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The workplace and women’s hidden shame

LabourFeminism

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

The following is an excerpt from Bent out of Shape: Shame, Solidarity, and Women’s Bodies at Work by award-winning ergonomist Karen Messing, published by Between the Lines in April 2021. A virtual book launch is scheduled for Tuesday, May 18, at 7 pm ET, and it will be livestreamed on YouTube.


My research collaborators and I were in a small room without windows, and it was seven in the evening. The other five women in the room had worked all that day as communications technicians, responsible for repairing or installing material in homes, businesses, and construction sites. They set up phone lines and solved problems with static and internet connections. We had invited them because the union women’s service wanted to know how to keep women from leaving this job, where they were a small and diminishing minority (30 out of 1,273 workers in the company in Québec). And the women’s service wanted to know how to help women stay in non-traditional jobs, because the problem of attrition was general.

Five of the ten women based in Montréal came to the meeting, after their workday had finished. Although they had seen each other around, the women had never been together as a group. We asked them what they did at work, whether it affected their health, and whether they wanted to bring up any issues about being women at this job. At first, no one had much to say. They didn’t see why they were meeting with us—what was the point? They had no particular problems to tell us about, nor were they treated any differently from their male colleagues. Occasionally, customers would refuse to let them enter their house or insult them because they were women. They had been trying to deal with these problems on their own. Chantal was the most vocal, but she said she had no complaints. Her co-workers were fine, her foreman treated her well, she liked her job. Sophie mentioned that she didn’t like all the sexist jokes, so she objected to them. We asked questions from our list, but Josée, Barbara, and Johanne had nothing in particular they wanted to share.

During the second hour, the room started to feel smaller and a little more unsettled. Chantal told us she had asked her foreman in confidence to send another technician to service a customer who had put the moves on her, but the foreman lost no time before telling everyone about her problem, which then became a source of general amusement. Why then had the same foreman been so careful to keep it quiet when her colleague Patrick had been cruised by a male customer? But, she said, it didn’t really bother her, she just kept on doing her job. Several of the women had trouble with tools and wondered why smaller sizes weren’t available, but, they said, it wasn’t a serious problem. Johanne had asked several times for a smaller tool belt but it never arrived. She said she could do the job with the big belt, but it weighed over three kilograms and hurt her hips. We asked whether adding a cross-chest harness would make it easier to carry the tools, since the weight would be shared between shoulders and hips.

Everyone laughed. “Yeah sure, we’re going to have a strap coming across our front pushing our breasts out—we spend our whole day trying to make them forget we’re women.” The room took a deep breath.

And then, during the third hour, we heard what the job was really like. All the women (except for Johanne, whose husband worked with her so she was usually spared) had developed different strategies to deal with the sexist jokes and insulting remarks. One “built a wall,” never engaging in social contacts. Several had learned to laugh or even engage in repartee, but they found it tiring. Sophie, the feminist, was so weary from the constant battles for respect that she was thinking of leaving (she did leave the company two years later).

They told us about their battles with the ladders, which each had waged alone. The company had ladders in three sizes: 24, 26, and 28 feet long. The ladders were heavy and awkward to carry, quite hard to install on top of the trucks, especially for smaller people. In the Montréal area, only 24-foot ladders were thought to be necessary, so in theory all trucks were equipped with the smaller ladders that were somewhat easier to handle. But in fact, often only 26- or 28-foot ladders were available. Each of the women had tried to get her foreman to order more of the smaller ladders or at least to reserve the smaller ones for them, but this hadn’t worked.

As we got further into the third hour, we heard more stories: other wrong-sized tools, verbal attacks, colleagues who wouldn’t stop harassing, colleagues who refused to work with them and actively tried to get them fired. It was as if the women felt they should take these problems in their stride, as if the problems were the price of “invading” male territory. But by this time, the women in the room had realized that they all faced the same obstacles and they became able, even eager, to share their challenges and think about solutions. A real solidarity moment for all of us.

We got the employer to allow us to observe the technicians’ work. With a student, Marie-Christine Thibault, my colleague Céline Chatigny and I observed the work of three female and four male communications technicians for a total of 123 hours. We observed women and men wiring panels in all sorts of conditions: outside, inside, in pleasant and horrible weather. They spent a lot of time alone driving vans from one work site to another. The women sometimes had to negotiate entry into private homes, despite the residents’ insistence that they wanted a “qualified” (that is, male) technician. They installed new wiring and fixed old installations. Technicians discussed and solved problems in informal groups, during breaks or mealtimes. They had to slither into tiny spaces (small women had an advantage) and stretch out to reach high on walls (an advantage for the taller men).

There should have been another woman in our original meeting, but Valérie was home on sick leave. Months later, we learned that she had been raped on the job by another worker, but no one had told us about it, even during the third hour. Our union contacts hadn’t told us about Valérie either, even though the rape was probably why we had been asked to do the study. Céline heard from colleagues about Valérie’s terrifying experience, and about how unsupportive, even hostile, her foreman, colleagues, and union had been. Although Valerie had immediately called police, no one was “able” to identify the culprit, who had left the scene. This anonymity seemed unlikely, since the man was presumably on someone’s payroll, so Valérie suspected male complicity. She went home, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She tried to return to work two days later, but she became afraid of a co-worker assigned to her because his mannerisms reminded her of the aggressor. She asked for a change of assignment, but her foreman just told her to get over it. She was eventually let go after two years at the company, and told us she thought it was because her co-worker didn’t want to work with a woman. But, when Céline asked Valérie our standard question about differences in how women and men were treated at work, she was amazed at the response: “There’s no problem, no difference, men and women are the same.” We could only think that Valérie had diagnosed her rape as a personal, individual problem, possibly due to some weakness or mistake of her own.

When Céline interviewed Sophie, she heard more about the possibility that women and men might not be treated the same. Sophie, the only worker who openly identified as a feminist, had tried hard to keep the men from making sexist jokes. She told us, sadly, that she had felt she’d made progress and was even accepted as “one of the guys,” until one morning in the restaurant where the technicians gathered to plan their work, share problems, and enjoy each other’s company:

I don’t know what started it. The technician opposite me, talking to the waitress: “Damn bitch!” and stuff like that. I reacted “Pardon me!” … I looked at the waitress and I said, “Excuse me, but I wouldn’t wait on people who talk to me like that.” [The male technician answered,] “Ah! It’s a joke! You should stick with us guys!” I said, “Sorry, but that’s just [not] good manners, talking to someone like that, I totally don’t find that funny, not at all.” The guys all stood up at once. I swear, there were ten of them at the table. [He said,] “Yes, okay, it’s fine. I think we’ll all go now.” They all left [to sit at another table]; I finished my toast all by myself.


After that, Sophie always ate breakfast alone, deprived not only of companionship but of an important source of technical know-how and help in solving problems. In fact, we noted that all the women were eating alone, set apart from their male colleagues.

This sad story, and others the technicians told us, left us feeling ashamed of our own inability to help. The local union seemed to be uninterested in the women’s problems, and the women’s service of the union confederation didn’t seem to have any influence on them. After our initial meeting with the women technicians, there was no local follow-up and none of the technicians wanted to form a women’s committee, possibly because they didn’t want to make themselves any more visible as women.

Discrimination and health

We were interested in health effects of the technicians’ work, so we examined their registry of work accidents. We found that women had many more work accidents than men: about three times as many accidents as men on a per employee basis, over a four-year period.

This is not unusual. We later found similar results in landscaping, another non-traditional workplace. The US Army has found a significantly higher rate of injury among female soldiers, and health and safety authorities in Québec report that, when women are in the same industries as men, women generally have a higher rate of accidents and injuries. In heavy manufacturing, women have 36 percent more injuries than men. Among the potential explanations: the women could be more likely to report accidents; the equipment and training could be ill adapted; the women could be less experienced; the women could be physically less able to do the job without injury. In the case of our research with the communications technicians, there were not enough women to allow us to distinguish statistically among these possibilities, but we did look into the equipment. Because the women had brought up ladders during our initial meeting, we focused on accidents with ladders.

Work on ladders was the single largest cause of accidents in the registry. For both women and men, 31 percent of accidents involved ladders: climbing them and carrying them. Given that women had proportionately more accidents, this rate of 31 percent meant that women were having a lot of accidents with ladders. Céline and Marie-Christine found a number of problems while observing how the ladders were used. They weighed about 50 kilograms (the weight of a small woman) and had to be carried around on all sorts of surfaces. In the winter, technicians had to carry them through icy alleys, and in spring, through mud. Technicians leaned the ladders against slippery poles and rested them on slick surfaces. While the technicians were climbing the ladders, they were also wearing their heavy tool belts. Céline found that, in general, the size of all this equipment was too big and/or badly proportioned for many women: the ladders were unnecessarily long even when collapsed, the harnesses were too big, the belts were too wide and too heavy. The task of carrying a ladder was harder for all the women.

And training had not been adapted. Women were told to use techniques that just didn’t work for shorter, less powerful people with a lower centre of gravity. Carrying the ladders in the recommended position over the shoulder while gripping two rungs a metre apart, close to one end, was impossible for many of the women, the shortest of whom was 1.54 metres (five feet) tall. The trainers had never been asked to think about how women should carry ladders.

So women were less able to do this job without injury, because no one had thought about how to adapt the job for a wider variety of physical bodies.

Women technicians leave the scene

Three years after we began the study, only two of the original ten women in Montréal were still on the job and they had both had work accidents; two were on sick leave and six were gone. At the provincial level, women had been 16 of the 1,257 technicians; only the two in Montréal were left. When we talked to the union people, this preferential loss of women workers from a non-traditional job turned out to be relatively common. As feminists, we felt sorry that all these women were made to feel like failures when they had tried so hard to do these jobs “just like a man.”

We submitted our report to the union confederation. We described the problems and suggested the unions negotiate more appropriate ways to integrate women entering non-traditional jobs, from apprenticeships to supervisor training to changes in tools, equipment, and work methods. The report was returned to us several times in the hope that we would soften it; those at the top of the union hierarchy appeared afraid that the men, a majority at the confederation, would be insulted and angry.

Finally, we were invited to present the report to about a hundred union women from various non-traditional workplaces. After Céline presented our results, there was silence. Then, one woman said a few words about her painful experience in a male-dominated workplace, then another woman, then another, as more and more women lined up at the microphone. They told of physical problems with equipment, training issues, and social obstacles to their integration and retention in these jobs. Céline and I felt like crying. Another solidarity moment. We were touched by the strength, courage, and frankness of the women. Until a very high ranking male member of the union confederation seized the mic. He denounced the “negative atmosphere” and asked for more “positive” contributions. The large room went quiet. The women shut up completely, including those from the women’s committee. We ourselves were silent, not wanting to make trouble for the women who had invited us and feeling that it was up to the union members to decide how to treat their elected officials. But I have often wondered whether I should have been more vocal.

Céline says she still shivers thinking about the episode.

What should we have done, faced with the women’s reluctance to confront the powerful men? Should we be ashamed of our hesitation to defend them? Was a whole roomful of women suffering from shame? From a lack of solidarity? Or just from fear?

Karen Messing is a professor of biology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where she does research in partnership with unions and women’s groups. She was trained in ergonomics and genetics. She is an internationally-known expert on occupational health from a gender perspective. Her 2014 Pain and Prejudice: What Science Can Learn about Work from the People Who Do It was translated into French, Korean and German. She has won numerous academic and non-academic awards, most recently the Yant Award from the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the Order of Canada (Officer Level).

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