Doing Gender

Yes, it’s me (Jenny) again for the second time on the blog.  And yes, I am still here.  Ryan’s been a runaway success with the blog, whereas I’ve been a rather reticent participant.  But I am coming around to seeing its value.  While he’s on photo safari (learning from professional photographers while on safari–much like it sounds I guess!) this weekend, it seems like a good time for me to post.

My research project here in South Africa which was funded by a Fulbright award (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, and university teaching), is about gender.  I’ve always had an interest in understanding why men and women are viewed and view themselves differently in the workplace.  And some of my recent research projects have focused on new ways of understanding the glass ceiling, that is, invisible yet salient barriers that impede women and other minorities’ progress in organizations.  Here in South Africa, I’m working with Dr. Stella Nkomo at the University of Pretoria to understand whether companies who have gender equity at the top (women represented on their boards of directors and in top management) not only experience better financial performance, but also–and this is what I’m really interested in–have more positive work climates for women at all levels.  So, are women on Boards and in top management simply a matter of “window-dressing,” or is their presence a true indicator of an equitable workplace?

While I focus on these topics every day at work, “doing gender” is not just what I do, it seems more and more to be a lens through which I view the world.  More on that in just a second–but first, a funny story.  I’ve become friends with another Fulbrighter here in Pretoria, Dr. Hannah Britton from the University of Kansas.  She’s a political scientist who also “does gender” but her focus is on violence against women and girls, and women’s representation in governments in Africa.  [So as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that maybe this isn’t going to be funny to you, but it is to me.]  Hannah has become known as the “gender person” at an organization she works with here in South Africa.  Recently, a well-intended coworker showed up in her office and asked her if she could, quite simply, “write something about gender” for her.  [That was the funny part, in case you missed it.]  Presumably this was for a grant, or for a newsletter, or something.  But we had a laugh about what “something about gender” would be:  “Well, I’m a girl…..,”  “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of…,” or “hear me roar….,”–you get the point.

Now back to the idea of gender being a lens:  a South African cultural example.  Our house on the Education campus includes the services of a housekeeper, not once every two weeks as is probably standard in the U.S., but…get this…every day Monday through Friday.  So about 9AM every weekday a really friendly, clever, candid, funny, hard-working young woman [note: I don’t want to use her name without her permission] shows up at our house to do dishes, sweep and vacuum, make beds, clean bathrooms, dust, etc.  And on Friday she swaps the bedsheets, duvets, and towels out with clean ones.  She cleans our house and three others on campus every day.  She works very hard and for this she makes around R 700 per month (or $97).  Right now her husband is out of work, and she is supporting him and their two children on this salary.  It may be tempting to say, oh, but the cost of living must be cheaper there.  Not really.  Gas is about one and a half times the U.S. price.  The 2006 car we bought is worth about $10K here whereas the book value would be about half that in the States.  And groceries are really pricey–definitely higher than at home.

While this woman supports her family by cleaning my house (and puts up with my dog following her from room to room), I’m off to my nice office at the University.  As the Phil Collins’ song goes, “Oh, think twice.  Just another day for you and me in paradise.”  I have a lot of thoughts about her life versus my life, and all of the privileges I’ve had and continue to enjoy.  Just because I have the education, skin color, and opportunities that I have, my job is not physically demanding, clean, and comes with resources like healthcare, travel, enough money to live comfortably, and a degree of respect.  Whereas, how many years will she able to stand on tile floors, bend, and carry to support her family?  As a woman “doing gender” in the context of work, how can I dismiss the differences in the lives that we lead, now so tightly entwined with one another?

Yet she has a strong sense of self, and has pride in the hard work she does every day.  Lest you fall into a deep depression due to the previous paragraph, let me give you an example of how she is clever and candid.  I made 2 dozen or so biscuits last week, and I left several in a baggie on our kitchen counter with her name on it.  When I saw her on Friday, she thanked me for the “cookies.”  She was VERY surprised that they tasted good.  First, she said she was puzzled by this because she thought American women “couldn’t cook.”  She asked how I made them, in a tone that was a little skeptical that I had actually done it, which I assured her I had.  Then, she told the story of her family sitting down together for dinner, telling them that these “cookies” were made by an American, and literally asking them all to pray that they would be edible.  🙂

Our housekeeper is a strong, assertive, young woman, with a good sense of humor, who, despite the fact that her cleaners’ union is now out on strike, continues to come early, work hard, and perform death-defying acts of eating food made by Americans.  I came to South Africa to “do gender” in the ivory tower of academia, studying privileged women working in corporate jobs.  Little did I know that perhaps the most valuable lessons I’d learn would happen in my own home.

South African Cleaners - On-strike Since August 3

11 thoughts on “Doing Gender

  1. Jenny, I just discovered your blog! Terrific article! I am going to bookmark it so I can catch up with the rest of your trip. You are such an amazing young woman, we are so proud of you and the great work you do. Have a fantastic adventure! Sending hugs around the world to you!

    • Thanks, Coleen! Nice to hear from you. You can also subscribe to the blog with your email address. Just scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Sign me up!”

  2. I have no doubts that South-Africa is a real eye-opener when it comes to inequality in life in general… On that topic, I watched “Waiting for Superman” the other day. Another reminder of the privileges I have and kids (girls as well as boys) just a few blocks south of us are deprived of.
    PS. The awesomeness of your cookies is independent of culture or gender.

  3. This is such an awesome way to spend time with you guys and experience your trip. Looking forward to learning lots and seeing some great photos. We had dinner with your parents last night. They are very proud of you guys!

  4. Hi Jenny, we love hearing several times a week from Ryan and it’s meaningful hearing your voice, too. Please keep writing and know that we enjoy reading each detail both of you share.

  5. Jenny,

    I’m guessing that you are being shortchanged with that expensive food. It most likely does not contain all of the wonderful enhancements that have been added to food in the USA.
    I am thinking about the addition of phosphates and salts to our meats and the addition of stabilizers/emulsifiers to dairy products.

    Roast a chicken for your housekeeper and think of me….


  6. Hi Jenny!

    I loved your note. It reminded me of living in Mexico 40 years ago (from the age of 8 to 12) where my family experienced a similar situation on the home front. However, five days per week, we had both a husband and wife care for our home, and at a cost of 40 pesos per week. Back then the value of the peso was equivalent to 8 cents (U.S.). My mother always gave them extra $ because although she was on a strick budget while attending Medical school, she couldn’t bare the thought of our maid servants go home on the weekend without enough money to feed themselves and their children. Before returning to the U.S., we had established a close relationship with our maid servants and left them with several small household applicances, kitchen ware, bed linens, etc. that they otherwise could not afford.

    After reading Ryan’s messages (and yours) I’m intrigued by the similarities you two are experiencing in South Africa that I was exposed to in Mexico as a young child. I love hearing your stories and look forward to finding out about your latest adventures. Please keep them coming. I feel like I’m right there with you. Hugs and kisses to you both. Love Sarah (& Rodney)

  7. Pingback: Dr Buna, in Nu Drab, Gets Dan Rub in Durban « AfricAnnum

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