I am at work one day in the pub kitchen where I used to work, and I have just washed a huge plastic container full of cutlery. Three times I try and fail to lift the heavy box, gritting my teeth, determined that I can do this myself. My back gives a loud pop, and I drop what ever weight I had lifted and turn, defeated, to my male coworker.
“Could you please help me with this?” I ask, gesturing to the plastic box full of utensils.
He lifts it with ease, carrying it to the other room and leaving it for the floor staff to take to the dining area. I am embarrassed again, a frequent moment in my life, by my smallness, my weakness. I do not immediately link this to my being a female; I am small and thin. I always have been. In school I was used to not only being taunted by classmates, but being asked by teachers if I was ‘okay’, if everything was ‘alright at home’. I am constantly identified by my slimness, used to partners asking me if I am anorexic because of my ribs poking awkwardly from my chest and back. I’m not complaining. For some strange reason my pale, thin, sometimes delicate image is desirable in our society, and I won’t pretend that I haven’t benefited from it. The fact that I am able to so easily ask for help, and see it arrive without question or complaint, is a testament to that.
After a few weeks at the job, I start to notice something strange. The newer male employees, the ones hired at the same time as me, seem to know much more about the job. They seem to have received more training in certain areas and are more familiar with some of the kitchen equipment than I am. When things are explained to me, they are often small and obvious things, and I have to struggle not to roll my eyes. One co-worker explains to me four times that no, it’s not lettuce-onions-tomatoes on a burger bun it is lettuce-tomatoes-onions. I have tried explaining to him that the tomatoes keep the onions from falling off, but he just looks at me like a six-year-old who’s just told him that horses are just unicorns with their horns cut off. Indulgent. Patronizing. As a woman, I am used to this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still bother me.
Another day, several weeks in, a male coworker asks me if I know how to use the microwave. Confused by the simplicity of the question, I assume there must be something more complex to these particular microwaves that I do not yet understand. He goes on to explain, in excruciating detail, how a microwave works: open the door, put the food in, type in the time, press start. I am too dumbstruck to be angry, too shocked because I have just realized just how stupid this man thinks I am.
This goes on, and I start to turn inwards, to criticize myself. I am too absent-minded. Too simple and straight-forward. Too forgiving. I don’t explain myself well enough. I know full well that this is one of the most insidious ways our culture polices female behavior: by making us question and examine our every action and thought, picking it apart for signs of being too typically female and, therefore, too weak. But it’s a part of my personality as well, and I can’t stop.
At the same time, a male coworker tells me one day how much the guys in the kitchen seem to like me.
“They adore you.” he says, smiling in a knowing way. “They’re always doing things for you. You could probably ask them to do your whole job for you.”
Contrary to having the desired effect, which I’m sure was to make me feel good about myself, this makes me uncomfortable. I never set out to be anyone’s darling, and the perceived difference between me and my coworkers is something I never wanted. We’re all doing the same job, after all.
The final straw comes four months in, when another male coworker, one I had previously seen as so kind and understanding, makes a comment about my work performance. It starts when I make an offhand statement about how working in the kitchen is quite difficult.
“Yeah, but you don’t really do much, do you?” he says casually. I ask him what he means.
“Well it just seems like you don’t do as much as everyone else. Like you get away with a lot around here. Everyone says so.”
My face twists into a complex expression of worry, anger, betrayal, and sadness. I can see on his face that this reaction frightens him. I say something along the lines of “Yeah, I do get away with a lot…” and then trail off. He flees this sudden display of female emotion, and the other men in the room are silent. I think about what he said, first in a self-critical way, telling myself I am too lazy, too weak, that my head is always in the clouds and I don’t pay enough attention to my surroundings. That phrase “everyone says so” echoes through my brain, a familiar part of the constant anxious thought-cycle I am already so used to. Everyone says so. Everyone says so. Everyone says so.
At home, I try to think of what I could have done to be better; To prove myself as a good, hardworking employee, just like the rest of the men there. I think about the only other female employee, trying to figure out what she does to escape blame, but I come up with nothing. She usually works on her own during shifts, going off to do some task or other and keeping herself busy until her shift is over, not really socializing much except when it’s necessary. I did that at first, but then my manager criticized me for being too quiet.
“You’re like a little church mouse,” he told me. “You should open up more.”
The other day another male manager criticized me for talking too much, saying I was slacking off by socializing with my co-workers instead of focusing on important tasks.
The longer I think about it, the angrier I become. All that sadness and self-accusation becomes clear, and I realize that the reason I am perceived as incompetent at work is due to the fact that I am perceived as incompetent at work. If you think that sounds like self-contradictory circular logic, you are correct. One of the best ways to continue the oppression of any group is to convince them and everyone else that their oppression is their own fault.
During slavery, a school of pseudo-science emerged explaining that Africans were less civilized and less advanced than their white counterparts, and that they were not capable of the same intellectual advancement. They had failed to become civilized like their white, Western captors, and therefore deserved and even needed to be enslaved. They were incapable of handling their own freedom because they were incapable of handling their own freedom. A circular logic as persistent as it is nonsensical, as omnipresent as it is stupid.
The oppression of women has traditionally worked in much the same way. Women are the ‘weaker sex’, overly emotional and incapable of rational thought. We are weaker in both mind and body. There is no point teaching us something, because even if we are capable of understanding a task we are probably not able to complete it. There was no point teaching me the ins and outs of the job, because how could I do anything if I can’t even lift a box of cutlery?
When I quit the job, my boss didn’t seem very surprised. A coworker told me that they had expected me to quit much sooner. There was a general consensus, it seems, that a young girl who wears winged eyeliner to her kitchen job, spends her wages on dying her hair blond, and loudly laments the nail-varnish ban for kitchen employees, is just ‘not made for this sort of thing’. And maybe they’re right.
I did often feel that I was pushing my physical limits at the job. I often felt that I was being asked to complete tasks that were dangerous, involving hazardous chemicals and heat-proof gloves. However, I never saw any of this as ‘too much for me’, I saw it as a new challenge. And, most importantly, I never saw my inability to complete certain tasks as being a result of my femininity. I never really thought of myself that way at all. I thought the best way to fit in a workplace where all my coworkers were men was to ignore gender completely and just get on with the job as best I could. I told myself that my gender shouldn’t really affect the way I do my job. And it didn’t.
However the problem (that shouldn’t really be a problem at all) remains that I am female, and others aren’t going to stop seeing that any time soon. And with that perception of gender comes a whole load of preconceived notions about my mental and physical abilities, my expectations, and even my personality. I won’t pretend women are the only group that suffer this bias, but I will say that as long as women are perceived as being incapable of certain things, we will remain incapable; Incapable of doing the same work as men, incapable of being heard as rational and thoughtful beings, incapable of being capable. Perception of incompetence, it seems, breeds incompetence.
I remember, early on in the job, my manager would apologize to me every time he uttered a curse word. This, to me, seemed completely ridiculous in a kitchen where burning, cutting, or otherwise injuring oneself is a daily experience.
One such time, when he burned himself on the grill, he shouted an expletive, then dropped everything and looked at me, ashamed. I asked him why he always felt he needed to apologize. He said his mother taught him not to curse in front of a lady.
I looked at him, flashed him my biggest, most angelic smile and said:
“I appreciate the gesture, but I’m not a fucking lady.”