Posts Tagged ‘ gender ’

Thoughts on catering work and gender roles

Well who wouldn't be this happy on £6 per hour?!

It’s been a while since I’ve had a ‘proper’ job. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had one, if a ‘proper’ job is a permanent, full-time, career-focussed job. It’s always been service sector work, like waiting tables, washing dishes and looking after kids.

PhDs are usually funded for three years, and i was lucky enough to get funding. It’s not much, but still enough to live on. However in September last year my three years was up and i needed to get some other income. What i found was a job as a waiter for a catering company. This company specialise in corporate events, usually bankers, insurance brokers, lawyers, and so on. They are subcontractors to events companies who are subcontracted out by companies to organise flashy parties, events and ceremonies for them; part of a huge pyramid that makes up the events industry for the nouveau riche.

From very early on, i was struck by the gendered division of labour within the company. The women (or ‘girls’ as they are usually called) serve and clear food and canapes. This is hard work, physically difficult, non-stop and utterly mindless. There is very little skill, inventiveness or joy in this role. For the men (or ‘boys’ as we are known) serve wine or work the bar. This involves pretending to be authoritative and knowledgeable about wine and making polite and slightly flirty conversation with guests.

This gender division of labour is itself a practice that is fundamentally based on old-fashioned gender stereotypes of the (knowledgeable and outgoing) man and the (drone-like, domesticated and homely) woman. Management routinely emphasise the importance of being the role; of living it, even in the kitchen and on the rare occasion when we get a break.

This is what you would expect from the nouveau riche so-called ‘high’ society, desperately clinging to antiquated norms dredged from the stagnant canal of middle class pretensions to unobtainable grandeur. The absurd idea that practising (nay, insisting that your servants practice) outmoded, reactionary normative codes somehow elevates you to the level of those who instituted them (i.e. aristocracy, gentry, etc.) is not really a major problem; after all, this isn’t exactly something specific to the catering industry. There is also another level to this, and i want to discuss it briefly.

One particularly notable dynamic within the workers is that this gendered division of labour creates gendered dynamics among the workers. There is of course a spatial division – chiefly between the food prep area and the drinks store – but also an insatiable tendency to exaggerate one’s masculinity/femininity, as you might expect. If you’re being told that you must inhabit the body of a confident, masculine, knowledgeable wine waiter, then – so the logic goes – you submit to authority and the conditions and practices of your working life, and perform that role as best you can.

However, this exaggeration of gender does not take place in a way one might expect. Relations are awkward, like a school disco, and the women are definitely in control for the most part. The matriarchs are chiefly young, look after the other women, and spend a great deal of time and effort belittling the professional capabilities of the Alpha males (very successfully, i might add!). Men, in turn, spend a lot of time and effort affirming their masculinity to each other through telling dirty jokes, attempting to carry fifteen chairs at once, and so on. They seem genuinely lost and child-like at times, far from the authoritative wine connoisseurs that they are supposed to be.

So these gendered categories take on characteristics that go beyond the simple male-authoritative/female-homely roles that are given to them. It’s one of those ways in which the dynamics of (in this case, patriarchal) structures in everyday life simply don’t work in the way one might expect. Although the situation remains, of course, horribly patriarchal at its root, the way these roles don’t conform to what is expected makes me feel a little more optimistic about the power of authority to structure our relations. Clearly it doesn’t always work.

I wish i could say something more profound, but it’s getting late, i’ve already rambled on for long enough, and i’m not the most articulate or experienced blogger yet. Onwards and upwards…