Farm Life: My Sexist Workplace

On my first night in Levin, some of the other workers who live at the holiday park told me some stories of their experiences of working at Woodhaven. They mentioned that it is quite a sexist place. This quickly became apparent when I started work.

As the farm produces many different crops, there is a large variation in jobs. These jobs have been somewhat arbitrarily allocated genders. Packing vegetables is a female job, so is sorting courgettes/ zucchinis, planting and harvesting radishes or spinach. Harvesting courgettes/ zucchinis or pumpkins or lettuces is a male job, as is stacking crates.

There is some method to these gender roles: men are generally physically stronger so they do the more strenuous jobs. Women do the physically easier jobs. The planters are small and uncomfortable for tall people, so women do this job as they are shorter.

This would all be fine, except that sometimes the women are very strong or very tall and the men are shorter and less built. Perhaps the assignment of jobs should take these aspects into account as well?

It seems that boys are not allowed to do girls jobs and vice versa.

The company was founded in 1978 and on occasion it seems that the social aspects of the workplace haven’t left that era. It is quite common for some of the male staff members make sexist or suggestive comments. For example, just yesterday, a male staff member was about to give me and two other girls a lift to the field we were going to pick spinach in and another male staff member commented something along the the lines of “You’ve got three girls hanging around your car, lucky guy.” Which is so unnecessary and inappropriate, especially given that the guy making the comment didn’t know any of the girls he was talking about.

It’s not just the women who suffer from this kind of irritating sexism. The men are (mostly) given the more physically demanding jobs and are shamed for complaining about any muscle pains – it is considered weak for them to take a day off to recover from back pain, for example.

The event that really triggered me to write this blog was the party for some of the Samoan boys who were leaving. The party was at the boss’ house and there was lots of alcohol flowing. I arrived late, so missed the announcement of the “house rules”. Rule one was wine is only for the girls and beer is only for the boys. Despite the fact that this rule was continually broken by almost everyone that night, it really represents the archaic line of thinking at Woodhaven.

These fairly insignificant, niggling things elude to a greater problem of how women and femininity is seen.

At this party, some of the Samoan boys were inappropriately touching the women there, which made some of them more than a little uncomfortable. Some might argue that they didn’t know better, but I think it doesn’t help that they don’t have the best role models. Other, more senior members of staff also took the lad-ish joking around too far.

In my opinion, in their position it is their duty to be a good example. At a party, it is possible to have fun without getting drunk and making your employees uncomfortable by pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. A friendly handshake or hug is acceptable. Bodily lifting someone off the ground multiple times, especially someone you don’t know well, is not so much.

The fact that there is also a power play here makes me really quite angry. The more senior staff can get away with this kind of behavior because they are in charge. It also suggests to newer make workers, especially those who are from countries where the understanding of gender equality is limited, that this kind of behavior is okay.

It makes me sad, because New Zealand is such a beautiful country, with such friendly, welcoming people. Perhaps people who come to work here will get the wrong impression that Kiwis are all sexist, backwards and old fashioned. It really lets New Zealand down.

I have to say though, despite all the issues with Woodhaven, I am impressed time and time again by some of the workers, especially the islander women I’ve worked with, who work relentlessly and uncomplainingly in wind or rain or full sun. We all work hard, but they bring a joy to what they do that us Europeans can’t match. They are just so happy to be earning money to send back to their families.

I find these women inspirational, as they show me how to be strong and push on and find joy even when I might not feel like it. It is strange to be in a workplace that I can find so empowering and so oppressive at the same time.

The world still has a long way to go until gender equality is a reality and it will not happen until men in positions of power change their thinking about women and femininity.

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