Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fauxbivalence for job-hunters

Wish I'd seen this Historiann post before posting below. To summarize: A woman who "works for a non-profit that helps African women and children suffering from the effects of the conflict diamond trade" frowns upon interviewees who show up with diamond engagement rings. Other employers also look askance at such rings when interviewing candidates. Historiann, responding to the Huffington Post item, remains unconvinced that women who wear massive diamond engagement rings should be considered a protected class, classifies this as a First World Problem and then some, and notes that rings can (typically, although in this hot weather...) be removed. Others point out that men who buy said rings get off scott-free. A few different issues come up, and are somewhat conflated: the ethics of diamonds, the advisability of walking around with something that at the very least looks like an expensive gift from a man, and the right of women to reveal their relationship/marital status without fearing discrimination.

This specific case, however, is an easy one. It is, as one of Historiann's commenters and others note, like showing up for an interview with PETA in a fur coat. Even if the coat is fake or vintage, you might want to opt for cotton. And it doesn't even have to be that specific - unless you're applying for a very high-up position, or to work in a dabbler field, in which your employer will consider it a plus that you're totally OK with making $10k a year because your trust fund will cover the rest and then some, you probably do want to strike a balance between neatness/formality and modesty. Like maybe the Chanel handbag stays at home. And if you're looking for minimum-wage work, you might consider at least turning an especially big ring around.

But when it comes to employers that are neither supermarkets nor anti-blood-diamond non-profits, it seems nuts that a ring, however shine-ormous, would be held against someone in an interview. I mean, who knows the full story behind it? Maybe it's fake (and thus inoffensive for labor and expensive-gift reasons). Maybe it was an heirloom (same). Maybe the other fiancée/spouse is also woman (as in, now that same-sex marriage is not only a social fact across the country, but legal in several states as well as countries, including one bordering our own, ring=/=heterosexual privilege, and it would be a whole new level of ridiculous if we started to get hetero employers rejecting married gay applicants for "flaunting" their heteronormativity). Maybe some men/women for whatever reason want to give their girlfriends enormous engagement rings, people who can't necessarily comfortably afford said rings, and the women who receive them, moved by the sentimentality of the gesture (even if they'd have been happy with something much simpler or nothing at all) opt to accept and wear it, and to save their OMG-do-you-know-where-this-came-from outrage for iPhones or clothes from Zara.

Or maybe the woman wearing it wanted desperately for her dude to buy it for her, and when he did was thrilled, because she didn't know she was supposed to hem and haw about what it all means. As is often the case, I'm fully on board with Flavia's contribution to the discussion - knowing that you're supposed to seem ambivalent about the trappings of heteronormative femininity is itself a form of privilege. And this isn't some patronizing point along the lines of, 'those poor souls who never took a Gender Studies class don't know about feminism.' Some women from all walks of life are genuinely uncomfortable with gendered expectations. But it's only in this one subset of society that women who are totally comfortable with conventional femininity for themselves think they need to claim otherwise.

It's not inconceivable that, within certain contexts, a conventional-wrt-mainstream-society woman would be marginalized. It's like the call Dan Savage recently fielded from a woman whose friends are all more sexually adventurous (more complicated than that, but trying to keep things in the PG-R range) than she is, who bully her about being clearly in denial because she claims to be happy in her monogamous relationship with a dude. If you're marginalized in a situation from which you can't easily escape, it's of little comfort that in society at large, you'd get along just dandy. (This may have applications re: the question of whether it's possible to be discriminated against for not having enough of a tan. The subcultures that are big on fauxbivalence tend also to roll their eyes at artificially-dark skin.)

And... yes, it's an equality issue. Fine, in this one case, the ring-haver was rejected out of feminist principles and working conditions and all these great progressive ideals. (Tangent: is it the feminist way not to hire someone who wears a burqa or headscarf, because after all these can be removed and one can still be a Muslim without wearing one? A variant of this. Oh, and I now see, a counterargument that surfaced in the original thread.) But think about how this would normally go, under what circumstances The Shiny would be held against a woman in an interview. Isn't it far more likely that the ring-then-no-hire would be about an employer thinking that this woman has or is going to have babies and quit to become a SAHM (or stay and be a lousy worker) shortly after getting hired?

If the assumption is, big ring means rich man, engagement-ring-only means life stage at which kids are soon to happen, these women will be in more or less the same situation as the college kid home for the summer, looking for work, who comes across as UMC, who puts as his comfortable-sounding home address on applications, and who, it's suspected or known, will be gone again come the fall. And... just as that kid seeks a job to gain financial independence, not to put food on the table, the Suspected Wife of Man with Good Job perhaps only needs the job insofar as she needs not to depend financially on her husband.

When it comes to college students, it's maybe not worth losing sleep over, but with women, this is, last I checked, a pretty fundamental feminist issue. I don't remember reading in the Feminist Handbook that women have the right to earn a living, except if they're married to men who earn enough to support a family, in which case they should save the jobs for those who really need them and take up a hobby instead. I do remember reading in that handbook that the dynamics in a marriage are generally more equitable if both spouses work outside the home, and that marriages sometimes end in divorce, an upsetting outcome made all the more so if the wife hasn't worked in 20 years.


Britta said...

Aren't there several issues conflated? One is: it's stupid for any reason to wear a giant blood diamond to an interview for a non-profit fighting the blood diamond trade, as you point out. Two: it's stupid to discriminate against a woman for signs of obvious wealth, but it doesn't seem to be specifically marriage (or necessarily gender) related. That same woman might not be hired for wearing a diamond necklace or earrings, which say nothing about marriage, or perhaps a man with a Rolex watch. In other words, if you go to a job interview looking like you have a trust fund, depending on the ressentiment of the interviewer you might not get hired. Since I know of no religion which requires the constant wearing of giant diamonds, I don't think it's unreasonable to recommend wearing low key jewelry for an interview, and then busting out the Hope diamond once you've settled in to your job a bit. Third would be not hiring someone because of the presence of a ring period, which would be straight up gender discrimination (unless the person also didn't hire men with rings, which would make it not sexist but still a problem).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, like I also say in the post, a whole bunch is conflated. It's not all one issue. If we're going to attempt to find coherence, maybe it's in pointing out that the feminist/concerned-about-Africa objections to diamond engagement rings are not exactly representative of the situations in which a woman is judged negatively at an interview for having a ring.

In terms of men and Rolexes, men and wedding bands... I don't think this is as relevant as it seems on paper. Just given the nature of how men vs. women dress, there are so many more ways a woman, dressed at any level of formality, from jeans to suit to gown, is likely to signal wealth. Handbags, shoes, etc. It's not that there's no such thing as an expensive men's suit or watch, but that there are so, so many more variables, in women's dress.

And with men, they're generally if anything favored for wearing a wedding band, because it signals commitment, maturity, and (no doubt still) heterosexuality. No one sees a wedding band on a man and thinks, yikes, this guy's about to quit his job so he can raise babies. Rather, if anything, it'll seem like he may be supporting his family and thus will take work seriously. Meanwhile, a man without a ring may lack those particular benefits, but isn't necessarily thought not to have good qualities. This is my longwinded way of saying there's no equivalent here for men. Women are more likely to be discriminated against socially for a lack of rings, professionally for having them.

"Since I know of no religion which requires the constant wearing of giant diamonds"

I think the veil analogy isn't actually that far off. It's not a religion that requires it, so much as certain cultural interpretations of certain religions. If your culture tells you that a woman who's engaged or married wears her rings, not as part of some outfits but not others, but in order to be fully dressed to leave the house, then taking off one or both is a whole lot to ask. And much of American culture requires it - enough so that even many of my grad-student cohort wear engagement rings if engaged, engagement and wedding rings if married.

Meanwhile, if the engagement ring is the Hope diamond, that is the ring, that's also the very same one as has that symbolic importance, so there isn't some option that allows for going to interviews with the tasteful hand-crafted wooden variety that some potential employers might prefer you had. It's not that a giant diamond is required, but if that's what the particular ring is (which, like I say, could be the case for any number of reasons), then yes, a giant diamond is required.

Basically, I think it's important to distinguish between a designer-logo handbag, or expensive earrings, etc., from a marriage-related ring, even a gaudy one. It's also something that, because it's not a mere part of the outfit, but for every day, women probably aren't even thinking about at a certain point, and are probably used to wearing on all occasions (short of serious labor with the hands), even if the situation/outfit doesn't match.