The Glass Whatnow?

Thanks to years of working in circles focused on gender-based employment discrimination and barriers to women’s success in the workplace, I’m very familiar with the glass, or brass in the military world, ceiling. Women have a harder time breaking into leading roles in the workplace than men do, and there are all sorts of excuses for it, but what the problem boils down to is sexism. Women are not taken seriously, they are faced with more obstacles when working up the career ladder, and they’re constantly judged as women first and workers second, which means they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, especially in male-dominated industries.

Men’s rights activists, though, have started floating the idea of the ‘glass cellar,’ arguing that men are stuck with the more dangerous, dirty, and low paid jobs. It’s a curious assertion to me, because it speaks so clearly to some very narrow ideas about work and employment. Some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States according to official statistics include fishing, logging, truck driving, garbage and refuse collection, heavy construction work, mining, farming, and roofing. These are very male-dominated industries, and I will freely admit that.

That said, some of them also pay well, thanks to hard work on the part of unions, and they come with benefits. These are dirty and dangerous jobs, but they are not always low paid, and it’s not fair to characterise them as such. This may be isolating, lonely, and sometimes harsh work, but don’t pretend it universally doesn’t pay well.

And don’t sweepingly ignore women workers, either. Immigrant men and women labour in the fields of the United States, a key part of the farming industry. Their work is extremely dirty and dangerous, and it’s actually very low paid. They don’t have access to benefits and other support systems, and run the risk of deportation and having their families split apart in many cases. They’re exploited because of their perceived inability to fight back in a system that favours citizens and legal residents.

For that matter, who’s the predominant gender employed in housekeeping and personal care work? Women. And this work is also dangerous. Housekeepers and personal care attendants have a very high rate of on the job injury because their jobs involve repetitive motion, lifting heavy objects, and handling very long, hard workdays. In the case of housekeepers, there’s pressure to work as fast as possible at any cost, and that translates into shockingly high injury rates. Again, these women are underpaid and exploited, with few workplace protections.

And the concept of the glass cellar has another glaring hole: sex work. women make up the majority of sex workers, and their work is extremely dangerous and dirty. Many are also very low paid, struggling to survive in an industry that can be highly exploitative. Since sex work is largely illegal across the United States, there aren’t any neat employment statistics available for review, information to point to when discussing the dangers of sex work, but based on the work of advocacy organisations, data submitted by sex workers themselves, and formal studies, it’s been well-established that this is not easy or safe work.

Sex workers run the risk of being raped, beaten, and murdered on the job. They are at risk of exploitation and abuse because of the illegal nature of their work, which makes it difficult for them to report crimes and get meaningful action on their reports. They’re a vulnerable population because society has made them one, and one reason sex work is so devalued and marginalised is because of the large number of women workers involved. Hard and fast employment protections would be in place for an industry like this that was dominated by men, while sex workers are treated as disposable because they are women.

Tell me again that men are shunted off into all the most dangerous, dirty, and low paid work.

There is no glass cellar. There is exploitation of people in low paid jobs, and it happens to people of both genders, and it is brutal and gross and violent. It’s heavily racialised, and also preys on class stratifications; the low-income person who’s enticed into a job with the promise of making enough to support a family, for example. And then there are dangerous, hard, and necessary jobs that rightly provide fair pay and benefits to their workers; and many of those, it’s notable, are populated largely by men. Some of these jobs are in need of reform and closer government oversight, but that doesn’t mean they’re some kind of marginalised trap for men that puts them in an inherently unequal social position.

Pilots are heralded as heroes and role models even though their jobs are also dangerous, and only six percent of pilots are women, according to the FAA. Meanwhile, sex workers, housekeepers, and the people picking your oranges are ignored even though they’re a critically necessary part of society, filling an important need that goes ignored because their labour is considered ‘women’s work’ and therefore not worthy of attention. Their careers aren’t aspirational.

It’s telling that men are attempting to coopt language developed by women to discuss their own experiences and discrimination in the workplace; this suggests to me that conversations about the glass ceiling are cutting close to home and men want to devalue them, head them off at the pass, avoid confronting them. So they coin a new term to deflect; ‘what about the men?’ they ask, refusing to acknowledge the women they are trampling in the process.