Some Workplace Injuries are No Accident
Betty Friedan preached that employment outside the home would liberate women, but many women can testify to how, regardless of which four walls surround them, as long as patriarchy is around, they remain unsafe.
In the past five months, incidents of women getting threatened, hurt, or killed at their American workplaces appeared on national news. On November 12, the NY Post outed a paramedic as a sex worker, resulting in a barrage of threats. The exposure also jeopardized her job. On January 6, we saw Congresswomen hide in their offices in lockdown while gallows were being erected for them outside their work building. On March 16, we learned that six women in Atlanta were killed when a mass shooter came into their place of work.
It’s clear from these incidents that the prestige, location, or salary of a woman’s job has no bearing on how safe she is at work. When society normalizes gender-based violence in the home, it also normalizes gender-based violence in the workplace.
Language as a Weapon
There is an entire department that provides employers cover for the harm they do to employees: human resources. Within the language of human resources, we hear terms like liability and workers compensation. These dry words borrowed from the insurance industry make it seem like workplace injuries are accidents: statistically unlikely events where a worker gets hurt.
But workplace injuries are rarely accidents. It’s gaslighting of the most professional order to tell injured women that their injuries are random events that no one could have predicted.
During my first year as a teacher, when I was struggling, a custodian told me that my struggles “build character.” I later realized that he thought he was helping me, and that I was being asked to tell my students the same thing: “grit” will get you far! But it doesn’t take long to wisen up and understand that “building character” equates to unnecessary struggle. Soon after, I began to see the cheery posters saying “Be kind” in hallways and classrooms as signs of aggression, encouraging teachers — majority-female — to endure abuse.
The most harmful phrase of all is “Assume best intentions.” It’s one of the norms that has grown popular in professional settings. Like “Be kind” and other phrases that at first seem good, this norm is a weapon. The subtext is that the person who gets hurt was not assuming best intentions and that the offender, no matter how harmful their actions were, harbored good intentions. The language of the workplace tells us that feelings do matter. It’s the feelings and reputation of those in charge that matter. In fact, theirs are the only feelings that matter.
When language can be wielded as a weapon, aggressors don’t need to get down and dirty. Women work in hostile environments where policies and unspoken rules protect aggressors, making it hard to make a case that violence happened.
Workplace injuries don’t only happen at schools or office buildings. They also happen to women who work from home. For example, Florence, 33, a content writer who suffers from repetitive injuries in her arms, has been working from her home in Marina, California, for six years.
“It’s really hard to have a disability that is invisible. Most people are visual learners and it’s hard for them to empathize with something that they cannot see,” Florence said. She added that most physical injuries on the job happen to men who work in manual labor, such as construction, and women file fewer workplace injury claims.
The support meant to help injured workers, like workers compensation, often becomes another stressor. Going to your managers or HR to request accommodations is difficult and sometimes humiliating for at-risk workers. It isn’t easy to prove — with doctor’s tests, physical therapy appointments, and phone interviews with workers comp — that one has an ongoing injury.
As a type-A personality, worker, and disabled person, Florence said “I find it hard to [advocate for myself] because I feel like I have to be perfect.” The result is that expectations for women in the workplace often allow the pain to escalate until women are at the brink of physical danger or death.
Because of work habits which include taking on additional responsibilities and providing emotional labor, women often don’t report physical symptoms, such as chest pain, until they become serious. Even when they do report symptoms that they’re experiencing, such as shortness of breath and indigestion, doctors often fail to identify these as signs of heart-related problems. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, women younger than age 55 are more likely to have doctors dismiss their signs of heart attack prior to hospitalization. This is yet another form of gaslighting.
Physical Violence and Death
So, just how dangerous can the workplace be for women?
Consider Yang Song’s case. The 38-year-old sex worker died trying to flee law enforcement during a raid. The stigmatization and criminalization of sex work indicates that the decisions many women make to earn a living are offensive to some people. There are many stories of women juggling — in fact, excelling in — their multiple roles as professionals, caretakers, and sex workers, and bad actors jeopardize their entire lives by outing their sex work.
According to Huffington Post, one woman, Charlotte, shared that “[she] lost custody of [her] children when [her] stripping job was brought up by their father.” She pointed out that her kids never saw her work and she never endangered them, a reflection that other workers share.
Yet, when the public finds out that a woman performs sex work, she often goes punished. When the NY Post outed Lauren Kwei, EMT, as a sex worker, people harassed, stalked, and threatened her, though she had done nothing wrong.
Vulnerable women (and who amongst us is not?) face danger not only at the workplace but from the nature of the work we do itself. In addition to having to accept unsafe work environments, women must also factor in the risk of unemployment, homelessness, surveillance, and stigma because of the work they do.
HR and workers’ compensation are completely unequipped and have no plan to address this kind of harm that women face in the workplace. Those institutions exist to shield the workplace and not the worker.
Like other forms of trauma, workplace injuries don’t heal completely. As to how the injuries have impacted her daily life, Florence said “Completely. They have changed my everyday. I’m no longer able to do any hobbies, any housework, or anything fun without feeling discomfort.”
While I have been able to remove myself from the workplace where I was injured, it continues to harm me. Professional development workshops on inclusion and team building exercises won’t change this reality, and, unfortunately, other women who have been hurt in the same building have not become one anothers’ allies. The sources of danger remain in charge.
The bottom line is that no amount of role-playing scenarios sponsored by HR will ever create a safe workplace for women. Until employers commit to removing the sources of harm, women will continue to be in danger. Under capitalism, such change is not going to happen. Employers and colleagues are no less oppressive than some husbands.
Yvonne Su is a writer in southern California. She is the Arts & Culture editor of Mochi Magazine and contributor to LM Voices, as well as book advisor at LibroMobile. She also contributes to zines such as We Got Us with 714 Mutual Aid and LABAN Magazine with Bayanihan Kollective. She has a Global Studies degree from UCLA and teaching credential from CSU Fullerton. She studies transnational feminist organizing, youth political education, and diverse children’s books.