Can There be a Feminist Safety?
Yesterday the media ran hot with the advent of the first female star of Dr Who . The reports extracted every ounce of gender stereotyping possible in the name of journalism. What it highlighted was the continued misunderstanding in our society of feminism, gender and confusion about social politics. Feminism is not just about being female and masculinism is not about being male. Understanding gender itself and the polarization and politicisation of gender and two completely different things. Being male or female is very different from the nature of ideology.
Feminism shares a similar history and evolution to Social Psychology. If you look at the evolution of Social Psychology (Figure 1) you will see shared roots in the work of Gramsci, Semiotics, Post-Structuralism, Post-Modernism and Critical Theory. Whilst feminism is primarily about rights for women at its heart is a concern for equality in the face of domination and the masculinist quest for power. It is important not to confuse the notion of feminism or masculinism with gender. Men are not excluded from campaigning for equality and women’s rights.
Men are also harmed by a masculinist thirst for political power, control, exploitation, authoritarianism, treating people as objects and reductionism. Whilst the social construct of masculinity is seen by feminism as problematic because it associates males with aggression and competition, it is not helpful to confuse the ideology of domination with being male. This in itself reinforces patriarchal and unequal gender relations.
Feminism also shares common theoretical and philosophical disciplines with Social Psychology namely: Sociology, Psychology, Politics, Annales History, Anthropology, Philosophy, Semiotics, Cultural Theory, Discourse Analysis and Linguistics. It is only in a trans-disciplinary approach to risk that we best find ways to tackle Safety as a Wicked Problem (http://www.peterwagner.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Safety-A-Wicked-Problem2.pdf ). This is why the WHS curriculum needs reform through a trans disciplinary approach to safety (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/).
In the late twentieth century various feminists began arguing that gender roles are socially constructed. Post-structural feminism argues that gender roles are essentially created through cultural discourse (semiosis, language, symbols and signs). When we observe the nature of masculinist framing we see a prioritization on reductionism , privileged status given to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), devaluation of ‘people’ skills as ‘soft’ skills and knowledge, a quest for absolutes, a focus on binary oppositions, black and white thinking and, disparaging discursive ways of knowing (See: Tannen, D., (ed.) (1993) Framing in Discourse. Oxford Uni Press, New York; Blenky, M., et.al., (1997) Women’s Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, New York.). These core priorities are extraordinarily prevalent in safety discourse.
So to the question of this blog: Can there be a feminist safety? Of course there can but what are the challenges in being so? The history of safety demonstrates that STEM knowledge and a masculinist focus on objects (hazards) and power using regulation, has become the ‘way of safety’ or the dominant ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn). Simply being a woman in safety makes no difference to the practice of safety without a social psychology of risk. It is from a social psychological understanding that masculinist methods are brought into focus. Being a woman and maintaining masculinst methods of doing safety simply becomes masculinst safety. The tools of objectifying people, blaming (safety is a choice you make), punishing, inequality (by safety first), policing, telling, counting (zero and LTIs) and focusing on authoritarian approaches to safety are masculinst tools for power and control. The devaluing of dialogue, listening, respect, questioning, openness, trust, facilitation, helping and non-measurement show that feminist values struggle to take hold in safety. The mantra to do ‘safety differently’ is clearly a desire to move away from the traditionalist masculinist ideology that has come to dominate the way safety has been practiced.
As part of this discussion I think it is important that a male should write such a piece on feminist safety, as the confusion of gender with ideology is also a source of dismissal by a masculinism that devalues the voice speaking the message.
The recent emergence of the Women in Safety movement offers promise to an industry that is known for its brutalism, use of power (in the name of good) and objectification (see safety Isn’t Sexy and It Shouldn’t be; https://safetyrisk.net/safety-isnt-sexy-and-it-shouldnt-be/ ). I only hope that this new influence of Women in safety isn’t seduced by identity with masculinist methods and values.
Figure 1. The Evolution of Social Psychology and Feminist Approaches to Risk