Working for the Car Factory: Assessment Tests

As part of my ethnographic study of the Car Factory, I worked on the assembly line (see introduction). To do this, I went through the same assessment and induction procedure as anyone else who wanted to work on the line, which I’ll outline over the next few posts, based on my fieldnotes and beginning with the assessment tests:

I arrive at the car factory about 9:40, having been told to get there at 9:45; there are already plenty of people there, hanging around the reception booth, a small glass structure at the factory gates. None of them greet me. I go into the reception booth, give my name and am given a small piece of paper with my name, the date etc. on it in biro—apparently a special temporary pass for temporary labour candidates, much less flashy than the pass I have worn to visit the factory on previous occasions. When I come out, the lone woman in the group (middle aged, office-lady type) smiles at me and says she guesses we’re the only two women here? The others are male—about one-third each White, Asian and Black. Several have a studenty look. Most are aged about 18-30; there are two older men. One of the younger White men approaches me and shyly asks if I have done assembly-line work before: I admit to not having done so, and he says, “Good, I’m not the only one.” He adds, “I can’t even drive!” There are about 20 of us all told.

Around ten Mike [all names changed to protect the innocent], the temporary labour agency manager, turns up, wearing a factory uniform jacket. Although we have met on several occasions before he does not acknowledge me and I do not acknowledge him. He introduces himself and asks if we have all remembered our proof of entitlement to work (excluding one very tall, bald, Black man, who apparently works for another plant in the group and whose details are there). There is consternation among several of the candidates. Mike is exasperated: “well, I told you to bring some!” He takes their names, then leads us the long way round to the building which houses the temporary labour agency’s office. The other woman protests at the length of the journey. She remarks that since there are so many men here, she and I don’t stand a chance of being hired.

When we reach the building we are on the side with the broken lift and have to walk up four floors; some protest. Upon arriving at the testing area, Mike wearily tells us not to complain about the heat, as they can’t turn the heater off. Much later, Mike tells me that all this is actually part of the assessment, intended to test physical fitness, endurance, and ability to cheerfully deal with difficult conditions.

We are split into two groups, directed by a small Asian woman named Sara. My group does the “practical” test first; this involves fitting together a small engine part following directions and diagrams in a booklet. This is not hard; my biggest problem is learning how to operate the ratchet, since I have never used one before (although, to judge from the noises from elsewhere in the room, neither have several of the others). The second group does a written test. The other woman leaves after the practical, as she has apparently done the written tests elsewhere. I never find out if she passed or not.

Then we all come together to do an attention-to-quality test, which involves looking at pictures of groups of objects and identifying those with defects; the second part involves classifying different defective objects by type of defect. One man with a Jamaican accent has to have the directions explained at length; another man, with an Oxford accent, complains that he can’t make out the pictures without his glasses. He is told to do the best he can. After these tests, my group does the written test.

Mike and Sara then go into an office to grade the tests; people sit around, one or two talk quietly but the rest stare into space. When they reemerge, Sara calls out six or seven names (including mine) and asks us to join her in the side office; Mike stays with the others. Sara informs us that we are the ones who passed, and now we will have our interviews. The others include: two young Asian men, a small Black man about thirtyish, and two young White men, one of whom has multiple facial piercings. She gives us some forms to fill out.

My interviewer is a man my own age named Tim. I explain to him about the project, and refer him to my HR contact, Tessa, at the Car Factory. He seems interested, and when he goes away to photocopy my passport he apparently asks does ask them about it, as when he comes back he tells me that Tessa will be handling my case from now on. The interview is not strenuous; he asks details of my previous employment, why I quit, have I done any comparable work before, what sort of assembly-line work do I feel I’m best suited for, what can I bring to the organization. I emphasise my teamwork skills and attention to quality. He makes sure I am briefed about shifts, salaries, etc. He does not shake my hand when I leave, but says that someone will be in touch about starting dates soon. I am left to find my own way out.

Next episode: induction.

Families, factories and sleeping dragons

While I was working at Car Factory, my grandmother died. This wasn’t unexpected; she was ninety-eight and, although she’d been quite independent for most of that time, her health had taken a sudden turn for the worse in the previous six months. But she was someone I visited at least once a year and spoke to on the phone every week, so it was something of an emotional shock.

The day after I got the news, I was on the line, and talking with my line partner (I did the left side of the car, she did the right) about my grandmother, trying to process the information and remembering what an important person she’d been in my life. After a bit, my line partner frowned.

“What was her name?” she asked.

“Margaret– Peggy Moore,” I answered.

My line partner frowned harder. “Not Peggy from Upholstry Fittings?”

Well, of course it wasn’t– my grandmother lived a good three hours’ train journey from Oxfordshire. But it was interesting she might think so. My line partner had a grown son working on another part of the line, and his younger brother was likely to join him. Another female co-worker had grown up in the shadow of the factory and spoke proudly about how her father and grandfather had worked there.

Which goes some way to explaining why people in the local area would campaign to keep the factory going, even when the owner wasn’t too enthusiastic; why they welcomed the factory’s current owner, even in a political and social climate which was generally suspicious of foreign ownership, and why, if they complained about any of the factory’s previous owners at all, it was about ones who had generally given little evidence of caring about the local community at all.

Now, I’m not going to start pretending that corporations are benign local citizens. In and of themselves, they’re not. They’re in it to make money, at the end of the day. But, particularly when they’re in the area for multiple generations, like Car Factory was, they can become a big part of people’s lives.

Imagine people living next to a huge dragon that spends most of its time sleeping. In and of itself, it’s just being a dragon. But the added sulphur from its breath and fewmets improves crops; it’s a striking part of the landscape. People take pride in the fact that other people think of them as the villagers who live next to the dragon. Occasionally, yes, it wakes up and eats the sheep; but it’s also a living, breathing being that’s a part of your life, and has been a part of your parents’ grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives. And may well be a part of your children and grandchildren’s.

And that, in a way, is family.

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.