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.