What many contemporary media workers lack in basic reading comprehension, they make up for with spectacular confusion. In the newsroom of the present, work is produced in paranoid haste, then consumed by time-poor people. Few have the capacity to provide thoughtful content and few have the hours to receive it. So what we get in the place of hearty news analyses are quick-fix, pre-digested gobbets of opinion prepared to serve our lowest “Us Vs. Them” impulses. Such as that ancient favourite, The Battle of the Sexes.
When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced his party’s childcare policy in June, he said that the burden of domestic labour served to diminish women’s work opportunity. That women were “second-class citizens”, he said, was a national shame. The journalist Lisa Wilkinson elected to seize only upon the phrase “second-class citizens” and called Shorten, whom she perceived as sexist, a “dinosaur”. But he really wasn’t being a sexist dinosaur, he was merely reporting on Jurassic conditions.
Such brontosauran folly is now common, particularly when someone says the word “women”. Women, about whom everyone has an opinion, are a regular focus of media stupidity and public misunderstanding, as we have again seen in press this week. When UK Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke about domestic labour, he was decried by a thousand Wilkinsons for daring to describe the actual difficulties that women face.
In a long speech outlining policy on women’s labour participation, Corbyn had happened to briefly mention that work-related leisure, such as after-work drinks, could present problems for mothers in particular.
[Karl Stefanovic is not a hero. His ‘apology’ to transpeople means jack]
What Corbyn said was:
“The behaviour of companies that encourages an ethic of after-work socialisation in order to promote themselves within the company benefits men, who don’t feel the need to be at home looking after their children, and it discriminates against women who want to, obviously, look after the children that they’ve got.”
Let’s leave aside that Corbyn, a man made unelectable by his own centrist party who have called him “unelectable” since his record-breaking election to the leadership, just can’t catch a break, and look at this statement for evidence of sexism, or Stalinist tendency to ban joy in the pub.
The fact is, women are more inclined to feel obliged than men to look after children. To say that domestic labour falls most often to women is not to endorse that fact. To say that certain paid labour practices fail to take this division of labour into account is not to approve that division of labour. It is, in fact, just to ruddy say that women do double duty. Which is entirely true. How the eff one is supposed to fix a social problem without being able to diagnose it for fear that Lisa Wilkinson will shout “dinosaur” is beyond me.
What has also long been well beyond me is the pleasure of the after-work cocktail. Even for the childless, this can be a terrible obligation. I am certain that in the past, the after-five pub provided a space for workers to let off steam and/or conspire against labour and hegemony. But throughout a varied working life, which began in the early 1990s, I have always found that the boss was in the pub.
For many workers, the pub is not a choice freely undertaken, but, as Corbyn notes, a workplace ritual masquerading as fun. I mean. The executive gobshite — and, frankly, often, the sexist executive gobshite — I’ve tried to smile my way through while ardently wishing that I were at home with calories that provided nutrition instead of liver damage.
In the pub, boss and labourers all make a great show of democracy. We’re all equal in the pub, and we all appear to rubbish convention. But the convention that we rubbish is never that of, say, our wage disparity. In my experience, if there are workplace conventions rubbished in the pub they will be those communicated by the Human Resources department.
“I hope I’m not testing the anti-bullying legislation!” or “Is this sexual harassment?” are the sorts of informal jokes I have heard most often at after-work drinks. While the temptation to mock the idealistic language of management is fathomable, such reinforcement that bullying and harassment are just things to be expected always made me squirm. If we were going to mock a workplace convention — and this is arguably a necessary thing for every worker to do — why did it always have to be of a sort that attempted to uphold our safety?
[Hey nude selfie moralisers: shut up about your tits]
Organisational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, whose brains I picked yesterday on the topic of semi-compulsory after-work drinks, happened to be fresh off reading some US research on sexual harassment.
“So, the question researchers were asking is: if there are so many clear workplace policies around sexual harassment, why does it still go on? Well, they found that one of the problems might be — and I am sorry for the jargon — ‘manager role-modelling’. Which is to say that the way managers present the policy is important.”
Researchers, says Cotton, found that managers were often winking with workers and describing the policy as “trendy HR speak” or offering asides that communicated a toxic form of solidarity — a sort of “but you and I know what happens in the real world” union of understanding.
This certainly tallies with my experience of after-work drinks, a vile convention in which sexual harassment is valorised. Again, I understand that poking fun at our employers is something we all need to do. But when sexual harassment or bullying are seen not as exertions of power but rebellions against workplace power, the problem is compounded.
Cotton, who works across a range of public and private sector organisations, says that in his experience, many companies have reduced their involvement in after-work drinks. “I have personally observed the trend declining,” he said. This, says Cotton, is for a range of reasons, including the wish to minimise OH&S risk, and what some in his profession have identified as a growing cynicism among workers for the matey shenanigans of bosses.
“Frankly, some managers who attempt to engage in team-building exercises, including after-work drinks, can come across like they’re joining the dots from a text-book”.
“What we have in organisational psychology — and again I apologise for the jargon — is a growing ‘engagement’ literature”. In an effort to help managers not to appear like they’re joining the dots, organisational psychologists are offering shocking advice, such as actually valuing all your employees. Which would include things like not engaging in practices, like after-work drinks, bound to exclude people who are averse to grog, acts of matey “rebellion” and not being at home, with the kids, perhaps.
It’s now up to employees to “value” workers in an effort to maintain their productivity. Before my time in the workforce, labour organisations more often set the terms of their own value. And they may have discussed this value in the pub.
As soon as there is a meaningful return to bottom-up labour organisation, I’ll return to the after-work pub. For the present, though, I think Corbyn has a point. Pubs aren’t any longer places where one lets off steam. One takes a bath for the benefit of management.