Sex and Gender Discrimination

Where the Borders of Race, Sex, Gender, Class, Age and Sexuality Meet

by Elvia R. Arriola (2000)

The problems at the U.S.-Mexico border that have expanded under NAFTA can be understood by looking closely at the maquiladoras for their impact on women’s lives.  Many other perspectives, such as economic class, or racial attitudes could also be used as the starting point of analysis.  Within this work of meeting maquiladora workers and sharing their stories we will be using a gendered lens.  This is a critical view of law and society that operates on the assumption that the ways in which a culture or society views the male and female sexes, or explains how and why they are different from each other, is a useful way for explaining just about anything in life or history.   To use gender is just a starting point of analysis.  It is not exclusive of other important factors, like race, or economics, or ideology, or culture.  It is a totally inclusive perspective.  The gendered lens also assumes that how those differences are viewed affects in turn how a society or culture distributes power and resources.  In a gendered and patriarchal world or culture this distribution is usually unequal.    In that unequal distribution, women’s differences from men are often used to justify lower pay, second-class citizenship, objectification of women’s bodies, sexualized harassment and abuse of girls and women, etc.  In essence it is a devaluing of the female in relation to male, or of the feminine in relation to the masculine, women to men, girls to boys, etc.   

A gendered lens that is viewed holistically, that is with sensitivity to factors such as race, class, age, sexuality and culture can benefit greatly from the use of narratives, drawn from the experiences of women who work or have worked in the maquila industry. The use of gender at the Mexican border, for example,  allows the researcher to inquire,  what role does gender play in explaining any alleged forms of oppression in the maquiladoras?  Why, for example is it a matter of recorded history and contemporary fact that women have been so heavily represented as “ideal workers” in the maquiladoras?  How does the working women’s gender, and the Mexican or Anglo attitudes about their class, their sex, their gender role expectations or their race affect their treatment in the factories?  How does gender intersect with race, class, sexuality, age, and culture to explain the paltry wages that most maquiladora workers are paid?  Are there specific ways in which a female maquiladora workers is treated that one would never expect of a male maquiladora worker?  What expectations do factory owners or supervisors have of working women in the maquiladoras that they do not have of men, and why?     

To use a gendered lens in a way that facilitates analysis of other factors such as race, class, sex, age, citizenship and/or culture is engagement of social justice theory with critical practice (i.e. “praxis”).   Here are some specific examples of working women’s experiences that illustrate the ways in which gender at the border meets class, race, age, sexuality and culture:

A.  Gender at work with Mexican patriarchy –  The Mexican woman’s gender role is one where she is traditionally viewed as dependent on men and one who has little experience in the working world, and thus with making demands for better pay, or better working conditions.   Many Mexican working women interviewed internalize these attitudes, speaking of factory owners preferring women “because men created more problems for them.”  Meanwhile plant managers believe them to have special qualities as workers stating, for example, that “females are much less tolerant of mistakes, poor quality, whatever.”  

   B.  Gender at work with sexist ageism –  Factory owners prefer to hire young Mexican women in the factories because they are easier to manipulate and exploit.  Job security is equated with allowing herself to become the object of sexualized attention and with invasions of her privacy.   The “Miss Maquiladora pageant” for example, encourages women to curry favor from the bosses and supervisors with sexualized and stereotyped conduct for “ladies.” Not surprisingly, such behavior is viewed as the anti-thesis of an angry and frustrated worker who seeks to unionize her co-workers and demand better pay, a healthier and safer workspace or better employment benefits.   

   C. Gender and pregnancy discrimination –   One extreme example of gender differences explains a particular form of abuse by maquiladora owners in the practice of mandatory pregnancy testing for new and current employees.  The irony of the pregnancy tests, which often include not only “surprise” urine testing but also examination of menstrual pads to prove that a young workers isn’t pregnant, is that to this day, the industry seeks out young women as workers because of their “natural ability” to engage in delicate, fast, repetitive and monotonous work.  At the same time a young woman is more likely to show interest in dating, getting married and getting pregnant to have a family.   Pregnancy testing, in its various abusive and invasive forms in many maquiladoras unfairly singles out women for their very gender identity as women.   


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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