Thursday, January 13, 2005

Gender in the city

A queue experience in M&S has just reminded me of a perfect illustration of the difference between sex and gender. Which I shall now share, as hey, that's part of my job.

M and I were in Sainsbury's the other week, and it was heaving. We were trying to find the best queue to join. I picked one where most of the trolleys weren't too full, but then moved down one when I saw that the cashier was a man. Always choose a woman, I said. That's a bit sexist of you, said M.

Ah no, I said. That is gender aware of me.

Supermarket checkout jobs pay badly - often not much more than minimum wage - and are often part time. These sorts of jobs are usually taken by women, who are more likely to have childcare responsibilities (early years, after school, school holidays). They need a job which they can fit round their other commitments. There aren't that many employers who will be that flexible, so options are limited.

Whereas men, if they are in work, are usually in full time work. They are much less likely to have a caring role during the standard working week, so they have far more choice of jobs. They are also much less likely to have taken a career break, and more likely to seek a senior position -- often because they are the main breadwinner in a family. So they tend to work more hours, and they get paid more per hour.

So a woman on the checkout in the supermarket is fairly likely to be capable of doing a far more sophisticated, better paid job, she just isn't. She may well also have been doing the job for a while, she knows it inside out, knows what to do when the till roll runs out and what the difference is between a Danish pastry and a Chelsea bun. She can also often scan significantly faster than you can pack, and she keeps an ultra-beady eye on the pen so it doesn't walk.

There are far fewer men, and the ones you see tend to be either teenage boys waiting for their lives to start and chronically lacking in social skills, or friendly but awkward adult men who seem to have learnt how to interact from a book, make well-intentioned but desperately inappropriate comments, and whom you can't quite imagine surviving in a less rule-bound enviroment. It's my guess that either way, most of them live with their mothers. Who are quite possibly working on the next till along.

These are of course generalisations. My ex-local supermarket was staffed seven days a week by a woman with no neck who went purple with anger if anything happened that she wasn't expecting and hadn't personally authorised. And the middle eastern supermarket down the road is staffed solely by men who have the price of everything in their heads and weigh things in their hands.

But following the law of averages, if you find yourself in a hurry in a supermarket, choose a till with a woman on it. This is nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with sociology.

joella

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