Men and Women are Different, Even If Doing the Same Job

Image: quinn.anya/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Construction Fund Raiser

News Flash! Men and Women are different. OK, have a chuckle, we know there are plenty of studies that prove men are from Mars and women from Venus. And just as many policy papers about how we can achieve equality between men and women in the workplace. But a new study done by the Centre for Public Health Research of Massey University in New Zealand reminds us that when it comes to the workplace environment, equal but different must remain the rule where the occupational exposure of men versus women is concerned.Amanda Eng and her colleagues conducted a telephone survey for which men and women between 20 and 64 years of age where randomly selected from the electoral roles. The interviewees were asked to report on their exposures to specific dusts and chemicals, physical hazards and organisational factors. Each participant was catalogued by a standardized occupational code. Their overall findings, described in the abstract, reinforce the usual stereotypes, which are certainly side effects of the gender gap in types of employement:

Overall, male workers were two to four times more likely to report exposure to dust and chemical substances, loud noise, irregular hours, night shifts and vibrating tools. Women were 30% more likely to report repetitive tasks and working at high speed, and more likely to report exposure to disinfectants, hair dyes and textile dust.

The data turns more interesting when the authors corrected for men and women in comparable occupations:

Males remained significantly more likely to report exposure to welding fumes, herbicides, wood dust, solvents, tools that vibrate, irregular hours and night-shift work. Women remained more likely to report repetitive tasks and working at high speed, and in addition were more likely to report awkward or tiring positions.

Remember, the latter findings are for men and women in the "same occupation". You might intuitively suspect that a woman truly exposed to fumes, herbicides, wood dust, or solvents would be more likely to report that exposure than a man, which suggests that women are somehow protecting themselves better from dangerous chemical exposures. This could be relevant for studies that look for "clusters" of illnesses in workers exposed to certain chemicals. It may not suffice to compare overall illness rates with the rate of illness in the general population; controls for the gender could improve targeting of potential health threats. This affects everyone, not just industrial workers: "proof" of the hazards of a chemical based on health effects in workers is often required before use of a chemical can successfully be restricted in consumer applications.

And do reports of awkward and tiring positions reflect the "weaker sex" or are women struggling to find the correct ergonomics at work stations designed based on a male standard? I am reminded of a female engineer I worked with early in my career. She had a size 4 foot, and suffered from tromping about in steel-toed boots that were at best a woman's size 6, and were anyhow designed for a man. Since we humans have yet to work out a better idea than spending half our waking hours working, our work environments must be in balance with the nature of our bodies.

We would like to see some follow-up studies which rely on measured, rather than self-reported data. A large body of data exists measuring workplace exposures to chemicals which could certainly help advance our understanding of any gender gap in exposures on the job.

More on the Workplace:
How to Go Green: At Work
Chinese Factory Workers Fall Ill: Is It Pollution or "Hysteria"?
In the Office

Tags: Biology | Chemicals | Evolution