Gender and Power at Work

I know it’s been a while between updates. I’ve been struggling at work, and haven’t had a whole lot of energy for writing. I’m also starting to firm up a plan for my first chapter, so I’m not sure how often I’ll update here. After all, I want to write the chapters, not just the blog. Anyway, here’s my latest.

Men procrastinate, women get on with it

A close friend of mine recently went through a restructure at work. It was a harrowing and anxiety-inducing experience for her. The restructure seemed to be aimed at removing one particularly difficult employee, who constantly needled his female manager, and argued behind her back that he ought to be the one in charge. He did his job slowly, but delivered his work late and full of errors. He had a completely inflated sense of his own worth to the company, but still seemed to be on a career-spanning go-slow.

Another female friend told me how they had started to use Customer Relationship Management software at work. It sounded like there could have been more training given to employees, but what struck me was how it was exclusively men who grumpily refused, like overgrown toddlers, to adopt the new practise, inventing all sorts of reasons not to do the marginal extra work required to update the database.

This led us to a conversation about a colleague who appeared to be writing a book at work, and talking about it in the break room in flagrant disregard of the possibility of managerial retribution. This is a weirdly common phenomenon: David Graeber refers to the case of a Spanish civil servant who spent his work hours studying Spinoza instead of working (Bullshit Jobs, 3). He also recently retweeted this example:


While I find it easy to assemble examples of men engaged in time-wasting and procrastination as acts of psychic petit marronage, most women I know just get on with their work. Almost all the people who have ever surprised me with their timeliness, courtesy, comprehensive preparation, and ability to anticipate the needs of colleagues have been women. Most of the people I’ve ever seen autonomously pick up after tardy and underprepared (male) colleagues have also been women. The exceptions – like the one malingering female colleague I can bring to mind, or a male lecturer who used to return marked work to students within a week of submission – make the rule seem all the more true.

It might be positive identification error, but women seem to me to just be more diligent and better at time management than men. And yes, I do worry that I’m one of these procrastinating, time-wasting men. If you’re willing to permit me this generalisation from anecdata, I’d like to attack this question: why do men engage in petty acts of work resistance so often and so consistently?

Unbearable constraint

Scholars of work from political economy, sociology, and anthropology all seem obsessed with the idea that work is an unbearable constraint on individual freedom. These scholars are also almost all white men. The idea of freedom is everywhere in academic work on work, though nowhere most clearly in the way scholars of work talk about space travel as a metaphor for utopian dreams of freedom. As if the technicians working on the Saturn V didn’t have managers!

This male obsession with freedom dates back to John Stuart Mill, who argued that industrial work was essentially slavery, and argued that only work freely entered into could contain dignity: “The liberty of quitting a position often makes the whole difference between its being painful or pleasurable” (Spencer, The Political Economy of Work, 30).

The 19th century philosopher Charles Fourier talked about the idea of ‘free work,’ by which he meant work freely entered into by the worker. Fourier was an early advocate of what we now call a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a means to secure this freedom. He wrote sardonically:

‘We must love work,’ say our sages. Well! How can we? What is loveable about work in civilisation? For nine-tenths of all men work procures nothing but profitless boredom. Rich men, consequently, find work loathsome and do only the easiest and most lucrative kinds of work such as managing companies. How can you make a poor man love work when you are not even able to make work agreeable for the rich? (PEoW, 36)

‘Free work’ is not too different from what John Hobson (another white man) advocated in the early 20th century – a ‘living wage’ that would cover physiological necessity, secure and stable work, and the ability to participate in the management of the firms they worked for. Although it retains the core of the employment relation, this model still tries to alter the employment relation into one where all workers get to direct their own labours.

The particular type of freedom these white men demand is the ability to stop working whenever they want to, regardless of whether their labours are complete. Developed as it has over centuries of post-industrial labour, this idea assumes that workers and their employers do not share the same needs, drives and desires, they are antagonistic to one another. There is a double instrumentality at play in work: the employee works as a means to secure income, and internalises the needs of the employer as a means to keeping their job. This instrumental internalisation is the root of Marxian alienation.

Work is about Power

What is it about working for someone else that makes white men so angry? It matters that work is conducted within a power dynamic: manager/managed, supplier/client, etc. Those power dynamics are shaped and contained by the legal device of the contract, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t without their frictions.

David Graeber cites sociologist Lynn Chancer, who wrote about the similarities between the way BDSM subcultures represent the frisson of erotic power dynamics and the way the employment relation subordinates the needs of the worker to the needs of their employer. At work, he argues, there is

…no safe-word, except, perhaps, “I quit.” To pronounce these words, however, does more than simply break off the scenario of humiliation; it breaks off the work relationship entirely—and might well lead to one’s ending up playing a very different game, one where you’re desperately scrounging around to find something to eat or how to prevent one’s heat from being shut off. (BJ, 121-2)

This is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was driving at when she said at SXSW that “we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.” A UBI is a theoretical attempt to empower workers to use their safeword without consequences. It lets them quit without having their heat cut off, without dying. It does so by attempting to rebalance the power dynamic between workers and employers.

The question here is: what does one do when one finds oneself subject to a power dynamic in which one cannot say no? I am put in mind of the way Linda May Alcoff talks about her experience of the power dynamics of heterosexual sex in Rape and Resistance:

If I say simply that I wish I had been asked, it sounds trivial, laughable, silly. But that is what I wish had happened. If I had been asked, the nature of the experience for me would have changed; it would not have left a ‘bad taste’ (RaR, 7)

Alcoff’s particular take on consent shows that even the most dangerous power dynamics are nuanced and complex. Consider the ways in which contemporary management techniques are about “asking” workers rather than telling them.

I do not mean to trivialise rape by comparing it to wage labour, any more than I meant to when I compared wage labour to slavery. Both rape and slavery are egregious practices that stretch the ties between people beyond breaking point and function by making the other inhuman. At its worst, work can approach these awful yardsticks, but for most of us it’s nowhere near it.

I mean only to illuminate that there are consequences to being in power dynamics that are well known to those who must contend with them every day. Perhaps white men have such a stunted and underdeveloped vocabulary for talking about power that their only option when they find themselves subject to it is anger. What would it take to get white men to feel like they could flourish in a dynamic of power that does not benefit them, without making their colleagues at work carry them?

Pluralism is a way out

Marx famously talked of alienation, the idea that the worker is alienated from himself, from his work as a creative activity, from the outputs of his work, and from his peers. At its heart alienation assumes an authentic self that is negated or repressed by work. When white men complain about their jobs – or, as in the anecdotes I began with, simply refuse to do them well or without complaint – I feel like they are tapping into this sense of thwarted authenticity. But the problem is, this model of authenticity requires total, unimpeded freedom. Ultimately it argues that if you are not completely free to exercise your own free will at all times, you are not free, and you are not your authentic self. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘free time’.

Marx less famously talked of necessity, a theme which Hannah Arendt – one of only two women I’ve read on the topic of work – developed in The Human Condition. Necessity must be staved off, it can never be eliminated, until we die. The notion of plurality is central to her argument in The Human Condition. Plurality means we live in a constant state of miscommunication and misrecognition that affects all of our relationships. How we deal with plurality is the human condition; it is power. It affects the employment relation as much as it affects all relations.

The philosopher of agonistic pluralism and radical democracy Chantal Mouffe wrote that pluralism is central to our constitution as subjects:

“…we are in fact multiple and contradictory subjects, inhabitants of a diversity of communities (as many, really, as the social relations in which we participate and the subject positions they define), constructed in a variety of discourses, and precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those subject positions.” (Return of the Political, 20)

She also argued that “Relations of authority and power cannot completely disappear, and it is important to abandon the myth of a transparent society, reconciled with itself, for that kind of fantasy leads to totalitarianism.” (RotP, 18) She was writing about democracy, but she could have been writing about work. What she calls the “liberal conception of the ‘unencumbered self’” (RotP, 20) is part of the problem – by expecting to be ourselves only when we are free of others we are forbidding ourselves our very identities, our very subjectivities. You can’t live outside of relations of power, they define you. If freedom is freedom from all others, then it is the freedom to be a dictator (or perhaps, in the work example, a CEO or an entrepreneur).

Work might take up too much of our time. It might be broadly meaningless and awful. It might be the source of inequality and injustice. It is almost certainly in dire need of radical reform bordering on revolution. But no matter how alluring the utopian dream of a world without work, we cannot afford to mistake it for a world without hardship, or toil, or difficulty. Work is just another kind of politics, another kind of power. Even with a UBI, someone still has to take out the garbage, and it cannot always be women.


Header image: “An IBM 704 Computer at NACA in 1957”, NASA via Wikimedia Commons, here.

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