Gender Discrimination In the Hardware Store, Or I Know How to Use a Power Drill, Now Leave Me Alone

Without fail, if the male store clerks see me wandering the aisles without my husband in tow, they’ll follow me around as if they’re worried I might be a shoplifter.
Publish date:
August 14, 2014
sexism, Discrimination, hardware stores

I live on what we New Zealanders call a "lifestyle block." This means I have enough land to get out in the garden and get dirty, keep a few animals, and indulge in romantic fantasies about planting an orchard and starting a business making and selling artisanal fruit preserves.

The reality is that in a market already saturated with handmade organic jams, jellies and cordials, and one needs to have boundless time and energy, a standout product and be a heck of an entrepreneur to make it. My accounting skills are average at best and I have yet to successfully set a handmade jelly, so the business will remain a romantic fantasy for the moment.

Nonetheless, I still enjoy growing vegetables, planting fruit trees, engineering the perfect compost and looking after my stupid but lovable chickens.

My garden-related pursuits require a certain amount of heavy labour. I cut paths into the clay soil with a mattock*, dig deep holes for planting with a drop bar**, and trim back thorn bushes with a brush cutter***. I shovel chicken poop diligently, as it’s great for making compost. I’m strong, I’m fit, I can handle it -– and I know which tools to use for each job.

There’s a very large hardware store, part of a national chain, that’s handily located not too far from my house. I’m a frequent visitor. I’m quite comfortable in the store -– I know what I want, I know where everything is, and I know who to ask for help if I’m not sure. I stride purposefully through the aisles, picking up the tools or supplies I need to finish the project I’m working on. Because it’s the weekend and I’ve most likely been in the garden already, I’m usually clad in Wellington boots, jeans and an old sweater with paint stains.

Yet, without fail, if the male store clerks see me wandering the aisles without my husband in tow, they’ll follow me around as if they’re worried I might be a shoplifter. Every aisle or two, another (male) employee sees me coming, drops what he’s doing and rushes over to save me –- because I am female, and there’s no way I could possibly choose a new broom handle without chipping a fingernail. I’m absolutely sure to need a man to rescue me and protect me from splinters, no matter how strongly my body language is saying that I would like to be left alone.

“Okay there, Ma’am? What are you looking for today?”, “Need a hand, Miss?”, “Can I help you with anything, dear?” “Here love, let me carry that to your car for you. It’s very heavy!”

I’ve carefully tested this damsel-in-distress reflex. When my husband and I go to the store together, the clerks stand back. They’ll help out if asked, but otherwise will leave us alone. If hubby goes to grab a tin of paint from one end of the store, and I go in the opposite direction in search of potting mix, they’ll assume I’m an unaccompanied female and revert back to swooping. As soon as hubby and I are reunited, they back right off again.

I’m not unusual in being female, yet being willing and able to get my hands dirty –- this is New Zealand, and empowered women who do their own home maintenance are an unremarkable, everyday occurrence. We can change our own light bulbs, mow our own lawns and bleed our own radiators without the assistance of our manfriends. There are other women in the hardware store, wandering the aisles alone or with their partners, considering whether to paint their fences full or half Spanish White. There are even women on the staff -- behind the counter, in the gardening section, looking imposing in their security guard uniforms by the front door.

So why, oh why, male employees of this large chain hardware store, do you need to follow me around and constantly offer your services? Is there something in my general demeanour that leads you to believe I don’t know what I’m doing? Is there not enough paint on my sweater? Is there not enough mud on my face? DO MY BOOTS NEED MORE CHICKEN POOP?

I’m sure there are some women who visit this store who don’t know their sledgehammers from their screwdrivers. I’m also sure that some of the men who shop at the store couldn’t pick a long handled lopper out of a line up. The point is, you can’t tell how hardware store-savvy someone is by their gender. To assume that all men are complete experts with tools and all women complete novices is to alienate half your customer base. This is 2014 -– we women work as mechanics, plumbers, engineers, lawyers, doctors and computer scientists. We can do jobs requiring intellect, long hours and physical strength.

Male employees of the hardware store, I am just fine. I am not a damsel in distress, a lost little lamb or a delicate flower. I can read the signs -– your store is very clearly labelled throughout. Unless I ask for help or appear genuinely lost, it might be best to let me get on with choosing a hammer in peace. After all, I know how to use it.

* This is sort of like a pickaxe. One side of the axe is pointed, and the other is flat with a sharp blade.

** We have very heavy clay soil that can’t be cut with a shovel. The drop bar is a big, heavy iron bar with a pointed end and a chisel end. You drop it into the soil to break it up –- gloves are recommended unless you enjoy blistered fingers.

*** Chainsaw on a stick.