Grabbing the world by the steak

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Wilbur sure is looking tasty. Sarah Nakonechny

First-hand experience as a female working in the meat industry

Being a female nowadays is hard. We are held to such specific expectations, and when you don’t fit into those boxes you are slandered and ridiculed by those around you. You must be dainty, polite, and anything else that makes you smaller to allow the males in the environment more space to take up.

Now imagine trying to do all of that while working in a position that is stereotypically understood to be “a man’s job.” This is something I experience every single time I step into one of my places of employment.

For those unfamiliar with who I am or what I do outside the walls of the university, I am a meatcutter. Yes, you read that right. I go to work, and I trim loins from animals that have been butchered. I can eyeball steaks to be the ounces that you want, and I can bring grown men to tears at how gorgeous I can make a wellington look.

So, what’s the problem? Clearly, I’m good at my job, I like my job, and heck I even like the people that I work with. The problem is not the way those within the company view me and my position, the problem is with the rest of the world.

My specific store is primarily operated by women. Our manager is a woman, almost all the staff are women, and the primary meatcutters are women. We are more than capable of doing the work and doing it well. Again, you might be thinking, what’s the issue?

The issue is going in to work and having people refuse to take your advice, and needing your male co-worker to reiterate the exact same sentence for it to be taken seriously. The issue is never having anyone believe that I’m the meatcutter who’s been called from the back to come cut their order. The issue is having people stare at me like I’m absolutely insane when I tell them what I do for work when some of the other work I do is quite frankly a lot harder and more worthy of that reaction.

Any woman who works in a male-dominated occupation, typically, is also surrounded by a ton of male co-workers – so I suppose I’m lucky in that sense. But, in the same breath, I am constantly being challenged more than is necessary about my abilities and my knowledge, and I know I’m not the only woman at my store who is.

We are meant to be frail and dainty. Why are we the ones doing the manual labour of trimming cuts, moving heavy boxes of product, and willingly being covered in an assortment of animal blood in the process? I’ll tell you why. We do it because we can. We do it because we don’t owe you explanations as to why we can’t. We do it because, quite frankly, we do the rest of the cooking and cleaning process. Might as well start from the very beginning – if you want it done right, do it yourself.

How can I be so sure that it’s not just my insecurities creeping forth, but rather, it’s the public that I’m forced to interact with that holds these views? It’s more than just the stares or casual whispers to their partners that I witness while they’re in the store. It’s being asked, on multiple different occasions, where the meatcutter is and when he will be back. Even after I am introduced to them by my co-worker as the meatcutter, that is still the question I am asked. I have been asked if my tiny hands will be able to handle holding such a large knife. Or, my personal favourite, being questioned about my sexuality, as apparently no straight woman would do such work. I will never be able to understand why it is so hard for people to just smile, agree that my position is as stated, and let me do my job without the commentary. I am painfully aware of who I am in that setting and of every move I make, as one wrong step will only confirm in their minds that I should not be doing this work.

What is even more frustrating is not the ridicule and snide comments from customers; in the grand scheme of things, I’m just going to tell myself they’re jealous that they can’t do what I’m doing and move on. What is worse is the discrimination in the industry itself. We see this in the products we get in. I am forced to wear uniform clothing that is way too large regardless of how small of a size is ordered because the industry still does not accommodate the few women that are believed to be present. All the butchers’ coats will forever be too wide, and I will continually have to wrap myself like a burrito for it to be functional. Don’t get me started on how trying to purchase steel toe boots that fit me and were not pink was almost impossible. I realize that I could’ve bought my boots from the men’s section, but that is not the point. I should not have to be covered in pink for what I wear to be deemed women’s attire.

I know that my industry is progressing at a better rate in accepting women into a wider variety of male sanctioned roles than many others. That does not make it any easier having your role questioned every time you step foot in front of that cutting board. I do not hold doubt that I can do my job, I hold doubt that I will be secure enough to survive backlash if I am deemed incapable – which would only stem from a sexist point of view. Things may be going better, but there is still a long way for us to go in making women feel successful and safe in these types of roles.

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