THE STATUS SHIELD AT WORK
Given this relation between status and the treatment of feeling, it follows that persons in low-status categories—women, people of color, children—lack a status shield against poorer treatment of their feelings. This simple fact has the power to utterly transform the content of a job. The job of flight attendant, for example, is not the same job for a woman as it is for a man. A day’s accumulation of passenger abuse for a woman differs from a day’s accumulation of it for a man. Women tend to be more exposed than men to rude or surly speech, to tirades against the service, the airline, and airplanes in general.
As the company’s main shock absorbers against “mishandled” passengers, their own feelings are more frequently subjected to rough treatment. In addition, a day’s exposure to people who resist authority in women is a different experience for a woman than it is for a man. Because her gender is accorded lower status, a woman’s shield against abuse is weaker, and the importance of what she herself might be feeling—when faced with blame for an airline delay, for example —is correspondingly reduced. Thus the job for a man differs in essential ways from the same job for a woman.
In this respect, it is a disadvantage to be a woman—as 85 percent of all flight attendants are. And in this case, they are not simply women in the biological sense. They are also a highly visible distillation of middle-class American notions of femininity. They symbolize Woman. Insofar as the category “female” is mentally associated with having less status and authority, female flight attendants are more readily classified as “really” female than other females are. And as a result their emotional lives are even less protected by the status shield.
More than female accountants, bus drivers, or gardeners, female flight attendants mingle with people who expect them to enact two leading roles of Womanhood: the loving wife and mother (serving food, tending the needs of others) and the glamorous “career woman” (dressed to be seen, in contact with strange men, professional and controlled in manner, and literally very far from home). They do the job of symbolizing the transfer of homespun femininity into the impersonal marketplace, announcing, in effect, “I work in the public eye, but I’m still a woman at heart.”
Passengers borrow their expectations about gender biographies from home and from the wider culture and then base their demands on this borrowing. The different Active biographies they attribute to male and female workers make sense out of what they expect to receive in the currency of caretaking and authority. One male flight attendant noted:
They always ask about my work plans. “Why are you doing this?” That’s one question we get all the time from passengers. “Are you planning to go into management?” Most guys come in expecting to do it for a year or so and see how they like it, but we keep getting asked about the management training program. I don’t know any guy that’s gone into management from here.*
In contrast, a female flight attendant said:
Men ask me why I’m not married. They don’t ask the guys that. Or else passengers will say, “Oh, when you have kids, you’ll quit this job. I know you will.” And I say, “Well, no, I’m not going to have kids.” “Oh yes you will,” they say. “No I’m not,” I say, and I don’t want to get more personal than that. They may expect me to have kids because of my gender, but I’m not, no matter what they say.
If a female flight attendant is seen as a protomother, then it is natural that the work of nurturing should fall to her. As one female attendant said: “The guys bow out of it more and we pick up the slack. I mean the handling of babies, the handling of children, the coddling of the old folks. The guys don’t get involved in that quite as much.” Confirming this, one male flight attendant noted casually, “Nine times out of ten, when I go out of my way to talk, it will be to attractive gal passengers.” In this regard, females generally appreciated gay male flight attendants who, while trying deftly to sidestep the biography test, still gravitate more toward nurturing work than straight males are reputed to do.
Gender makes two jobs out of one in yet another sense. Females are asked more often than males to appreciate
* With the influx of more working-class male passengers during the recessionary period of lower prices, the questions addressed to male flight attendants changed. As one of them said, “Now they don’t ask me why I’m doing this. They ask, ‘How did you get the job?’” Ironically, more males than females have come to this work with the attitude of “jobbers,” interested primarily in the leisure time and good pay, and willing to try it fora few years before moving on. They report a more traditionally “female” job motivation than the women, for whom flight attending has been an honorable and high-paying career.
jokes, listen to stories, and give psychological advice. Female specialization in these offerings takes on meaning only in light of the fact that flight attendants of both sexes are required to be both deferential and authoritative; they have to be able to appreciate a joke nicely, but they must also be firm in enforcing the rules about oversized luggage. But because more deference is generally expected from a woman, she has a weaker grasp on passenger respect for her authority and a harder time enforcing rules.
In fact, passengers generally assume that men have more authority than women and that men exercise authority over women. For males in the corporate world to whom air travel is a way of life, this assumption has more than a distant relation to fact. As one flight attendant put it: “Say you’ve got a businessman sitting over there in aisle five. He’s got a wife who takes his suit to the cleaners and makes the hors d’oeuvres for his business guests. He’s got an executive secretary with horn-rimmed glasses who types 140 million words a minute and knows more about his airline ticket than he does. There’s no woman in his life over him.” This assumption of male authority allows ordinary twenty-year-old male flight attendants to be mistaken for the “managers” or “superintendents” of older female flight attendants. A uniformed male among women, passengers assume, must have authority over women. In fact, because males were excluded from this job until after a long “discrimination” suit in the mid-1960s and few were hired until the early 1970s, most male flight attendants are younger and have less seniority than most female attendants.
The assumption of male authority has two results. First, authority, like status, acts as a shield against scapegoating. Since the women workers on the plane were thought to have less authority and therefore less status, they were more susceptible to scapegoating. When the plane was late, the steaks gone, or the ice out, frustrations were vented more openly toward female workers. Females were expected to “take it” better, it being more their role to absorb an expression of displeasure and less their role to put a stop to it.
In addition, both male and female workers adapted to this fictional redistribution of authority. Both, in different ways, made it more real. Male flight attendants tended to react to passengers as if they had more authority than they really did. This made them less tolerant of abuse and firmer in handling it. They conveyed the message that as authorities they expected compliance without loud complaint. Passengers sensing this message were discouraged from pursuing complaints and stopped sooner. Female flight attendants, on the other hand, assuming that passengers would honor their authority less, used more tactful and deferential means of handling abuse. They were more deferential toward male passengers (from whom they expected less respect) than toward female passengers (whose own fund of respect was expected to be lower). And they were less successful in preventing the escalation of abuse. As one male flight attendant observed: “I think the gals tend to get more intimidated if a man is crabby at them than if a woman is.”
Some workers understood this as merely a difference of style. As one woman reflected:
The guys have a low level of tolerance and their own male way of asserting themselves with the passenger that I’m not able to use. I told a guy who had a piece of luggage in front of him that wouldn’t fit under the seat, I told him, “It won’t fit, we’ll have to do something with it.” He came back with, “Oh, but it’s been here the whole trip, I’ve had it with me all the time, blah, blah, blah.” He gave me some guff. I thought to myself, I’ll finish this later, I’ll walk away right now. I intended to come back to him. A
flying partner of mine, a young man, came by this passenger, without knowing about our conversation, and said to him, “Sir, that bag is too big for your seat. We’re going to have to take it away.” “Oh, here you are,” the guy says, and he hands it over to him. … You don’t see the male flight attendants being physically abused or verbally abused nearly as much as we are.
The females’ supposed “higher tolerance for abuse” amounted to a combination of higher exposure to it and less ammunition —in the currency of respect—to use against it.
This pattern set in motion another one: female workers often went to their male co-workers to get them to “cast a heavier glance.” As one woman who had resigned herself to this explained wearily: “I used to fight it and assert myself. Now I’m just too overworked. It’s simpler to just go get the male purser. One look at him and the troublemaker shuts up. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that I don’t have time for a big confrontation. The job is so stressful these days, you don’t go out of your way to make it more stressful. A look from a male carries more weight.” Thus the greater the respect males could command, the more they were called on to claim it.
This only increased the amount of deference that male workers felt their female co-workers owed them, and women found it harder to supervise junior males than females. One young male attendant said that certain conditions had to be met—and deference offered—before he would obey a woman’s orders: “If it’s an order without a human element to it, then I’ll balk. I think sometimes it’s a little easier for a man
to be an authority figure and command respect and cooperation. I think it depends on how the gal handles herself. If she doesn’t have much confidence or if she goes the other way and gets puffed out of shape, then in that case I think she could have more trouble with the stewards than with the gals” [my emphasis]. Workers tended to agree that females took orders better than males, no matter how “puffed out of shape” the attendant in charge might be, and that women in charge had to be nicer in exercising their authority than men did.
This attitude toward status and authority inspired compensatory reactions among some female workers. One response was to adopt the crisply cheerful but no-nonsense style of a Cub Scout den mother—a model of female authority borrowed from domestic life and used here to make it acceptable for women to tell adult men what to do. In this way a woman might avoid being criticized as “bossy” or “puffed out of shape” by placing her behavior within the boundaries of the gender expectations of passengers and co-workers.
Another response to displaced anger and challenged authority was to make small tokens of respect a matter of great concern. Terms of address, for example, were seen as an indicator of status, a promise of the right to politeness which those deprived of status unfortunately lack. The term, “girl,” for example, was recognized by female workers as the moral equivalent of calling black men “boys.” Although in private and among themselves, the women flight attendants I knew usually called themselves “girls,” many were opposed to the use of the term in principle They saw it not only as a question of social or moral importance but as a practical matter. To be addressed as a “girl” was to be subjected to more on-the – job stress. The order, “Girl, get me some cream” has a different effect than the request “Oh miss, could I please have some cream?” And if the cream has run out because the commissary didn’t provide enough, it will be the “girls” who get the direct expressions of disappointment, exasperation, and blame. Tokens of respect can be exchanged to make a bargain: “I’ll manage my unpleasant feelings for you if you’ll manage yours for me.” When outrageously rude people occasionally enter a plane, it reminds all concerned why the flimsy status shield against abuse is worth struggling over.
Schooled in emotion management at home, women have entered in disproportionate numbers those jobs that call for emotional labor outside the home. Once they enter the marketplace, a certain social logic unfolds. Because of the division of labor in the society at large, women in any particular job are assigned lower status and less authority than men. As a result, they lack a shield against the “doctrine of feelings.” Much more often than men, they become the complaint department, the ones to whom dissatisfaction is fearlessly expressed. Their own feelings tend to be treated as less important. In ways that the advertising smiles obscure, the job has different contents for women and men.13