WORK: 'Having it All'
“At the national women's conference convened by the government in September 1943 Winston Churchill assured the women delegates that the contribution to the war effort by British women had ‘definitely altered those social and sex balances which years of convention had established’”(Smith, H. 1984).
This video composition looks at the shifting narratives of women in the workplace and representations of “women's work” and “men’s work”. The piece is a combination of footage from the 1940s to the 1990s. Our aim is to present and to question media representations of gendered roles in the workplace and the home as depicted on television in Northern Ireland.
During the Second World War women played an important role in weapons and other war production. In Ulster at Arms we see “the girls”, or the women Churchill described at the national women’s conference in 1943, working in factories producing bullets and parachutes for the ‘men’. In fact it is stated that the men owe their lives to “the deft fingers of girls”. Almost fifty years later we meet ‘girl’ engineers of the 1990s, we see a very different story where the narrative changes to notions of ‘hard work’ and ‘being the best’ as the way for women to find their place in engineering. This shift in narrative and the hope that women would be liberated from pre-war domestic roles was very much re-written throughout the 1950s and 1960s where (post-war) women were reinstated to the role of housewife. We see this no better displayed than in the advert for Kennedy’s bread that serves as an intermission for our piece. This repositioning of women to the domestic worked to create stereotypes that in turn built up a discourse of gendered roles in society where gaining respect outside of the home demanded hard work and not just being good, but being “very good”. Like hitting reset women must re-insert themselves into “what until now had been a male domain” proving their worth by producing work that is either of “equal or better quality.”
When we meet the “Modern Man”, in Counterpoint: The New Family, we are told he is very much a response to the “Modern Woman” and has had to adapt to “the wife” working outside the home because she “has” to or worse...because she “wants” to. What is also interesting about the responses in these pieces is how women are framed as either one or the other, caring mother or hard-working modern woman. If she “chooses” to stay at home she can do that but she should not be punished for wanting to work outside of the home. Women are framed in such a way that if they want to ‘have it all’ they must work harder than men to be considered equal outside of the home, whilst also not neglecting their “natural” duties inside the home. There is also the implication that it is only natural for a woman to stay at home where she might damage her children if she were to leave, faithfully told to us by Rev. McIlveen.
We have aimed to represent the conflicting narratives within these debates whilst also presenting the conflicting narratives spoken by the contributors. Even in moments where women and men are shown to be making positive statements about women in the workplace there is a sense that they can never fully move away from domestic expectations and gendered roles. There is a consistent tone of blame not just from contributors but interviewers also. Questions such as “what exactly were men doing wrong?” instantly brings forth a negative tone to the discussion.
The piece finishes with clips from A Woman’s Worth where we learn of the difficulties in challenging unions and boards of management that are male dominated and are told how this bias leads to imbalanced decision making. Our final clip aims at both being humorous whilst also indicative of this imbalance where Beverley Jones of the Equal Opportunities Commission is literally ‘spoken for’ by her male co-panelist.
Framing, interviewer questions and tone are hugely important to media representation. The presentation of progress can sometimes feel like a step in the right direction however, how these issues are framed and posed is worth highlighting. Creating ‘Work’ and viewing the archive it became apparent that stories dealing with gendered roles in society are framed as sensational or play into stereotypical narratives whilst being pitched as progressive. Just as we have spliced and re-edited these programmes from the archive to make explicit our point so too do broadcasters and advertisers. It is important to remember that bias is ever present in the media and although the examples used in ‘Work’ are from the 1990s back to the 1940s these issues still affect many areas of media representation in our present day.
Smith, H. (1984). The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War. The Historical Journal, 27(4), 925-945. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00018161
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