Have You Ever Heard Of Sex Discrimination, Sir? Part 1

md solo

I didn’t know what had coalesced in my unfolding adolescent sense of self in the summer of 1972 when I subverted gender-segregated work roles at a suburban Atlanta McDonald’s franchise. I hadn’t intended to when I looked in the eye of my shift manager and declared, “Have you ever heard of sex discrimination?” He had denied my request for a lateral move from my front-of-the-store counter service assignment to the male-exclusive crew on the cooking grill. At age 17, my freshman year of college under my belt and working the summer in a collective of temporary teenage hires, I had recognized a female ghetto when I was in one: girls worked the counter, boys worked the grill. Girls served the customers and boys cooked the meat. And I wanted to work the grill.

In the early 1970s fast food work at McDonald’s was gender segregated. But then again, so was the American workforce and the American household. Though food preparation was women’s work in the home, it wasn’t so in the hamburger workplace. Male employees cooked the burgers; they “manned” the grill. It was tradition. And women were outright excluded from working there. Women and girls were consigned to counter service—fielding meal orders, pouring up sodas, blending milkshakes, ringing up sales. We initiated, managed and completed the customer transactions. We were in the line of fire. We smoothed out customers inevitable complaints about botched orders and service delays. Stuck with managing the public interface, females were essentially the face of fast food franchises. And there was no recognition or reward in it.

Grillwork was the male domain and, by comparison, rote, repetitive work–a no-brainer sort of job. Compared to women’s relationship-intensive counter service work, the job pressures seemed few. Burger grilling was a step-by-step production process linking together a set of organized sequential tasks. Guys stood behind a hot metal slab tending rows of sizzling burger patties, layering on cheese slices, toasting buns, gunning on catsup and mustard, slapping down dabs of sliced pickles and minced onions and neatly flipping and folding the assembled product inside logo-marked paper sheets. They also mopped and picked up litter in the parking lot.

The counter and the grill were separated by a few feet and our work was executed only steps apart. I was a close observer, however, that fun and freedom resided behind the grill. Their zone was a free-range playground of backslapping fun. Physically screened from customers’ view behind the big flat grill’s enormous aluminum exhaust hood, the men’s work was hidden from the public gaze. Buffered from public scrutiny, nothing interfered with the fluid boundaries between grilling and self-amusement. Sure, it was sweat labor, but these guys romped. They invented burger flipping games and spatula twirling competitions and, when customers were scarce, they drifted around in the rear of the store, riffing on Top 40 music and breaking down dance moves while they mopped the floor.

No wonder that the male employees maintained hegemonic control over the burger grill. It was much more than tradition. From my adolescent point of view, it was tradition because it was fun. Women’s work was drudgery.  Rarely did our equally exclusively male managerial staff press one of the boys to pick up a share in the women’s counter work. Despite the role segregation there was no great gulf between us. Because, well, we couldn’t see it. The store’s social order reflected the American status quo and no woman had had cause to question, or protest, the distribution of labor.

So there I was on the afternoon and evening work shift, tending the counter and assuaging the mobile American public’s appetite for McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Big Macs, chocolate shakes, ice-packed cups of Coca-Cola and yummy shoestring French fries. Within a couple of weeks of hiring on I quickly wearied of the front line customer service constant apologia: the forced banter, “the customer is always right”, and close encounters with smart-ass suburban teens and older male customers’ dishing out suggestive winks. Under pressure, trapped behind the wide metal service counter, juggling orders, mixing shakes, bagging French fries and handling transactions—food bag in one hand, cash money in the other and the fry vat’s pulsing timer pleading for intervention—I fumbled and felt exposed. Coins dropped through my fingers and danced on the counter; soda cups tipped to the floor. Customers were often impatient and unforgiving and I came to dread the unpredictable, high volume, afternoon crowds of expectant customers rushing the doors. I kept my head down and avoided the customer gaze like a dog avoids a cruel owner. I silently resented the grill boys’ freedom from front-line service and envied the carefree confidence with which they flipped and cheesed the burgers and scraped and oiled the grill.

One afternoon the air conditioning faltered. The relentless summer heat baked our spotless store. A big, typical customer rush streamed through the doors. “Grill 12, cheese 6!” the lead counter staff shouted. The summons broke up the grill boys’ lazy, back door reverie; they strolled back to work and slapped down a dozen frozen patties on the grill. We front counter girls watched the line stagnate. Burger production crawled. Dispensing sack after sack of fresh-cooked orders, we sweated as customers scowled. Dashing between the counter, the fat fryer, the cash register and the soda dispenser, my timing was off. I spun around toward the milkshake mixer, prematurely separating a sweaty-cold cup of sweet, milky slurry from the mixer’s whirring head. An explosive wave of freezing vanilla blew back in my face. I was stunned, spatter-painted and sticky from face to neck to torso, elbows to hands. My brain popped like a firecracker. I had had enough! I threw down the cup, wheeled back from the counter, stormed past the grill boys to the rear of the store, seized my time card and clocked-out—no, slammed-out—and left without a word.

I drove home in a weeping, red-faced rage, peeled off my dripping blue polyester tunic, flung myself on the living room couch and railed at the McDonald’s Corporation for an hour or so. My hard-working parents offered me only half an ear. I calculated the job consequences alone, on my own. I was a lower tier worker and I had made a mistake: walking off the job was an act of insubordination. I would surely be fired. And then what? A summer without a job? I was mortified. My shift manager phoned later, coolly waved off my sins and urged me to come back to work. I was a good hire; I was prompt, I followed orders and I never missed a work shift. Those were valued skills in the realm of fast food enterprise. Grateful to be forgiven, I returned to the McDonald’s workforce the following afternoon.

I clocked in for my shift. There was no managerial lecture, no opprobrium, not even a shrug. My adolescent co-workers, male and female, mingling about, hinted that my previous day’s violently executed walkout had inspired some awe. I was the girl who had registered the insult of fast food counter work. I was the girl who had blown her stack. Though my outrageous flight may have looked like an act of protest, the truth was, it was an act of self-preservation. Under pressure and customers’ expectations, I couldn’t hold mastery over the front counter skill set. I couldn’t sack orders, hustle sodas, smile, gab and count change. And I didn’t want to. I wanted out of the public eye. I wanted to work the grill.

That afternoon I stepped up to my manager and asked to be reassigned. It was a simple lateral move. He was (obviously) a congenial sort of fellow, a guy who held to standard corporate operating procedures, wore a tie, got out the product, kept the store spotless and managed his young employees even-handedly. “No”, he said.

I couldn’t fathom his objection. It was a simple lateral move. “Why?” I asked.

“It just is. The grill is a man’s job.”

“How?” I wanted to know.

He cast around for an answer. It was late in the afternoon, there were few customers. The grill guys were wiping down counters and scraping and oiling the grill. They pretended not to listen. Fingering his tie, hands in and out of pockets, staring at the floor, staring at the ceiling, “Well, you wouldn’t be able to bring in the boxes of frozen patties,” he wagered. “Those things weigh 40 pounds.”

Big deal, I thought. One box supplied a half-shift. “Well, someone could lift them for me.” A grill boy interjected. “We can bring them in for her.” The manager stood firm. “No, it’s just out of the question. You’d have to be trained.”

There was just a lack of logic in his position and I couldn’t get around it.

From the age of ten I had carried the responsibility of mowing my family’s very large yard. My mother had taught my sister to sew. But me, I was the daughter she taught to push a mower. I was given a hand-me-down pair of boys’ leather outdoor boots and a short course on mower safety. I loved the outdoors, and by the laws of natural selection I fell to the chores of digging, hoeing and mowing. Under maternal guidance, year after year, I became accustomed to sweating and shaping Mother Nature through the application of brute force and steel. Leaf raking and tree pruning in the fall and winter, transplanting shrubs in the spring. There was no financial remuneration, ever, just a weekly draw on the same size allowance afforded to my sister. At 14, adept and efficient, I was loaned out to mow our elderly widowed neighbor’s postage stamp-sized front yard. Away from my mother’s gaze, she paid me well. Very well. I bought my high school class ring with those earnings. In fact, I was still mowing the lawns in the summer of ’72 and pocketing those secreted five dollar bills. No one had yet suggested that I was doing a job that girls were not wont to do. And I had been trained to do it.

He wasn’t moved and I wasn’t moving. I knew how to cook and sweat and wield tools. And I was a college girl, too, living with other young women who were the first generation of females in significant numbers to declare majors in law, medicine, dentistry, mathematics and the sciences. No one was dissuading us. We’d read the first introductory issues of Ms. Magazine, seen grown women marching, angry and speaking out, and sprawled in our gender-segregated dorm rooms discussing “Women’s Lib”. Our young minds had taken in the phrases, “equal opportunity for women” and “sex discrimination”. I knew that McDonald’s management was holding me to gender-segregated counter work, openly denying me a simple lateral reassignment, refusing to train a female.

I stood my ground and I knew where I stood. The law of the land was on my side. “Have you ever heard of sex discrimination?” I asked, all 5 feet and 2 inches of 17 year-old me drawn up tall. Evidently, he had. He shrugged, tramped downstairs to the supply room and returned with the tools of the trade—a white canvas chef’s apron and a hefty, long-handled metal spatula. I was stunned. “Here you go. You’re on the grill.” I grinned from ear-to-ear. He looked over toward the grill boys. “Train her,” he said.

For the remainder of the summer I worked with boys and men. I loved flipping burgers, immersing in the sheer aesthetic beauty of industrial batch processing—the linear perfection of clapping dozens of frozen meat discs and buns on a hot grill, the artistry of spatula work and running a customer rush to completion. I cherished that job. All-in-all, it was a blast. The Egg McMuffin was introduced that summer. I grilled a Big Mac for the mayor of Atlanta. I dated a cute, bespectacled 18 year-old grill boy who hailed from a rival high school. It was his pitch-perfect baritone rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” that won my friendship. Afternoons, side-by-side, we flipped and cheesed rows of sizzling burgers and scraped and oiled the grill. As summer passed there occurred a gradual loosening of gendered work roles. Other girls slipped away from the bedeviling front line, put on the chef’s apron and got try-outs on the grill. We sang, danced, swept and scoured. Every now and then, wonder of wonders, a grill boy held down a shift at the front counter.

At the end of August my McDonald’s summer came to an end. During my last work shift my manager took me aside. “I hope you’ll consider coming back,” he said. “You’ve got potential.” I politely smiled. “Come work full-time and you’ll be an assistant store manager within a year. We’ll train you.” I took it as a compliment. The future, evidently, was wide open for the girl who worked the grill.


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