— Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics
Home improvement stores are gendered spaces. I know next to nothing about home improvement. I come from an elite enough background that when something in our home needed improving, we didn’t (for the most part) do the work ourselves. We hired others (always men) to come in, assess the situation, make a recommendation, and do the work involved. This weekend, I thought I was faced with having to improve my own home, but thankfully, I found someone to do it for me at Lowe’s–someone who, as it turns out, was a woman.
My family and I got back from a morning outing only to realize that we neglected to bring our house keys. [We have so many keys at our new house that we keep them on separate sets, though we had a garage key made for our car keys as a result.] So, we pulled up to our garage, and realized that we had no way of entering our house. We left a window unlocked, but had to tear a screen to get into the house. So… short story long, we had to repair a screen—something we know absolutely nothing about. I brought the whole screen with me thinking I would just get a new one that size.
When we got to Lowe’s, a woman–Carla*–confronted us as we entered asking what we were looking for. Holding up the screen, I smiled (with a bit of embarrassment) and said, “Screens and keys.” She said, “I can take care of both of those for you.” She brought us over to the screen section. I didn’t even realize we were there. She asked what kind of screen we wanted. I considered trying to act knowledgeable, but said, “We want to make this,” gesturing to the broken screen, “look like new for as cheap as possible.”
“Have you ever done a screen?” she asked. I laughed—but not as hard as she laughed at me after I laughed. If it’s far beyond hammering something or turning a screw, I’m a bit out of my league. So, I asked, “Is there any way you could help me with this?” Excitedly, she said, “Yeah! I’ve changed tons of these. I just did my whole house last year.” I was struck in many ways because I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say this about a residence I’ve lived in. I’ve never “done” anything to my whole house.
At any rate, she collected the materials she required—which I learned are screen, spline, a screen installation tool, and some kind of knife or box cutter. She brought them over to a counter in the paints section and got to work.
Now, up to this point, I hadn’t thought much about Carla being a woman. The small projects I have taken on around the house have often been in the company of women (my mother, my sisters, my wife, friends, etc.). But, I did start to think about gender with what happened next. Men in Lowe’s uniforms (which is basically a fishing vest with a Lowe’s patch over anything you want to wear) came from all over the place to watch Carla work. The first was a younger man, maybe 20 years old. He walked up and Carla quickly gave him a task. “Go get the next size up in spline. This one’s too little,” she said as she positioned the screen over the frame.
Meanwhile, an older man came over while the younger man was fetching new spline. He looked at me and said, “You’re not letting Carla do this for you, are ya’? I don’t think I’ve ever seen her change a screen without a beer in her hand.” Carla laughed and said, “Fuck you, Bill.” I smiled. Then he looked at me and asked (with a bit of irony I might add), “Never changed a screen?” I shook my head, considering telling him that I am a professor and that this kind of thing just doesn’t enter into my daily life that often. But, I settled on, “I can change a light bulb, but I get a bit scared if it’s much more complicated than that.” We laughed at my lack of knowledge.
At this point, no one had really explicitly made any gendered comments about this situation. Though, as we talked, Carla started to get a larger audience of Lowe’s employees. By the end of it, five men were standing around us.
The young man came back with the spline and handed it to Carla. He commented on how she was preparing the screen, asking her if she thought it might be better to do it another way. Carla said, “You know, Bill’s right—I’ve never done this without a beer in my hand. But I think I know what I’m doing.” The audience of men laughed at her adoption of Bill’s joke.
But the young man’s offer to help seemed to have invited others as comments came about the best ways to change a screen. Various tips flooded in as Carla worked diligently on my screen. It’s not an easy process and I could easily see how the work of making a screen taut is harder than it might appear. At one point, Carla wiped her brow and said, “It’s as hot over here as it is down in electric.” I wasn’t hot, but in fairness, I also wasn’t doing much other than standing there watching. But, Carla appeared to be under some pressure and I started to get a sense that how my screen turned out at the end of this whole ordeal was going to be a moment of triumph of failure for Carla.
Then came the gender. I think it was to deflect some of the attention being drawn to her performance of this task, and perhaps she considered the fact that she was the only woman, surrounded by a group of men who know how to improve homes too (with the exception of me of course). Would she measure up? She grinned, looked and Bill and said, “This guy (gesturing toward me) doesn’t know how to put in a screen. He had to come here to get a lady to do it for him.” This got a big laugh. I laughed too. It was true. I hadn’t thought about it, but if I had, I guess I would have expected to meet a man in Lowe’s to help me with this task.
She finished my screen and the men all responded that it was a “good fit,” which I took to mean that it was taut. Each of them touched it, passed it around and examine the edges. Eventually it came to me and I did the same. I thanked her as she packed up the remaining materials I had to bring to a register and we were on our way. As I left, I said, “Thanks Carla. I think what you just did would have taken me the better part of a day.” She said, “Think you can handle the next on your own?” I shrugged and walked off.
As I left the store, I tried to consider whether the large audience was the result of Carla’s status as a woman, or because of the fact that it was a relatively slow Sunday and Carla’s “project” (by which I mean both my instruction and my screen) was the most exciting thing going on. I actually think this is the kind of thing men do with each other at these stores. They interact, trade knowledge, critique each others’ ideas and fix-it tips, and watch each other work. They’re “handy,” and part of the way that they all (including Carla) become “handy” is by doing things exactly like this: watching people do work and commenting on it as it goes on. Most of the handy people I know are often unaware of how they got to be so proficient at fixing things around the house—but I imagine that it comes from growing up in environments where the type of interaction I witnessed happens fairly regularly. It’s not seen as instruction because it’s not actually “instruction.” It’s just part of communicating with people. But, I also thought of Carla’s sweaty brow and whether she would agree with this interpretation of the situation. I think it’s likely that she might have a dramatically different–and equally valid–view.
Women face a variety of challenges in culturally masculinized work settings. Patricia Yancey Martin’s work speaks extensively about this phenomenon (see here, here, here, and here for some examples). Many of the ways that women see gender in the workplace go unnoticed for many men. This produces a phenomenon whereby women are stuck. If they bring up the instances, they might appear “overly sensitive” to men who might not be able to see the situation in the same light. If she doesn’t address it—which seemed to be what I think Carla will have chosen to do—it might just be something that bugs her, but is casually acknowledged as the one of many aspects of swimming against the tides of occupational gender segregation. Kris Paap’s work on construction work ethnographically addressed these issues in a similar field to Carla. And like Carla’s example, Paap is careful to illustrate how construction work is organized in ways that sometimes explicitly—but more often implicitly—work to white men’s advantage (see here and here).
I don’t think that the men watching Carla were evaluating her work as a woman, but they were evaluating her work—as (I think) they evaluate each others’ work. But, I may have been wrong. And even if I was right, the scenario took on a different meaning when gender became involved. The only instance in which it was made explicit was Carla’s joke, symbolically masculinizing herself by emasculating me. It’s an interesting example because I’m guessing that the different people in this situation left with a very different understanding of “what happened” there, and both if and why whatever happened was significant or not.
As for me, I left with a new screen and a masculinity only slightly more worn for the wear.
*I changed the names of the employees for anonymity’s sake.