Day 12: Things They Don’t See
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
"Happy International Women's Day!" The kind, older gentleman greets me as he puts together a small tea party inside the vintage van he is repurposing. The sides are wood-panelled, and today he's installing the heating. It really is stunning. Later, I pick up the dishes and head out to wash up under the tap at the edge of the field. “That’s a bit sexist you doing the washing up for them!" he calls after me, "And today of all days!"
I feel awkward, my gender suddenly the focus of everyone's thoughts. I want to explain that these two other volunteers have done at least as much washing up, cooking and hosting as me over the last few weeks - more than that - these men are my best allies here. I want to tell him about the time they swapped jobs with me when I was given the ‘light’ tasks, about how they showed me how to use the jack in a non-patronising way, and that they always pass me the tools to ensure I have a go.
To be female in a male-dominated environment so often means questioning your own version of reality. Some small acts of sexism are visible, like the farmer’s wife “reassuring” me that they have “plenty of lighter, more domestic jobs lined up" for me. Like the farmer exclaiming, "You don't know what a prolapse is?! It's very female!" But generally no-one mentions the fact that I am the only woman here who is not related/married to the farmer, and so most of my dialogue about gender is internal, invisible to all others, in and out of the gendered reality of daily living.
Things they don't see
1) The Male Domain
They don’t see that any task involving tools feels like it is automatically in "the male domain", even if the task itself is not difficult e.g. jacking up the legs on a caravan, getting out the staples to remove stock fencing.
They don’t see that I feel I am trespassing every time I use these tools, and that this can feel both thrilling and terrifying.
They don’t see that I anxiously anticipate being excluded from using the tools by not given a turn, perhaps because of not having the prior knowledge, perhaps because they will assume that I don't know what to do even if I do.
They don’t see that explanations and other forms of ‘help’ often carry the dual purpose of demonstrating that this is not my territory.
They don’t see that I feel wildly grateful when I am included, as if I have been granted special access.
2) Negotiating the Stereotype
They don’t see my fear of being what I imagine they expect me to be – a female who is in practical terms, pretty useless.
They don't see that negotiating the stereotype includes a fear of either failing to complete practical tasks or doing them so slowly or inexpertly that the men feel impatient / frustrated / awkward.
They don’t see the way I try not to seem useless while also trying to avoid aggravating the men, by putting in enough effort to get most of the way through a task then asking them to take over, or with a repetitive task doing it once and then passing it on.
They don’t see my reluctance here to do any activity that is traditionally seen as ‘feminine’, even if it is useful or enjoyable e.g. mending my socks.
3) The tightrope
They don’t see that I am walking a tightrope.
On the one side, there is the temptation to give up on this kind of practical task to avoid all that fear and anxiety, a choice which would risk leaving me frustrated.
On the other side, there is the temptation to determinedly prove myself, a choice which, being reactive, would risk side-lining my own self-knowledge, leading to potential physical injury.
They don't see that because of being a woman in a male-dominated workplace, it takes extra effort for me to simply be myself, a learner in a new environment.
Until now, I had never thought of farming as a particularly masculine venture, perhaps because of all the brilliant shepherdesses I follow on Twitter. I really couldn't do without the other two volunteers. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the extent of my own gratitude. Why do I feel so grateful to be treated as an equal? What does that say about my experiences of society more broadly?
But the kind older gentleman has just given us tea and cake in his van, and he's so well-intentioned that I allow his call-out of sexism to stand, and these same two men awkwardly take the mugs off me.