Observing Inequality: Can Ergonomic Observations Help Interventions Transform the Role of Gender in Work Activity?
Work activity ergonomics (sometimes called francophone ergonomics) draws heavily on observation in order to support transformation of work to arrive at better health without interfering with productivity. Recently, ergonomists have attempted to integrate gender into their interventions. At the same time, ergonomists have been observing and documenting the importance of considering collective dimensions of work, thus including the construction of social relations among workers. Gender as well as biological sex can affect work activity through (1) Gendered job and task assignments; (2) Biological differences between women and men influencing the interface between work activity and the physical environment; (3) Gendered human relations at work, including sexual stereotyping, sexism, sexual harrassment, and sexual relations among workers and between workers and management or clients; (4) Manifestations of work-family articulation. But actually observing these phenomena poses various difficulties for the ergonomist. How can/should gender be observed by ergonomists? We describe a set of twenty studies, undertaken by ergonomists in collaboration with trade union women’s committees and health and safety committees, where observations were central. We describe in particular detail a study of work-family articulation. Participant and ergonomic observations of workers with highly invasive schedules assigned to cleaning transportation equipment, and relational analysis tools were mobilized to reveal determinants of work activity and some sources of social inequalities. Integrating observations of gender and other dimensions of social relations into ergonomic analysis and intervention is revealed as necessary, but not simple, and fraught with obstacles.