I’d liked the rock crystal pendant skull so much, I bought another from the same shop. This one’s a little larger (and it’s one you’ll often see me wearing at cons when I’m in my Pirate Queen outfit). It’s also jade, which is associated with longevity, death and the afterlife, so appropriate for a story whose narrator lies in suspended animation, generating fantasy metaphors for the virtual work they do.
In my final undergraduate year, I did an ethnographic study of a drag cabaret which ran out of a bar in the Gay Village near the university. I’ll blog about it more later, but at the moment all I want to say is that I was unusually lucky and was able to get two actual, grown-up, academic publications out of it.
Although the bar was pretty well-known, I anonymised it in the study by calling it The Fifty-Four.
Sometime later, I started seriously writing fiction. One of the types of fiction I write is a series of intermittent dark fantasy stories set in and around a Gay Village which is essentially a fictionalised version of the abovementioned Gay Village near the university.
In the first published story, “The Kindly Race,” I needed a name for a village bar that had a drag cabaret.
I called it The Fifty-Four.
Let’s just say it was my way of contributing to the debate of whether or not ethnography is just another kind of storytelling.
If you like this blog, you’re going to love this novel:
“In the not-too-distant future, intelligent Things are recognized as sentient beings–but do they have the same rights as humans? And what about the free-floating Intelligents deep within the Internet. Thompson Jennings is a man with unique problems and unique abilities–he can interface between the human and machine worlds, acting as a go-between in labour negotiations and other disputes. But when one his clients, a sentient taxicab, is murdered, his problems multiply and his abilities are stretched to the limit.”
I’m going to share an edited/anonymised extract from one of my fieldnotes. For context, Jon was a recently-joined member of my team, an undergraduate student, and Frank was one of the older workers on the line, who had a car, and who was one of two people from whom I regularly got lifts to and from work. A further point of context is that plant employees were required to wear uniforms of plant T-shirts, jackets and soft trousers, where team leaders and shopfloor managers had special jackets indicating their status, and visitors had to wear white lab coats over their clothing and goggles over their eyes (there are reasons for all this, which I’ll explain in a later post).
The extract runs as follows:
I ask Frank if Jon can ride along and he says OK. We arrange to meet at the door; there is apparently a new display there, involving mannequins working on a car. Frank describes it as ‘not ethnically representative’ of the line.
[At shift end] I get my bag and Jon and I head over to the main door…. The display depicts three mannequins… working on a completed electric blue Mini (one holds a scanner up to its manifest), observed by a woman in a visitor coat and a man in a shopfloor manager’s uniform. Not only are all the people depicted European, but the only woman present is the visitor. I remark on this to Frank and Jon, and Frank says, ‘Well, most women here are visitors’.
There’s a couple of things to unpack here. First of all, the lack of depicted ethnic diversity is surprising on one level, since the managers were all aware that the plant was an ethnically diverse place, and, as far as I can discern, no negative message was intended. On another level, though, it’s worth considering that ethnic diversity means different things in different places. So, a German observer might not see a lack of diversity in the grouping, since in the German context, “ethnic diversity” does not necessarily mean representation of different skin colours… but of, for instance, Turkish and Italian guest-workers and their descendants. Who a British worker would perceive as “White”.
(This is why, if you’re implementing or taking a diversity management/awareness course or programme, it’s good practice to interrogate whether the author means the same thing by “diversity” as you do. But that’s another issue.)
And then we get to the second point. If anything, the gendered message of the diorama was even less subtle than the ethnic one. It was reinforced by the fact that the diagrams at the front of the plant representing proper shopfloor attire showed, yes, a male figure wearing plant uniform, and a woman wearing visitors’ clothing. But Frank and Jon, who were well-educated, non-sexist, people, who were on mixed-gender teams, and were the sort of people to pick up on and decry what they perceived as an ethnically discriminatory diorama… not only didn’t see it, but Frank’s first reaction was to justify it. When I made the point that there are female associates on the line, Frank acknowledged that this was indeed another problem with the diorama… but that wasn’t his first, gut, reaction.
So again, we’re back to native categories, and the way in which unspoken, subtle assumptions about the world and how it works shape our workplaces.
I wrote an actual academic paper about this, which was published in 2012 in Management International Review. If you have institutional access, and are OK with wading through lit reviews and methodology sections, you can read it at the link.
Having got my research question (see Episode One) from the manager of the Car Factory, I set out to try and determine, through working on the assembly line While Female, to figure out why the Car Factory had trouble recruiting women.
Obvious lines of inquiry went by the wayside quite quickly.
Can most women not “do the job”? Really no. Some jobs in a car factory require brute strength, but some require small size and good manual dexterity. The Car Factory didn’t just want to recruit more women as some kind of diversity initiative; they genuinely needed a real range of sizes and abilities to work on the line.
Was it a hostile environment towards women? No. There were no topless pinups on the walls; the jokes on the line were rude (and the swearing genuinely creative) but not generally misogynous; the men could be patronising and one would encounter the occasional sexist, but frankly I’ve had that at every single workplace before and since.
Do British women not work in factories? Every single woman I spoke to on the line had either worked in a factory before, or had no issues with the idea of working in another factory later on.
After a while, though, I came to two conclusions: one simple and fixable, the other complicated and really hard to fix.
The “aha” moment for the first one came when I realised that, with a few exceptions, most of the women on the line were aged 16-25 and 40-65. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what women are usually doing between the ages of 25 and 40. Delving deeper, it became evident that yes, while it was possible to raise a family from birth to puberty while working on the line, it wasn’t easy. Factories have rigid schedules, you can’t turn up late for the line, leave early, or take time out over lunch. You can’t bring a child to work in a babysitting emergency. And Oxford is a pretty easy place to find a more childcare-friendly job as a cleaner, or shop assistant, or HTML programmer. So, most women were quitting, raising the kids, and coming back later.
Easily enough addressed: either work on ways to make the job more child-friendly (job-sharing, better childcare, increase emergency personnel cover), or else accept the loss and work on recruiting/keeping the women in the pre- and post-child age brackets.
The “aha” moment for problem two, however, came around the tenth or eleventh or twenty-fifth time I told someone around the university what I was doing, and got the reply, “a little girl like you?”
Now, I’m five-four and at the time could bench 40 kilos, so I’m not.
However, I also remembered that one of the women who joined the factory at the same time as me said, as we queued for the language proficiency test, that she and I “didn’t stand a chance” of being hired, with “all the big strong men” out there. And that I’d signed on to the temporary labour agency that supplied the factory for months before all this started, but at no point had the employment agents suggested I might be interested in a Car Factory job. Come to that, I’d never considered doing a Car Factory job myself. And so I started asking a few more questions, and eventually developed a hypothesis: that in British culture, people just don’t think of car factory work as women’s work. It’s not that they think women shouldn’t work there, or that they’re hostile to women who do work there, it’s that they just don’t think of it as a place where women work, unless something happens to shift that perception, or to make them aware that they have it.
Now this is something that structuralist anthropology calls the construction of native categories, which is a universal practice to the effect that we all carry around little social maps in our brains of what’s “normal” or “usual”, which is culturally determined. But that’s a side issue.
So, I couldn’t very well tell the Car Factory managers that all they needed to do was to change the deeply embedded social categories of an entire culture. I did say that there were some things they could do to help: for instance keeping up their hiring initiatives, or being more proactive by, for instance, encouraging the TLA to recruit more women, or go on information drives in the local community.
Either way: if you’re a woman reading this and you’re thinking about whether or not to take a car factory job, I can tell you it’s fine.
There’s more to say about women working on the assembly line, but I’ll save that for future episodes.
With apologies to John Nathan-Turner
06:00: Wake up. Go for a run, lift weights. Why? It will all be explained later.
08:00: On way to studio, with two giant bags of snacks. Make note of location of nearest supermarket. Make note of location of nearest caff serving all-day-breakfasts.
09:00: Arrive at studio to discover that the person with the keys to let you in isn’t there yet. Fine; the sound man won’t be there till nine-thirty and none of the actors are scheduled to arrive before ten.
09:05: Sound man, photographer, the owner of the replica props which are to feature in said photos, the scriptwriter and two actors all turn up early. Send them to abovementioned caff for an all-day breakfast.
09:30: The person with the keys arrives. Carry two bags of snacks, the photographers’ equipment, several boxes of replica props and four takeaway coffees up the stairs. This is why we go for runs and lift weights.
10:00: Actors installed in studio to begin the day’s work. Identify green room (or room which can be commandeered and designated green) and set up a table with a selection of snacks. Acquire the takeaway menus (all studios have a collection of these) for lunch.
10:45: Off to pick up actor at train station. There will inevitably be kerfuffles with the parking or the taxi, depending on which one is using. There is also the issue of recognition, as they may well never have met one before. This can be easily resolved with a hand-printed sign bearing the actors’ name.
11:00: Second shift of actors arrives. Put them in the green room and make sure they’re all happy until they need to be in the studio. Despite what you may have heard about actors, they are; I’ve yet to work with anyone who fit the stereotype of the demanding prima-donna. I’m not sure they exist, or, if they do, that they get any work.
11:30: Dragooned into studio to provide a read-in voice. One of the miracles of audio work is that you don’t actually have to record everyone on the same day, but that does mean the actors need a stunt person in to read the lines.
12:30: Circulate the takeaway menus. Make the order.
13:00: First shift for lunch. Whatever the ethnic origin of the takeaway, there will always be at least one actor who has lived, worked, and/or grown up in, the country in question, and who usually has very interesting stories.
14:00: Second shift for lunch. A well-organised producer has generally got the actors scheduled so as to maximise studio time; often this means that some work while some lunch, and vice versa.
14:30: Emergency snack run to nearest supermarket.
15:00: Conduct formal interviews with the actors who are done for the day, or on a long break. These will be published in magazines to promote the series, and eventually find their way to Magic Bullet Productions’ site as tie-in material.
16:00: Help the photographer and prop-man in the studio. Again, the results of these sessions can be seen in magazines, on audio websites, on Magic Bullet Productions’ website, and, on one occasion, illustrating the official BBC obituary of an actor who had appeared in our productions.
18:00: Help with takedown of photo studio and replica props. Clean up green room.
20:00: Dinner, or rather all-day breakfast, at caff.
22:00: Bed, and time to do it all again tomorrow!
The first: supply chains.
For most of the history of the car industry, a car factory was the centre of a large industrial park, consisting of smaller companies, all of which produced different parts of the car (they would also produce other things, which is why Morris Motors had, for a while, a line in spinoff refrigerators). From about the seventies onwards, when the development of cheap container shipping and increasingly good tracking systems started to enable global markets, these industrial parks gradually shrank and died, as the companies producing different parts of the car were sourced in different parts of the world (one of the fun things at the car factory was when we’d occasionally get some weird Brazilian insect, bewildered from its journey, clinging to a component).
So, these days most of the car is built somewhere else. I just assembled it.
The second: how assembly lines work.
Which is sort of a more sophisticated and ergonomic version of the famous sequence from the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. No, we’re not assembling the same widget over and over mindlessly. However, it means that I’ve got a pretty limited range of understanding of how to build a car outside of testing the electrical system and sticking in the indicator lights.
So, unless you want me to stick in the indicator lights, and you happen to have an electrical systems testing unit handy, I’m not much good to you.
The third: computers.
These days, so much of a car is computerised that actual mechanics often can’t fix a car, and need to send out for components or direct you to a specialist. So what hope do I have?
This doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t useful in terms of understanding the basic ways cars work; sheer demystification means I can at least hold useful conversations with my mechanic about what’s wrong with my Smart. And I learned a lot due to having bought a Mini Classic which was legally old enough to drive itself as my first car: it required constant maintenance just to keep on the right side of roadworthy, which teaches one good oil-changing habits and how to clean rust off electrical points with industrial vinegar.
But it does mean that anything I learned about fixing cars, I generally didn’t learn on the assembly line.
In 2002, I was knocking around the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, filling out grant application forms, submitting manuscripts, and feeling at a loss.
I’d just successfully defended my doctoral thesis, which had been a study of ethnic identity and transnationalism among German bankers in the City of London (it’s a book now, you can buy it here). The problem was, I’d been so busy focusing on that, beyond securing a post-doctoral place at the Said, I hadn’t given my future all that much more thought, and had no postdoc project to go with the place. So, while I had plenty to do, I didn’t have a new project.
A further problem was that, based on my experience in the City, companies generally expect your research to be something that helps them. And not many companies have an understanding of what an anthropologist can do. Even once I’d given them my elevator pitch on the subject, not many managers seemed that interested in having in-depth, first-person research which can uncover the problems that people don’t have the words to talk about. And even fewer were keen on the immersive nature of ethnography: to wit, of having a researcher literally around the company all day, ideally working in the same way the regular employees do.
So although I had lots of ideas for follow-up research, I had no place to do it.
Until one day my postdoc supervisor stuck her head round the office door. She’d been approached by the manager of an automobile MNC, which had recently changed its hands-off acquisition of the local car plant to a very, very hands-on one. They were also interested in engaging with the local community and making connections with university academics. They’d asked her if she had a project in mind to propose to the company. She’d said, “no, but I have this student…”
So, as quickly as possible, I wrote up a research proposal based on my thesis topic, polished my elevator pitch, got into my best suit, and went for a meeting with the general manager.
I pushed forward my proposal, I began my elevator pitch and…
The manager stopped me.
“We’d like to recruit more women,” he said. “We’ve been engaging in all sorts of hiring initiatives, mentoring, starting a crèche, but still we’re not recruiting them. And our exit interviews aren’t telling us why.”
“Oh,” I said.
“What we need is someone who can give us in-depth, first-person, data on what it’s like to be a woman on the assembly line. Who will spend a long period of time around the company, working in the same way as all the other employees. Who can identify the issues the assembly line workers aren’t able to tell us about….”
So there was nothing more for it, than to don a plant uniform, take a physical and mental proficiency test, and go out onto the assembly line.
Oh, and to answer the question I most often get asked after people find out what I did, no, I can’t fix your car. I’ll explain why in my next post on the Car Factory Adventure.
In the summer of 1999, I had a newly-completed M.Phil. degree from Oxford, severe burnout, and no money. I had gone to Amsterdam to celebrate the first and recover from the second. To address the third, I had travelled by bus.
The bus back was on the final leg of a journey up from Italy, and so was full of happy Italian students, heading back to the UK. Which, under normal circumstances, would have made for a fun atmosphere and a nice end to the journey. The problematic element was that the driver was also in the mood, and wanted to play his video collection. On the bus’ internal video system. At inescapable volume.
Here is one of the films: https://youtu.be/xll47sY_AvU
Here is another: https://youtu.be/84VpGffhmgs
[side note: the author of this blog claims no responsibility for the content of external links]
Nowadays, in this era of Google and Wikipedia, I am aware that the driver was a consummate fan of 1980s Italian action-comedy legends Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. At the time, all I could think was, “who exactly are these two gentlemen and why can I not escape their wacky adventures?”
And then came the border crossing at Calais.
We all filed off the bus, stood in a queue with our luggage, then stood in a waiting room until given permission to return to the bus.
Did I say “we?”
The sole exception had two thumbs, no money, and a very new Oxford M.Phil.
Now, it’s perfectly understandable why I’d been “randomly selected” for a bag search. I’d just spent a week sleeping in the communal dorm of a youth hostel, and looked it; I was carrying a much-worn rucksack with a Canadian flag on it (you have to have the flag, if you don’t they revoke your citizenship and ban you from buying maple syrup for life); I was wearing my last reasonably clean clothes, which were a pair of stripy linen harem pants, Birkinstocks, and a T-shirt advertising the Toronto Lesbian And Gay Pride 10 Kilometre Road Race. The T-shirt might, in hindsight, as well have read “I went to Amsterdam for the drugs, and I just might be stupid or naïve or overprivileged enough to try and bring back some snacks. Please search me.”
Furthermore, with the adventures of Signori Hill and Spencer on my mind, I was thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.
Maybe the box of tulip bulbs that the shopkeeper had assured me had all its certifications to return to England would turn out to be a rare specimen stolen from the Botanical Gardens, and I’d be arrested for trafficking….
Maybe the souvenir teddy bear from the youth hostel would turn out to have been stuffed with hemp fibre and set off all sorts of alarms…
Maybe the customs inspector would get entirely the wrong impression from the amusing souvenir T-shirt, or the box of cookies I’d bought for my friends back at college, or from the Charlie Chan mystery novel I’d book-swapped for or…
…well. Lack of sleep and three hours of Hill and Spencer had me convinced I’d be fleeing Calais on the back of a hippopotamus. So I just sat down and watched the bag search with detached, if slightly fatalistic, interest.
Partway through the bag search, the inspector said to me, “you know, you’re the calmest person about this that I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes. Normally people just stand there looking scared and guilty. But you’re not.”
So we got to talking, and I asked him what the weirdest professional experience he’d had was (unpacking the bags of a young couple and finding it full of used baby diapers, as it happens), and then he asked me a question and so I had to explain what anthropology was and why I was studying it, and I was back on the bus before long.
The Italians, still being happy, forgave me for the delay, and the trip back to Oxford otherwise went smoothly, to the merry sound of Miami Supercops.
If Hill and Spencer ever needed a scriptwriter for an English Channel customs-agent comedy, I was on it.
Every time I sell a work of fiction, I buy a crystal skull. This is the one that started it.
I’d started sending out flash fiction and poetry, nervously. I’d promised myself that I’d buy something nice the first time I sold something.
I got a rejection slip from Asimov. They’re a big market, hard to crack, especially for a beginning writer. I wasn’t surprised.
Shortly afterwards, I got an e-mail from Asimov.
“Sorry, you haven’t managed to sell those poems, have you?”
I was indeed surprised.
No, I hadn’t, and yes, I was happy to sell them.
I made less than £10 out of it once I’d cashed the foreign cheque (they didn’t do Paypal at the time). I spent the money on Something Nice, namely, a skull necklace I’d had my eye on. I thought it was appropriate; skulls being the house of creativity and symbolic of the characters I’d created.
It also started a trend.