MA students' blog posts
Women at work - Danielle Heffernan
Danielle reflects on her work experience and women's position in the labour market
Women at work, women at work. I worked in a bookmakers from the ages of 18 to 25 and I’d be confident in saying that 9 out of 10 of my co-workers in all that time were women. I recall being told (in vague terms) that a man was going to be hired for a position which had an opportunity for advancement so that I should not waste the effort in applying for it myself. I accepted this because I was young and working in a profession that would be considered unskilled, although I invite anyone to try it for a while and see how much skill is involved. I and the other women around me accepted this because we were in a job which was local and kept us engaged in some way with the community, and one which allowed us to cover for each other, switching shifts, getting each other coffee and biscuits; also one that we didn’t need to take home with us. We didn’t need to get involved in any cut-throat advancement processes because the benefit would only be marginal even if we were successful. Best to stick with your lot.
When I left there, I applied for jobs, through an agency, that were clearly aimed at women. Receptionist roles, secretarial roles, a short-term home carer, team lead of a group of young women who had already caused two previous male leads to leave the role. It was obviously never stipulated in the job description or through the interview process, but it was implied. The heteronormative shorthand couldn’t be avoided or ignored so everyone involved knew the story and nobody strayed outside the markings.
I’m in the process of writing an essay on the negotiation women need to do in the labour force, juggling their family responsibilities and their paid work, and it has got my blood pressure a little elevated to collect and reflect on the countless moments I lost out in little insignificant ways that all contribute to the life of a working woman. Really, what I’m most angry at is that my experience is in no way special or unique and that it’s unthinkingly replicated in every interview, and then in every office.
There’s a phrase from one of my journals on heteronormativity, from Stevi Jackson, about how it begins with you sinking into his arms and ends with your arms in the sink. What a fantastic phrase, summing up the heteronormative ideal for every woman who wants to describe herself as being normal, and telling us that even when we choose to focus on our career we can’t escape from the sink. The double shift that Dale and Overell speak about requires a woman to work all day, to work when they get home, and to work as emotional support for their colleagues. Women must undertake this double shift as the norm, and the position of privileged irresponsibility which society can take for granted is surely one of the most harmful outcomes of the pattern of behaviour under-pinning our shared culture. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t affect women disproportionately while they strive to meet male definitions of merit (according to Pat O’Connor). It also would not persist even for entrepreneurs who aren’t bound by the usual employer/employee power relationship and have more immediate agency over their own careers. Drew and Humbert show that there is still a dual trajectory for male and female entrepreneurs with all else being equal, as women continue to be more conflicted when it comes to the home burden. The structural barriers that women face to working are what lead them to choose seasonal work or term-time work like teaching, and this is in spite of international governmental initiatives to promote a “near-equal” role for men and women in the public and private spheres. Reading that back, why would my blood pressure not be elevated? It is sometimes hard to believe it is the year 2020.