Friday, July 07, 2006

A Kelly Girl, er, Guy -- But At Least Not a Hooters Guy 

John Stossel recently shredded the idea that a demographic imbalance in a particular job automatically implies actionable gender discrimination on the part of employers. His centerpiece example is a highly amusing attempt by the U.S. federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to prosecute a particular chain that hired almost exclusively female service staff:

The business of Hooters is food, said the government, and "no physical trait unique to women is required to serve food." EEOC lawyers demanded Hooters produce all its hiring data, and then grilled Hooters for four years. Mike McNeil, Hooters' vice president of marketing, told "20/20" the EEOC bureaucrats demanded to look at reams of paperwork. "Employee manuals, training manuals, marketing manuals -- virtually everything that's involved in how we run our business..."

The EEOC then issued a set of demands. First, it defined a class of disappointed males who had not been hired by the company. The EEOC said, according to McNeil: "We want you to establish a $22-million fund for this mythical 'class' of dissuaded male applicants. We want you to conduct sensitivity training studies to teach all of your employees to be more sensitive to the needs of men."

I suspect Hooters' customers are mostly men who think the firm is quite sensitive to their needs, thank you -- and that there would indeed be a class of disappointed males if the government insisted men do the jobs of Hooters girls.
While of course I have no idea what particular special duties the job of a Hooters girl might include -- other than serving food and drinks and possessing no physical traits unique to women -- I'll go out on a limb anyway and guess that he has a pretty good point. Again, Stossel is not asserting here that gender discrimination never happens, only that the mere presence of a statistical imbalance does not demonstrate that discrimination is that imbalance's cause.

Ironically, Stossel concludes his article with a point to which I myself am a counter-example, although not necessarily a counter-example that disproves his basic point:

More men selling lawn mowers and more women selling cosmetics does not imply evil discrimination that requires armies of lawyers from the State. Show me women who want to sell lawn mowers but are being required to sell cosmetics instead -- or men who want to sell cosmetics but have to sell lawn mowers -- and we have grounds for discussion. But if the women choose the cosmetics counter, any discrimination is their own.
While I still basically agree with his argument, Mr. Stossel should be aware that there are indeed men who have attempted to cross the gender employment lines and been turned back -- I'm one of them.

Back in the early '80s I was looking for a summer job between high school and college -- no, not as a Hooters girl. Since I was the second fastest typist in my class and also had computer skills, I figured I'd be a natural as an office worker. So I typed up a resume and headed off to Kelly Services to see if I had what it took to be a Kelly Girl, a temporary fill-in typist or secretary. I showed up neatly dressed -- maybe not in the business skirt and blouse typical of a Kelly Girl, but not in my usual scruffy jeans and t-shirt either -- and I took their typing test, scoring over seventy words per minute. They told me to show up on Monday for my first assignment. I knew I was in; I'd made it; I was a Kelly Girl.

Well not quite. As it turns out there is another employment track at Kelly Services for which I apparently automatically qualified: Kelly Guy. I showed up on Monday, again dressed quite nicely for a day of light office work and typing, only to receive an assignment down at the Long Beach Shipyard. Even though I suppose some typing does have to occur even at shipyards, that didn't sound so promising. How much typing could there be, just recording which ships sailed in and how many forkllifts it took to unload them? As it turned out there would be no typing for me, not for a Kelly Guy. Regardless of my extraordinary typing skills and sartorial splendor, I had been assigned a light industrial task apparently more suited for my gender, if not for my actual skillset.

I was tasked with the important job of taking each imported Japanese auto as it rolled off the car transport ship and examining the axles and undercarriage components for rust -- I think "undercarriage components" had something to do with the brakes, but I was never really sure. If I found any rust I was supposed to take a cursory swipe at it with some sort of abrasive like steel wool, and then paint over it with black spray paint so it wouldn't freak out potential car buyers. Of course I had to be showed exactly where the rear axle was under the car -- I took typing, not auto shop -- and my nicest shirt was ruined by all of the grease and motor oil, but my intrinsic masculinity somehow managed to see me through the day nonetheless.

Of course the applicability of my experience to Stossel's challenge is weakened by the fact that it happened back in the Neanderthal era of the 1980's, when Ronald Reagan was still threatening the world with nuclear annihilation from his comfy nap chair in the White House and people still thought of the "Leave it to Beaver" family with fond nostalgia rather than open contempt. We live in different times now. And, of course, I was only applying for a summer job and lacked actual secretarial experience, my expectations of success based only on my own glowing assesstment of my abilities. In the end, when push came to shove and I finally got used to the idea of light industrial work and switched to dressing appropriately for the task, I guess I actually did all right.

But I hated it. The only positive thing I can say about that job in retrospect was that at least I wasn't a Hooter's guy -- I just hate being tipped and whistled at based solely on my good looks and unique physical traits.

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