Gender at Work

Gender often impacts on the division of labor, fragments the workforce and assigns gendered characteristics in specific sectors and occupations. These processes are nominally informal, yet as they are operationalized in the labor process, they may become formalized or interact positively as well as negatively with other formal divisions (Dyer, McDowell, and Batnitzky 2010; Johnston and Lee 2012). Women are underrepresented in middle and higher-ranking positions—as well as trade unions and trade union committees—and are, correspondingly, generally speaking, paid less and overrepresented in low-waged positions (Ioakimoglou and Soumeli 2008).

Despite all the legislation, technocratic policy suggestions and public rhetoric about (the need of) gender equality, there are still exclusively masculine and exclusively feminine jobs and primarily masculine and primarily feminine jobs coexisting with gender neutral jobs in all the industries of the Cypriot economy[2]. This is a result of the maintenance and reproduction of patriarchal structures of thought and action and gendered conceptions of the social reality, in which occupational sex segregation prevails and women’s work is socially and institutionally under valued (Perales 2013). Notions of the “proper” or “suitable” occupations for men and women are taken more or less for granted and are thus sustained and reproduced from generation to generation (Ness 2012). Work sex segregation is immensely entrenched, as beyond the social conventions about what jobs women should do or what occupations they can do, gender roles may even become the product of worker agency (Huppatz and Goodwin 2013), or attain the form of a subjective career choice reinforced by self-expression ideals (Cech 2013).

Gender inequality, gender roles and gendered ideological frames are subject to historical change and in fact throughout the 20th century and especially in its second half gender relations in Cyprus underwent significant transformation. There has been an obvious improvement of the social position of women facilitated through their mass entry into the labor market (Christodoulou 1992), the increasing international influences and most specifically the path toward entry in the EU, which has brought legislative and institutional changes and the changing mentalities and lifestyles prevailing by the last quarter of the 20th century. However, traditional values and social conservatism remain strong and so does one of the basic axioms of the patriarchal mode of thinking—sex work segregation.

The gendering of specific occupations in most industries is a “taken for granted” phenomenon. My informants were puzzled, probably thinking that there was something wrong with me, when I asked them why there are no men cleaners or secretaries and why there are no women builders or technicians. These questions seemed kind of strange or even childish. Employers, managers and trade unionists responded by pointing out the lack of women applicants for such “men’s jobs” and vice versa and when asked why they thought this was so, they resorted to various social stereotypes about the abilities and qualities of the genders.

•Men do not clean well[3]. •Customers do not like to have men cleaning their rooms[4]. •Women cannot endure the physical burden required in construction[5].

The explanations given for the segregation of the genders at work were not restricted to biological attributes, but also included social and sexual explanations.

•Women have to take care of their family and do not have time or ambition for careers[6]. •If women were employed in construction they would sexually distract the men workers who would be staring at their legs and breasts[7].

The segregation of the genders at work is only the first step in the gendering process. Once it is established that a specific occupation or work position belongs to men or women, the next step is to attribute male or female characteristics to the job itself.

•Get a lady to clean here[8]. •When there is a technical problem in a room I call Mr X [head of maintenance department] to send me one of his men upstairs to fix it[9]. •I have no problem with my girls. They are conscientious and hard-working[10].

Since it is women who do and have always done the cleaning, it becomes customary to refer to the hotels’ or the banks’ cleaners as “the women”[11]. “It was the women that started the 1999 strike. They were the stronger card of the trade unions”[12]. The division into masculine and feminine jobs is also rationalized and internalized by the women themselves. Many women, for example, referred to biological factors to explain the division into “masculine” and “feminine” jobs. At the same time they said that full equality between the genders has not been achieved although significant progress has been made. Some considered masculine jobs more challenging, but complained that men think of feminine jobs as pointless and boring[13]. Thus, occupational sex segregation segments the labor market assigning women to lower wage and lower status jobs, but this also can impact negatively on particular groups of men as well who tend to avoid jobs that are classified as “feminine” reducing the range of their employment opportunities (Moskos 2012).

Discrimination on the basis of gender with respect to upward mobility is present and visible to most workers and this applies to both unionized and nonunionized workplaces.

•There is discrimination. They don’t give money to women. They say, she has a man so they do not promote her. . . . I started work here at the same time with some men colleagues. They have become chef de partie, I have remained a cook B[14].

Beyond the classic explanation of male bread-winning ideology and the lack of interest of women in careers, there is also a reflexive stance trying to put the women themselves in the equation.

•We, older women are more submissive. The younger women are more demanding. Of course there is discrimination. Why are there not women sous chefs?[15]

In the Cooperative Central Bank, one middle-aged female employee explained the “war” she and her colleagues waged in the past for their rights, provoking the intervention of the trade union.Things have improved in the last decade, she admitted:

•... but not to the extent we want. Patriarchy is still here and the struggle must continue.It is up to us the women, to a certain extent.We must not tolerate the establishment and must seek with our qualifications and our argumentations to rectify the injustice we suffer[16].

Gender however, is not only a factor of discrimination and division in the work place. It is simultaneously a factor allowing and facilitating the creation of work collectivities based on common experiences and common work life circumstances. Gender is in other words not only fragmenting the labor force in the interests of exploitation and oppression, but can also constitute a resource of uniting individual workers, promoting notions of collective identity and commonality of interests based on the real commonality of working conditions and the idea of a shared fate. Women workers who are working together in say the housekeeping or the restaurants department of a hotel sometimes find their gender identity to be a significant element both in their communication and interaction at work and in their construction of social relations of solidarity and coping strategies [17].

  1. This text constitutes part of the chapter 'Gender, Ethnicity, and Age at Work' of the article ''Labour force Fragmantation in Contemporary Cyprus'', which was published in Working USA, The Journal of Labour and Society in 2015.
  2. The state and the social partners recognized with considerable delay the seriousness of the problem of the pay gap between men and women (Labor Relations Department 2007), but little was done and with limited success, as it remained as high as 24% in 2010 (Kambouridou 2010; Lambraki 2010; Soumeli 2010) when the Labor Relations Department began a more active attempt to deal with it. However, although it has more recently fallen to 16.4%, it remains one of the highest ones among EU states (Sigmalive 3/11/2014).
  3. Case study 2, housekeeper.
  4. Case study 3, gousekeeper.
  5. Case study 6, foreman. The same explanation was used by trade unionists.
  6. This argument was used by both men and women workers in case studies 3, 4, and 5.
  7. Case study 7, foreman. The sexual distraction argument was used by some men workers as well.
  8. Case study 1, food and beverage manager.
  9. Case study 3, housekeeper.
  10. Case study 2, housekeeper.
  11. Case studies 1, 2, 3, and 4—interviews with housekeepers.
  12. Case study 1, head barman.
  13. Case study 6, secretary and sales person.
  14. Case study 3, woman cook B.
  15. Case study 3, woman cook A.
  16. Case study 5, middle-aged woman, departmental manager A.
  17. Case study 3.


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