Ironing is men's work

Posted in: Decent Work, Gender equality, Women

Each year, International Women's Day encourages us to work together for a gender balanced world, but how much progress is really being made? In the second of our reflective pieces from researchers in the field, Laura Spence, Professor of Business Ethics at Royal Holloway University of London, and Associate member of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society, shares some of her experiences and reactions from her recent trip to India as part of a team working on a British Academy and DFID funded project focused on decent work and economic growth in the South India garment industry. 


India is a wonderful country. But you wouldn’t need to study gender to spot the entrenched disparities between men and women.  Undoubtedly the gender differences I experienced on a recent research trip stood out to me as an outsider, and visitors to the UK where I live are probably equally perplexed by the things I am less likely to notice.

It was my first trip to India, though not the first to Asia, and I knew from working with others who had researched there, and from the preparation and data from our research project that I would be confronted with some challenging realities of daily life in that context. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for the fundamental and pronounced disadvantage of being a poor, lower class worker in the industry we studied. Most of those workers are women, and on top of their systematic economic and social repression, they have to contend with a still lower status due to their gender.

At this point in our project, I can’t say much more about that because it is a profoundly sensitive topic. To do so may damage the industry on which those people depend and which in itself has overall improved their circumstances by giving them a job, and sometimes raising them out of caste discrimination. We will publish those research findings, but not without proper care and attention to the consequences of so doing, with robust evidence and academic credibility, and full nuance and justification for the statements made.


So this is what I can offer: the observations of one cog in a multidisciplinary research project, because I do feel the need to say something. Voice has been a big part of this study and its process. But I am acutely aware that I am turning the spotlight on myself - for now - rather than the voices that really should be heard. As a white, western privileged woman, my experiences are a pale imitation of what truly matters. Those in the know will recognise the importance here of the idea of intersectionality – the acknowledgement that unlike me, axes of repression for poor women workers in India are along many more lines than just gender.  And of course there are privileged women in politics and business in India, though not many, and my experience is perhaps more comparable to theirs.

Just like in my own country, in India business leadership remains dominated by men. Women retain the primary responsibility for childcare and looking after the home, and despite women’s access to paid work, seemingly intractable pay differentials between the genders endure. Being accustomed to these issues I was – probably naively - taken by surprise at the weight of the creeping feeling of injustice that pulled heavily down my spine during a week spent in India. In a trip with some moving highs, characterised by important good as well as bad stories, here are some of the gender-based problems from my experience. My points here are about discrimination to women because I am one and because the majority of the workers in the industry studied are women. That is not to deny discrimination and injustice suffered by men.


Women’s Bodies

It started before we went – I knew enough to know that it would be an issue if I wore my normal smart warm-weather clothes. I had been warned that, while I could in principle wear anything I like, if I wanted to blend in I should cover up my upper arms, legs, and above all, ‘hide your breasts’. Dress conservatively. As it happens, I do dress pretty conservatively, and have gone through the same processes as a tourist in other countries without feeling restricted. Cultural sensitivity is important to me as a sign of respect. But in all honesty, I felt acutely labelled ‘other’ and ‘woman’ by what I hid and what I wore, in a way that I am not normally conscious of. Most of the time the only woman in a room full of men, on some occasions, though not all, I felt my ‘professional self’ undermined by the fact of being a woman.

In the scheme of things, my awkwardness and discomfort is no big deal and maybe I could get used to it if I had to, in the way that an Indian woman might feel they have to get used to wearing western clothes rather than a sari if they are in the UK. But the fact that work and professionalism gets filtered through gender stereotypes and expectations so explicitly is something women have to contend with more in some parts of the world than others.  Women’s bodies define women, what they can do, what they can say, whether they are heard, how they are treated. 



I keep coming back to voice. There were many complex layers of small ‘p’ politics and issues in some of the conversations had with business people, NGOs and their representatives. On some occasions, dialogue and mutual respect enabled good conversations despite disagreement. I valued these engagements enormously.

But there were meetings with business leaders at which the researchers had a stage, had a microphone, had an audience, but were evidently not listened to. When speaking to workers we knew we had to segregate the male and female researchers as well as the workers. I saw the look of surprise on some men’s faces when I walked into a room, I must have been so far removed from what they expected. I can’t blame them as they were likely basing their assumptions on experience – perhaps they had never seen a Professor before, let alone a white woman one.

But it isn’t a comfortable place to be, knowing that you are disrupting the expected order of things where that which counts as a woman’s or a man’s job is closely prescribed. For example, we were told unequivocally during our study that the relatively well paid task of ironing, was men’s work (in the UK, traditionalists would say ironing is in contrast women’s work), whereas checking was best done by women because they can be paid less and don’t cause any bother.

 Equal opportunity and the embedded pay disparity of gender based discrimination is one of the things that occupies me in the UK. While this emphasises the economic part of the story, economic power brings voice with it.  The social mobility enabled by some caste members and women through earning money that we learned of is of course to be applauded. But there are some jobs – it is implied - which women are just not equipped to do, and vice versa. For this and many other reasons, women can’t have the authority of men, make the choices men can, nor have their voice heard in the same way.


Power, respect and space

Underlying all this are the complex issues of power and respect. When I was called ‘sir’ by service workers, I understand that this is the closest category they have for me as a confident, professional, evidently privileged person. I anticipate that the intention was to show me respect. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience it that way in the same way that I don’t appreciate the male pronoun being used as gender neutral in many languages.

Similarly, segregation in going through security with women and men separated (‘men here, women this way’) left me wrong-footed and humiliated, not least in front of my peers. There are things going on here that I don’t fully understand. I recognise that there is an intention in there somewhere of respect for women to be scanned by women, in privacy, but this, again, is not how I experienced it. Instead I learn that women are kept in their expected place by physical control of the spaces they are allowed to occupy and in turn how they should behave within them (for example living in company-owned and controlled hostels), by signs, by instructions enforced by those in authority and by subordination to rules which they cannot change.


Gender segregated security checks. Photo by Laura Spence

None of the minor infractions so briefly experienced by me come anywhere close to that which other women experience, every minute of every day, for a lifetime. But I hope they serve the purpose of pointing to the dehumanisation and injustice which lies behind my words to the cost of women who deserve so much more. I refer to women whose bodies define them and limit their choices, who in the worst cases are subjected to abuse, whose voices are shut down if they wish to speak out (even speak at all in some cases), and who are repressed by their low status, limited opportunities and lack of power. Women who have no or little private time under their own control, and are discriminated against both directly and indirectly in every aspect of their lives.

In all of our countries gender disparity continues despite the good offices of so many people – and I had the privilege to meet some of them on our trip to India - who work hard to improve the circumstances of the least privileged men and women around the world. Thank goodness for the progress we have seen so far, but there remains a very long way to go.


Header image by Daniel Incandela under licence CC BY-NC 2.0

Posted in: Decent Work, Gender equality, Women


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