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Working Girls

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Mar. 22nd, 2011 | 12:42 pm
posted by: secretrebel in feminism_lives

Has anyone else been watching this series on BBC: Working Girls?

It begins with a brief run through of the history of women in work and then focuses on a young woman living in Britain today who (despite several generations of female ancestors who worked) chooses not to work. Most of these girls are living on benefit, with contributions from family. (Although one explained her income as "I move in very good circles and my friends are happy to give me £5000 in the same way I might give 50p to a homeless person".)

(The show uses the term 'girls', but these young women are usually in their early twenties.)

Each week the focus is on two young women who go to work for two successful female businesswomen, spending a week working 9-5, usually gearing up for some big event. Half way through the week they meet (separately) with the programme historian who tells them about their ancestors.

I've seen three episodes so far and the pattern seems much the same in each one. The young woman starts out surly and uninterested in work. "Work's boring" they say. The female businesswomen are shocked and some begin a rant about how as a tax payer they are subsiding the girl's lifestyle (I award extra points to those who manage to rein in this impulse). The young woman begins to work in a lackluster don-t-give-a-damn way. There is usually a row and occasionally the young woman is thrown out of the workplace. Then either the businesswoman has a heart-to-heart with the young woman and gives her a second change or the meeting with the historian opens her eyes and she resolves to really try. They usually end up much more motivated at the end of the week and do go one to some form of employment.

Things that interest me about the show are:

1. How rarely feminism is actually mentioned. One young woman this week said "feminism has ruined things for everyone, traditional values are better" but that's the first time I've heard the word used.

2. The class disparity between the participants.
The age disparity is not that great. The business women are often late 20s, early 30s. The 'girls' are early 20s. But despite the business women insisting that "you have to start from the bottom" I doubt that many of them actually did. One completed a law degree and used her savings to start a company. Another was a successful model and parlayed that into starting a fashion design firm.
But the girls seem to live on identical council-estates, generally with parents who are in lower income brackets. They typically leave school at 16 without many, if any, GCSEs.
There's no engagement from the programme makers with the concept of the benefit trap and although the young women don't mention it in those terms it's a real factor for someone with few qualifications. This is why the "my tax pays for your lifestyle" rants stick in my craw somewhat.

3. The inspirational effect of the genealogy research.
I'm surprised that this actually does seem to work. Looking back on their female ancestors' experiences makes the young women genuinely emotional and seems to have a huge inspirational effect. I'm intrigued by this. I can't quite get my head around why it works so well. Perhaps because these young women have very little understanding of history? One was shocked to discover benefits didn't exist when her great-grandmother came to England from the Caribbean.

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Comments {5}

bookwormsarah

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from: bookwormsarah
date: Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
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I haven't come across the programme, but it sounds like it has raised some interesting points. I wonder whether the non-working women were ever shown what a range of jobs are available, told that they could achieve something, or given positive role models? If they never saw people enjoying work or finding it fulfilling, or if any careers information was given to them at school where they felt disengaged to begin with, I can imagine the concept didn't appeal. Especially true if they saw other people not working and surviving on benefits.

It sounds as if it would have been more interesting to take women who came from similar backgrounds and examine why they had made such different choices.

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Devil's Advocate

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from: devilsadvocate
date: Mar. 22nd, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
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I don't think anyone has the right to infringe on someone else's lifestyle. People should be able to do what they want. Take freegans, for example. They don't work in an attempt to spend more time with family and passions, and to get out of the nasty chain of consumerism. There's nothing from with that.

My personal view on this is that maybe these women haven't found their passions yet, and are taking time to explore them through free time that would normally go to working a menial job. I haven't seen the show though, so I don't know.

However, I can see how this would be upsetting to some, in two ways.
1.) Jealousy and/or annoyance that the women technically don't have to work. Then again, no one really has to work.
2.) The concept that women struggled for so long to have rights (especially employment opportunities), and that working is a privilege, and should not be a hassle.

But all in all, I don't believe this is any different than say a stay-at-home housewife or a single mother on welfare. People can choose to live however they please. We aren't them and we aren't in their shoes.

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xxxlibris

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from: xxxlibris
date: Mar. 22nd, 2011 10:00 pm (UTC)
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I'm really enjoying it - it ticks all the boxes about women's issue + work documentaries.

I'm not sure I entirely agree on the class thing - one of the girls this week and both of last weeks' certainly seemed to come from similar council estates, but the girl from the first week and the violinist girl this week seemed to come from reasonably well-off backgrounds. Also: the entrepreneur from the first week, the tiny blonde lady who ran the market, seemed to have worked her way up from working class single mum-dom.

Agreed on the lack of examination about the greater circumstances, particularly this week where both girls had training in the arts (drama, music). Given that those are both sectors which are notoriously horrible to find work in, it didn't seem that this was a clear-cut story of leaving school/dropping out/claiming JSA. What I'm also finding fascinating is how the program treats the acclimatisation and process of work - not just the pleasure that can be taken in work well done, but what menial work looks like, how you treat colleagues in the workplace, and so on; and how this differs from what 'work' is expected to be.

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Jessie

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from: jessiehl
date: Mar. 23rd, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Is there ever any suggestion that the young women should go back to school and get more credentials, so that they would be qualified for a wider range of jobs or for less menial jobs? I'm in the US and the BBC website says that I don't get the show in my area, so I'm not in a position to go look for myself.

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Jessie

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from: jessiehl
date: Mar. 23rd, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Another thought...this seems concerning in terms of the message that it sends society. These young women live in publicly-funded housing (I assume that's what a council estate is?) and are living on government benefits at the beginnings of the episodes, if I understand you correctly. And at the beginnings of the episodes, they don't want to work and don't think they should have to. Doesn't that promote stereotypes about people, especially women, on government assistance, being undeserving welfare queens who are poor because of their own laziness and bad choices? I could even see a politician referring to it in a speech to illustrate why he or she thinks government benefits programs should be reduced or eliminated.

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