn her as “fucking lesbian man hater”. In a discussion in the lunch room about the interview with Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard in which she was asked to ‘twirl’, I was questioned whether or not this was sexist. When I said yes, absolutely, the male co-worker who had asked proclaimed that sexism was dead. He turned to another male staff member for support and asked, “Well what do you think?” I was like Sideshow Bob walking into rakes on the ground. I was side-stepping sexism in my day at work but it repeatedly smacked me in the face.
Thus I am struck by those who continue to downplay the rampant sexism permeating contemporary society. I was struck, in particular, by Julie Bishop’s refusal to identify with the feminist label on Q & A’s International Women’s Day episode. In the same night I re-watched Julia Gillard’s infamous ‘misogyny speech’. Though praised internationally for her stand against sexism, Gillard was widely criticised in the Australian domestic media for her inability to cope with repeated gender-based attacks. Bishop’s responses to questions of sexism reflect this culture of victim blaming. Bishop has refused to acknowledge the existence of the ‘glass ceiling’ despite the significant lack of women in the Abbott cabinet. And then, when questioned directly about Gillard’s stance, Bishop asserted that she was ultimately judged by her competence. She had “turned herself into a victim”. What we again see is the emphasis placed on an ability to ‘deal’ with sexism – not the structural inequalities themselves. What follows is denial: “It’s just a really blokey environment. Some people can’t hack it.”
Our culture of victim blaming has been widely discussed in the media, particularly since the murder of Masa Vukotic. After my experience at the hardware store I started to question the prevalence of victim blaming in the work place. Gillard aimed to call out sexist behaviour and was replaced soon after by Kevin Rudd. I did, too, and was quickly silenced. Bishop may argue that’s because some women just can’t handle the environment. However, these environments are created by the people working in them, and the sexist social constructs that have shaped them. They have potential to change. Instead of teaching women to cope in such sexist environments, why not change the environments themselves?
Women don’t need to adapt to a ‘blokey’ environment; maybe men need to learn how to treat women with respect.