the need to ‘go to’ work? The story of institutional refugees & how things need to change

Men and women in the workplace

The concept of a ‘workplace’ has evolved through capitalism, industrialisation, commercialism and urbanism. And it has changed. The key driver in that change has been technology and home computing – but are we using technology as well as we can to create functional new workplaces that replace the suit+commute model?

I attended a day at Pavilion Dance in Bournemouth on Wednesday convened by Claire Hodgson. An excellent speaker and cultural leader, she shared her personal perspective with an auditorium full of arts professionals. She referred to homeworkers as ‘workplace refugees’. Claire emphasised that she is a culture professional, woman, a mother and a daughter and those things are  all equal in her life. Why are our workplaces still shaped for a male dominated work culture? Why are jobs advertised as posts with fixed hours, fixed days, fixed job descriptions instead of task-led? Does a leader, or indeed anyone, work better within that framework, or does it create an oppressive regime that threatens a good work/life balance?

Claire said several things that have made me think deeply about feminism.  What surprised me most was that she proposed that women ask men to ‘sponsor’ them in the workplace. My first reaction was shock – was she saying we should ask men to help women climb up the work ladder? Then she pointed out that the suffragettes needed men to support their cause to enable them to have the vote. It’s a good point. They were the gatekeepers to progress.

The present employment model used in institutions was created for a traditional workplace that no longer exists. Companies such as Google are changing this situation, and they are well placed to do so – they understand the value of technology. Claire called for the art sector to make better use of technology in the workplace, asking why it is not releasing us from this rigid daily-grind framework. That made me think a lot and made me reflect upon the changes I have witnessed since I first entered the ‘workplace’.

I’m in my 50’s and remember working in a County Council office that had a typing pool. The typing pool was the hub of the offices upstairs – all corridors led to it. The mainframe computer was in the basement and ran the systems that had not yet been made available to the general office staff – kept in a dedicated room with magnetic pads to wipe your shoes on before entry. The computer itself was the size of a very big garden shed. I was fascinated by this ‘thing’. The computer programmers worked in a tiny office, away from the other employees. All clustered together, staring at screens in a dark underground room, they wore jeans, didn’t comb their hair, a scruffy bunch indeed. Few people in today’s workplaces will have ever seen that and probably cannot imagine it either.

I also recall that both my father and my ex-husband worked in offices with secretaries who typed their letters, made their phone calls, distributed their memos in duplicate. The (mostly) women booked flights, ordered company cars and made tea for the men. Sometimes men made tea for them, as a gesture, maybe once a month, to prove they were feminists too.

In the early 90’s it became common for employees to work from home – much more economical. Desktop computing meant that petrol could be saved, offices were smaller and staff could do more of their own administration. The requirement for women to support men in the office diminished – both men and women needed to learn to type their own letters, use computers, book their own flights. It sounds laughable now that men had previously had women to do those things for them, but it was a culture shock to those traditional men. I suspect they resented technology coming along – it exposed their lack of ability to conduct their work without the aid of a secretary.

Using technology in the workplace today

Today’s workplace is very different to the one described above. New build houses now often include a small room for an office – it is rapidly becoming the norm to work at home. I’m not saying this is preferable to the social space of a traditional office, but it is increasingly common for all the reasons above.

So technology has played a role in changing the status of women in the workplace, they no longer have to work for men, yet the statistics still evidence that men are more common at senior and board level and that women still earn less than men. Do we need to mimic the suffragettes and ask the men to let us in? Could it be that many large institutions lock-down their security tightly to deliberately stop the natural flow of communication and social behavior that the internet can offer? Owning knowledge is a commodity, yet the internet allows people to find out almost anything they wish to. Is the locking down of computers really about security, or is it about power? Are we using technology as well as we could be, or are we being hindered from doing so?

Many people hold an either/or mentality about analogue and digital. There is a fear that one replaces the other, but I disagree, I celebrate their difference and use them in different ways because of that. Ordnance survey maps are great – but sat nav does something equally great, in a different way. I love books, but I prefer to read on my iPad. Skype phones, webinars, hangouts, MOOC’s – they all have their place in the world and as homeworkers, we are lucky to have access to them. And we need to use them if we are to change the concept of the workplace. They are as-well-as real meetings, not instead of. If more people are either chasing, or forced into, the home-workplace, the institutions need to keep up with those things. Too many large employers, such as local government offices, do not allow access to those platforms due to security concerns. As a freelance worker who often works with them as partners, it becomes a real problem when a nationally-spread team cannot meet online, simply because the council computer system does not allow that. These technologies save time, money and the environment – less time travelling, less cars on the road, more efficient use of our time.

So I return to Claire’s suggestion – that women ask men to let them into the workplace as equals. Might withholding access to technology for employees be the last bastion of the male-dominated workplace? Are the men in high office continuing to exert a gatekeeper mentality, as their fingertips slide off the edge of their mahogany desktops, spilling the coffee from their china teacup, knocking the carbon-copies onto the floor, with no secretary to pick them up for them?

And on a much lighter note – and something I would like to say more about soon, there are some great videos online about feminism. Sadly some men in offices won’t be able to access them, but we can!

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