‘Don’t Go Empty Handed’: this was one of my English Grandma’s oft-repeated phrases when we would stay at her house as children. We would eat in the large sitting/dining room, where there was space to accommodate us all: Grandma, Grandad, Dad, Mum, my brother, and eventually my little sister, too.
It was a principle of ergonomic activity my Grandma was urging. We were eating in a different room from where the food was prepared, and then at the end of the meal we needed to transport dishes, leftovers and condiments, to be put away in cupboards and the fridge, and the washing up done. If any of us got up to fetch something from the kitchen – an extra knife, or a forgotten sauce – this would be the refrain. Take something on your way through. It was also a reminder of the labour of domestic work, the to-and-fro of daily meals.
I sometimes think of the phrase as I tidy up in my own flat, moving things from one room to another in an attempt to bring order to the week’s chaos on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I might pick up my bag from Friday where I dropped it in the hall; empty its contents and move them round the flat, each time trying to pick something up and take it somewhere else on my return leg.
It’s a phrase I suddenly found myself repeating last week, at the end of a day of interviews held with female colleagues from various organisations. The host thanked us for picking up the coffee and tea cups we’d accumulated through the day, and out the phrase came, unbidden: ‘My Grandma always used to say, “Don’t go empty handed”.’ We carried the cups and plates in the kitchen, and went on our way.
I got to thinking about this on the train home, as well as the process we’d just been going through: interviewing a set of very intelligent women for a PhD studentship looking at the potential establishment of a prize for women’s writing in Scotland, and a suite of associated activities. There are rich ways in which women can gather, network, support each other, provide opportunities in the areas of literature, publishing, and writing. And yet there are also systemic and institutionalised forms of discrimination at play in the literary world, just as there are in academia. Nicola Griffiths has worked to show how book prizes tend to favour books written by male authors, or books by female authors with male protagonists (think Hilary Mantel). The annual VIDA count chronicles the depressing statistics every year of the space given (or not) to female reviewers, and reviewees (VIDA has extended its ‘count’ to give a more intersectional perspective).
I attend a lot of meetings in my job, and I started to ponder the politics of clearing up coffee and tea cups at the end of meetings. If there’s time my approach is (without really thinking about it), to pick up my cup and another with my free hand, and take them over to the drinks station. I tend to do this because I’ve been taught to tidy up after myself, and also I’m aware of the catering staff who otherwise clear up after us. They don’t get paid any more for picking up cups and plates from around the room, and their manual labour, frequently unacknowledged and, I’m sure, not well paid. supports the meeting culture of the worlds I operate in.
And sometimes I don’t pick up the cups.
Sometimes I don’t do it for reasons of gender. If I’m in a meeting full of men, and none of them pick up their cups, I don’t. I’m quite clear that I’m in those meetings as an equal (whatever the line management hierarchy might be), and I’m not going to conform to gendered stereotypes by clearing up when the men don’t. And then sometimes, just sometimes, I pick up the cups and find some subtle – or occasionally exaggerated – way of suggesting others – men – might do too.
It feels like a very small political act, which I’m not even sure others notice, compared to some of the more egregious issues of prejudice and inequality that can take place in the workplace (even with all the success of second-wave feminism in establishing an Equal Pay Act, paid maternity leave, and so on). One of these is inequality of pay: an issue for which blame is sometimes cast at women themselves, for not asking for higher pay (in my own experience, such requests are not always heard even if we voice them: I’ve been told by one male boss that I should have asked for more pay when I first got the job, but that women don’t; and another time I was told finance was tight and that his pay hadn’t gone up in his role). The Herald recently addressed the issue of gender inequality in Scottish universities.
I’m fortunate to be pretty privileged, overall – white, middle-class, the third generation of my family to have gone to university (my English grandfather was a working-class scholarship boy at Leeds University; I was always intrigued by my grandparents’ glass-fronted bookcase, which included Robert Tressell’s socialist novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists). I can’t remember my parents ever uttering a statement that delimited my and my brother’s respective hobbies, activities, choices and futures into gender-stereotyped patterns, and I’m sure much of my anti-imposter syndrome comes from such openness, as well as from strong female role models (and some excellent male ones, too) throughout my school and academic life.
But the tea and coffee cups still worry away at me. It is often thought that women in academia bear a heavier role in terms of administrative and pastoral support in universities, and that we are more ready to work in teams to create cohesive units that deliver effective teaching and research.
Indeed, we should all pull together; we should all clear away when we can. But sometimes we should check ourselves. In order for women not to go emptier-handed in the workplace, or within cultural life, or whichever other sphere you are engaged with, I think we sometimes need to expect men to take the cups, or do the minutes, organise the meeting room, check the timetable. It’s only by changing men’s behaviour and mindsets, as well as our own, that change and equality will come.