On lanyards and personal identity

A friend recently observed that the current trend for wearing lanyards with ID cards seems to have aspects of identity performance: a way of visually indicating that you have a job, that you belong somewhere. That’s certainly true, but it can be rather complicated.

In 2012, I was working at a London university which had a noticeable occupational divide regarding lanyards and ID cards: Admin staff wore them, faculty did not. Both groups used their ID cards about as often as each other, but faculty generally carried them in wallets or pockets.

Then came the London 2012 Olympics. Before the event, orders came down that everyone on staff– regardless of pay grade– had to wear their ID card on a lanyard at all times, for security reasons.

Well, I thought, this will be interesting.  Because I was certain this divide was one of those things that isn’t a conscious part of your identity performance, but that is important nonetheless, and when you disrupt those, people are often uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain (Kate Fox, in Watching The English, is worth reading for how she explores and exploits this sort of social reaction). So I decided to watch what happened.

Sure enough, faculty dutifully put their ID cards on lanyards… and carried them in their hands. Or pockets. Or put them on just long enough to get from their office to the classroom before taking them off and leaving them to the side.

For my own part, even being aware of all this… I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable myself when I put on my lanyard. Like I was dressing up as something I wasn’t. I noticed that, like all the faculty, I was taking it off as often as I could. I knew why, but it wasn’t stopping me doing it.

What’s to take away from all this? Partly that organisational identity’s a complicated, organic thing that can be expressed in unexpected ways. But also that even something as seemingly neutral as wearing a lanyard can take on significance, and, when that happens, it’s a good idea to pay attention.

 

Lip Gloss on the Assembly Line

Last episode, I said I’d talk about uniforms and clothing at the Car Factory, so here it is, as promised.

There are always rules about what you can and can’t wear on the line. Jewelry and metal fastenings can damage the car; dangly bits of anything can potentially get you injured or killed. This is also, by the way, why visitors to the line wore white lab coats and safety goggles; not only did it make them easy to identify, but it covered up anything which might scratch the metal or catch on equipment.

Shortly before I started at the Factory, worker dress was: 1) soft trousers, without external studs or fasteners (zips were OK so long as they were covered), and 2) T-shirts, with, as far as I know, minimal restrictions as to style and content.

The plant also had uniform jackets, though in practice you were unlikely to get one unless you’d worked there for more than about six months, as the jackets were new enough to have a backlog. There were three different styles for workers, team leaders and managers, and they were hugely popular. You’d see them all around town as an expression of team spirit, if you like.

By the time I started, the under-jacket uniform had switched to 1) the abovementioned soft trousers, and 2) company-branded T-shirts, in three different colours (colour-coded to the three plant shifts).

The uniforms were nice-looking, and there were obvious advantages to wearing them: no worries about someone taking offense at someone else’s T-shirt, for instance. But, getting back to Factory Working While Female, there was another issue as well.

One morning, I rolled out of bed at five AM as usual, showered, put on the factory uniform, rubbed face cream on my face, and put on lip balm. Except I didn’t. By accident, I’d put on lip gloss. Pretty, sparkly lip gloss.

Now, there was no rule against wearing lip gloss on the line. Makeup in general wasn’t worn, because it could rub off on things and get them dirty (and besides, who wants that sort of fuss and bother in the morning when you’re just going to be spending all day slinging electrical testing equipment). Lip gloss wouldn’t do that, though, and it made a nice change from the usual no-makeup-face I wore on the line. So I didn’t really think anything of it.

But it definitely got a reaction from my teammates, male and female.

“Hey, you’re looking good there!”

“Done something new with your look?”

“That really suits you, you know?”

None of it negative, but everyone clearly noticed. Even something as small as sparkly lip gloss.

Not long after, one of the other women on the team was due some leave, and was talking about what she’d do with it. “First thing,” she said, “I’m going to get a manicure. And then I’m going to put on makeup, and a really frilly dress.”

It’s worth pointing out here that, although most people think of women factory hands as looking like Rosie The Riveter or the machinists from Made In Dagenham, where plant uniforms are charmingly accessorised with a nice (if practical) hairdo, a colourful scarf, some bright lipstick, a blouse just visible under the overalls… none of that was going on in the Car Factory. Nobody was wearing lip gloss, except by mistake. Nobody was wearing their hair in anything but the most practical styles. Necklaces were permissible, so long as you could tuck them into your shirt, but you saw more of those on the men (many of whom liked those big, chunky, gold chains favoured by hip-hop artists) than the women.

Now, it’s not something I’ve analysed in detail. But once I thought about it, it began to seem a lot like protective camouflage. Not a denial of being a woman or a pretense of being a man, but a way of saying, through dress and accessory, that gender doesn’t matter. That everybody at the factory is, essentially, just a body, same as any other body. That the important bits are the legs, the arms, and the head.

So, as well as health, safety, protection and preventing unexpected disputes on the line, the uniform also erased gender divides. It’s debatable to what extent this was a Good Thing, in that it undoubtedly helped generate a non-hostile atmosphere towards women, versus a Problem, in that it also reinforced native categories to the effect that it was not normal to Be Female on a car assembly line. But it was certainly a way of showing how even the smallest details of the workplace environment matter.

 

Another note on fiction

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.

The Diorama: Categories in a Car Factory

To continue on the subject of women in the Car Factory (see previous posts here and here), I’d like to talk about the Diorama Incident.

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.

The Answer Is Not What You Think: Why The Car Factory Had Trouble Recruiting Women

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.

 

The Reasons Why I Can’t Fix Your 3-Series: Car Factory, Continued.

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.

Sorry.

Really? Can You Fix My 3-Series? How I Wound Up Working On A Car 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.