Working for the Car Factory: the Tour, Part One

Continued from last episode

After the presentations, we are taken to a big building near the carpark, and introduced to Pete, a man with glasses and a goatee. He tells us to put on lab coats, and gives us battery sets with earphones and safety glasses. I ask if I can leave the tour early, as I’d already done the tour with my supervisor the previous month, and he says no. He tells us to wait in the area beyond until the tour guides arrive. This is a wide space with tables and chairs at one end, and two displays on the wall; one is of the history of the Car Factory and the other is of its current operations. The operational one emphasises the modernity of the proceedings and the ergonomics and general comfort of the staff. I’m starting to feel a bit like a battery-farmed hen. Joining us are two Black women and an Asian man.

I strike up a conversation with the hawk-nosed man. He is called Saeed and was born in the Middle East, but his parents are East African. He has been in this town for 16 years and is studying in London part-time.  I also talk with the Asian man; he and the two women have just started in Paint.

After about a fifteen minute wait we are herded into an auditorium at the back of the room behind black partitions by two older English men and two young German women. We are told to fill up the front row first, then the next one. There is an LCD screen, currently displaying the error message that the computer is locked. One young woman tries to unlock it for several minutes, then someone is dispatched to find an administrator. An older man stands up in front and introduces himself as Jim; he says that this is a new tour which they are going to be giving to other people, starting with a vintage car club on the weekend; we are the guinea pigs. He suggests to the girls that we start with the video. He passes around sticky tape for people to cover their rings with.

The video is about 8 minutes long and appears to have been translated from the German, without much fluidity. There are cumbersome phrases along the lines of “High Performance Stylings” which would no doubt have sounded better in the original. It shows us montages of cars, a potted history of the company, and an overview of all the major Car Factories  worldwide, with an emphasis on the Western ones. There is some branding: the car this Factory produces is cool, chic and sassy. Apparently.

After the video, there is another struggle to unlock the computer; the administrator herself tries and fails. The first woman is then dispatched up to the podium with a sheaf of notes. She gives us a talk about the company (most of which was already covered in the video), its productivity, its worldwide focus. This is obviously aimed at investors rather than at the likes of us. At the end of the talk we are informed that the two older men, Jim and Tommy, will be showing us around the Body in White and Assembly plants, while one of the women will tell us about Paint as we walk by it.

Continued next episode…

 

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.