Thursday, January 20, 2022

Work Environments

I meant to finish off my top ten books of 2021 list tonight, but I've been thinking a lot about the murder of Ashling Murphy and some conversations that it led to over the weekend. It's made me wonder about other people's workplace experience so here I am.

I currently work in an all-female team in a bookshop where the customer ratio is fairly even but possibly just tips towards a female majority too. This is somewhat different from the twenty years I spent in the wine trade where I was always in a minority.

The last time I worked in an all-women team was in the late 1990s when I spent a year as a cook in a nursery. It wasn't a happy experience, I replaced one of two men who had been there, the other one was forced out by a frankly hostile atmosphere, and there were always cliques of people at odds with each other. 

After that I worked with a borderline crazy woman in a bookshop who kept telling me that she had a special power; people she disliked died - accompanied by a long stare. She loathed me, I'm still here, but the last time I saw her she was so intent on not making eye contact she walked into a lamp post which I like to think was karma. 

In Oddbins and other wine shops, I got used to being very much part of a minority, albeit a significant one, and being part of quite a macho culture (although that's a description that would surprise a lot of my former colleagues). When I recruited staff it was also mostly, though by no means exclusively men. More applied which made it easier to find people who would fit into the team we had. I still remember being somewhat shocked when I had a rugby-playing Christmas temp described to me by another woman as 'a treat' I'd hired myself. 

He was a treat for all of us in that he was a nice guy who never complained about the heavy lifting the job involved and could effortlessly reach things from the top shelves, but that's not how the comment was meant. Since then I've come across all sorts of toxic behaviour from both men and women, and given the choice would always opt for an as close to evenly mixed workplace as possible, so it's surprising to me how pleasant it is to work just with women right now. 

It's refreshing not hearing the vaguely inappropriate jokes and comments, not having to pick people up on them (and be considered a humourless bitch in the process). Good to be part of a team that likes and respects each other - this is lucky, not gender-related) and freeing not to have to police conversation so that it doesn't make male colleagues uncomfortable. We don't sit around talking about periods all day, but occasionally it's a relief to be able to say you feel like crap and know you'll get a mildly sympathetic response. 

Our romance buying (predominantly women) customers are much more comfortable talking about their book choices with other women too, confident that they won't be sneered at, or thought to be inviting unwanted attention when they mention the smut content. There's something quite depressing about this, which brings me back to Ashling Murphy - a teacher and folk musician who was minding her own business on a run in daylight when she was murdered. 

There seems to be a gap in communication that's really damaging. We all need to be better at making our workplaces work for everybody, part of which is a more general comfort for women around talking about issues that specifically affect us. I don't really have a conclusion here, more a general interest in what other people's experience has been and where/how to find the happy medium that's genuinely inclusive. 

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