Equality in the workplace received a considerable boost from the fizzy promises of feminism in the 1960s, but the next few decades were still turbulent for many professional women, because there weren’t enough of us to form a critical mass in the professions — including the major law, accounting, and consulting firms. There were, however, enough of us to be considered, literally, fair game. I recall when, in the early 1990s, a senior partner of a large national firm asked, only half in jest, if a new policy on sexual harassment would mean cancelling the Christmas party. Another partner insisted it would be unfair if women on maternity leave were entitled to continue along the partnership track on equal terms. A newly minted female partner informed me that a woman should delay entering practice until after her children had grown. Still, many of the women I knew denied there was a problem at all or were convinced that they did not identify with or need feminism.
I was reminded of these incidents when reading Karen Messing’s jargon-free, unbuttoned new book, Bent Out of Shape. Things may have improved for some professionals since those days, but many other working women still experience deep and pervasive inequality that enhances their risks for occupational illness and injury. Messing, a biologist and ergonomist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, probes the experiences of women in low-paid and low-prestige jobs: cleaners, poultry plant and assembly line employees, food servers, and personal support workers, among others. While much of her book focuses on occupational health and safety in Quebec, her research and analysis are broadly relevant.
The fact that workplaces are often structured by and for men is not exactly news. Many women are in jobs that are physically and economically precarious or train for vocational and trade work that is ill-suited for them. “In the workplace,” Messing writes, “women have to deal with our bodies being considered ‘second bodies’— different, abnormal, inferior in size and strength. When we enter the job market, our jobs are often ‘second jobs’— supposedly easier, requiring fewer abilities, and worth less pay.” The result is often higher levels of stress, depression, disease, and injury. Messing’s interviewees speak of a continued lack of solidarity among many women, despite blatant examples of discrimination and harassment affecting them all.
What is news is what Messing and her team discovered when they went into workplaces and analyzed the minutiae of job requirements. As soon as employers and union leaders could understand the causes of workplace problems, the researchers once reasoned, changes would surely follow. Yet the opposite often occurred. Some decision makers remained unmoved or became hostile when Messing’s team identified harmful gender differences. After they presented one report, “a very high ranking male member of the union confederation seized the mic. He denounced the ‘negative atmosphere’ and asked for more ‘positive’ contributions.”
In another case, the researchers had studied gender-segregated roles for hospital cleaners, who are considered to be on the lowest rung of the job hierarchy. The idea was to look more closely at the divide between women’s “light work” and men’s “heavy work,” a distinction that relied on stereotypes, while belying the levels of physical stress imposed on the women. Messing’s team offered eighty-four recommendations — regarding equipment, procedures, and installations — for the managers and consultants who had “underestimated the physical challenges” of so‑called light work. Over time, separate job descriptions were merged into one, but when the researchers returned a decade later, they found that taboos surrounding what men and women should do were still prevalent and that many tasks remained segregated in fact, if not on paper. “The number and proportion of women cleaners had dropped sharply,” Messing writes, and those who remained were younger and had less seniority. “Our professional and feminist pride took quite a beating.”
In yet a different study, from 2006, Messing and her team analyzed technicians who prepared and installed phone lines and internet connections. They found that women, who made up about 2 percent of that workforce, had three times as many accidents as men on a per-employee basis over a four-year period. These rates were alarming — even higher than in other non-traditional jobs like heavy manufacturing, where women have a third more injuries than men. Ladders, it appeared, were one of the main culprits. In fact, almost a third of the accidents involving women also involved ladders. Weighing in at fifty kilograms, they were physically challenging to carry and often dangerous to position and climb. The women were generally not as strong as the men, they were shorter, and they had lower centres of gravity. To make matters worse, their heavy tool belts were either too big or badly proportioned, increasing the risk of injury. Training based on techniques that were appropriate for men’s bodies was of little help, and in some cases those techniques were impossible for women to follow in practice. Subsequent research showed that a significant number of the women who were originally surveyed had left the field three years later.
Messing also points to several cases where recommendations for change were, remarkably, much more likely to succeed if gender bias and women’s health were barely mentioned at all, let alone spotlighted as top-line messages.
Women, who interact with their occupational worlds in unique and complex ways, are frequently devalued, stigmatized, and discouraged from speaking up. As a result, the problems they face are less likely to be recognized and studied, which reinforces a vicious circle of academic neglect and occupational risk.
The reality of working women’s health is too often submerged under the tides of broader trends and research focused on men and on “Great Events” that feature — well, men. In this respect, Jason Russell’s Canada, a Working History is a welcome addition to the literature. It attempts to uncover at least some important stories and put a progressive stamp on Canadian history. Russell’s book is not about women’s work or even the working class; rather, it offers a panoramic tour of productive human activity in this country, starting with the arrival of Indigenous peoples and ending with today’s gig economy. Stops are made along the way at slavery, domestic work, and unions, while detours include war as a form of employment, the evolution of management theory, and forays into the way in which work — including women’s work — is portrayed in popular culture.
Some of these developments are well known, while others are absent in most history books, at least the ones that I grew up with. Marking off the better-known milestones for women, Russell discusses the seventeenth-century arrival of the filles du roi; the influx of women into the modern workforce, especially around the Second World War; and demands for social justice in the turbulent 1960s. Russell also considers investigative journalism as a way of drawing out herstories, including Gloria Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale,” the pioneering Show magazine exposé of the New York Playboy Club, from 1963.
Among Russell’s lesser-known stories is a 1977 incident at a medium-sized auto parts plant in Huron Park, Ontario. A labour dispute involving a United Auto Workers local, Russell explains, “drew national attention because a majority of the strikers were women.” The men involved would eventually cross the picket line (anyone who has ever been involved in a strike will pause here), but the women didn’t back down. Soon there were more provincial police officers in town than there were employees picketing.
Russell alludes to the Canadian Human Rights Act, from 1977, but does not engage with the critical partnership of labour organizations and civil rights advocates after the Second World War. Fair practices offices emerged in the 1950s, followed by human rights commissions and tribunals that were established through a wave of new equality laws, including Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which predated the federal legislation by fifteen years. About three-quarters of the 10,000 or so complaints that are now filed with commissions and tribunals each year are related to the workplace, so this is an important indicator of general trends and women’s work, in particular, that would have enriched Russell’s book.
Messing, for her part, makes the connections between her scholarship and human rights law more explicitly. Perhaps this is no surprise, considering she acted as an expert witness in the landmark Gaz Métropolitain case that went before the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2011 and set a stringent bar for recruitment practices involving women in blue-collar jobs. Messing and her team have also formed coalitions with legal scholars and policy makers to harness research findings and advocate for change.
Social justice is not free of conflict, of course. The #MeToo movement may have increased pressure on employers to get serious about sexual harassment and aggression, but progress has been much slower in areas related to health and safety. Requests to employers to adjust schedules, equipment, uniforms, tools, and temperatures so that workplaces are more responsive to women’s needs (as opposed to merely accommodating biological and social differences) are often fiercely resisted for reasons of social stigma and fear of losing competitive advantage. Such asks are also fraught within feminist circles.
Messing is brave to step into this discussion, especially given the critiques within the movement and the resistance she and others have encountered from universities and granting agencies. But, she argues, it’s critical to expand and deepen our thinking:
I have come to believe that some of our failures to attain equality and health at work come from obstacles we haven’t been facing and don’t like to talk about — such as biological and social differences between men and women. I have seen (and been among) working women choked to silence by shame about being physically weaker, about menstruating, about needing to get to the daycare centre on time, about hot flashes, and I’ve realized that we need to think hard about the costs of our silence and talk with each other about solutions.
Within the scientific community, the reluctance to collect gender-sensitive data widens knowledge gaps. So does the fact that female participants are frequently excluded from studies about pain and the toxic effects of chemicals. There is considerable irony, then, in Messing’s description of how employers often cite women’s “second-class bodies” when denying them equal treatment and ignoring health issues that are aggravated on the job. “I have never seen a workplace prevention or compensation program that targeted female-specific problems,” she writes, “although some jurisdictions in other countries allow for unpaid leave during menstruation.”
Many of the working women described in Bent Out of Shape have access to fewer advocacy and legal resources than others; as a result, they have fewer points of leverage to encourage employers and unions to address their concerns. Promoting an influential workplace voice for women — and not just women at large, but also specifically women of colour, women with disabilities, migrant women, and those who are LGBTQ — can transform a harmful knowledge deficit into a virtuous circle that actually encourages women-focused research and is capable of leading to meaningful reform, in both practice and law. It can also promote important policy changes that extend beyond the workplace. (One cannot read Messing’s descriptions of women struggling to juggle work and child care, for example, without being reminded of the acute need for access to high-quality and accessible child care programs, not just tax credits and other economic instruments.)
Until all these elements are in place, the lack of respect for and research on women’s relationship to work makes it difficult to demand equality and health protection at the same time. Real equality will be the product of the less visible but more painstaking and iterative tasks of adjusting equipment and tools, paying attention to disproportionate accident rates in blue-collar jobs (especially among new hires), and transforming unions so that they work more effectively for their female members. And while Quebec may pride itself on its support for women’s equality, the scissions among feminists and the endemic opposition by the Coalition Avenir Québec to recognizing systemic discrimination and racism make progress even harder. In the end, solidarity with working women must come from all women, and this message is one of the most powerful in Messing’s book.