What happens when you make someone a cup of tea? If you do it in your own home, then it’s an act of hospitality and welcome, or just part of the give and take of life in relationship with others. But if you do it at work, it’s not always quite so simple.
On Saturday I talked about Equals at the Gathering of Women Leaders. It’s one of the best things I’m involved in and I love it. Every time we get female leaders in a room together, there’s an incredible sense of energy and people making great connections and last Saturday was no exception.
We were exploring gender and the workplace. Workplaces such as businesses and organizations are not gender-neutral. We might think that gender is something that people bring in to work from outside but that view ignores the way that workplaces have developed. In every workplace there are expectations and assumptions about what men do here, how they behave and how they are treated, and different expectations and assumptions for women. And remember that churches are places of work as well as worship so this applies there too.
Our workplaces also help to construct gender. We practice gender at work in the way we live out our beliefs about men and women in our actions and words, the ‘literal sayings and doings of gender in real time and place’. So, for example,
- Men who refer to women in the workplace as ‘girls’ are practising gender, by infantilizing women in the language they choose.
- Women who work better for a male manager and resist being managed by another woman are practising gender by favouring the leadership of men.
- Men who only mentor or network with other men at work are practising gender by acting in the belief that having that type of working relationship with a woman is risky.
- Women who always clear up after other people at work are practicing gender by playing a role that traditionally mothers do for their families
In all these examples, people are enacting their beliefs about women and men in their words and behaviour at work. Work is not a neutral place that men and women enter and leave without it having any impact on their experience of being men and women. The practising of gender at work helps to shape who we are and how we feel about ourselves as women and men.
Someone asked about servant-heartedness. If Jesus is our model as a servant leader, then shouldn’t we be willing to make the tea for others at work, or to clear up after them, or to cook supper for the team, or make cakes for people at work?
The trouble is that all of those activities are gendered in that, on the whole, it is women who do them most readily and most often. When they are performed by women at work, they trigger associations in other people of the times and places when they have experienced women doing those same things – and that’s usually in a home context where women are being carers or mothers or nurturers. When women perform them at work, at some level they can draw us out of the workplace and make us feel like we are playing those roles of carer or mother or nurturer instead of the work roles that we are there to do.
I was talking to a female Director of HR recently whose executive team meet together for an evening meal from time to time, to build relationships with each other. It is usually the women on the team who are asked to host the meal and cook for everyone, so rather than being fully engaged in the evening, they are engineering the meal. On the rare occasions when the men on the team have hosted, their wives have cooked the meal while the men engage fully in the conversation. She’s decided that she will no longer host those meals, nor make cakes for their team meetings, because of the gendered assumptions it produces in her colleagues and in herself.
Someone on Saturday was reflecting on a recent experience of offering to make tea for some men who had arrived for a meeting. She had a strong sense of it putting her at a disadvantage because of how it made her feel and how she sensed it changed their perception of her.
We need a good level of self-awareness in contexts like this, to ask what’s really going on, and to be aware of the dynamics of the situation. But some of us need to stop making the tea at work, stop clearing up after other people, stop organising lunches for the team and baking cakes so that we can engage at work without a whole load of baggage getting in the way. There are plenty of other ways to be servant hearted if that’s what you want to do.