Working in a Hen House

     Each morning as you approach an enclosed area, you are greeted by sounds that are best described as clucking. Once inside, you are met with a flurry of activity as you detect some of the inhabitants clustered around one area, intensely admiring the new plumage of one of their companions. While others are milling around a communal drinking area, you spy a few sharing a bite of this, and a bite of that and wander over too see what the fuss is about. From time to time, the outbreak of cackling fills the room, as a particularly juicy bit of tittle-tattle is shared. 

     Surprise, surprise, this isn't a chicken coop filled with hens, but an office housing an all-female work force. Admiring a new hairstyle, waiting for coffee to percolate, sampling a newly found recipe, and sharing a bit of gossip can be part of the day-to-day happenings in an office environment. Working in a setting that is best described as a “cubical farm”, has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. While many places of employment are made up of a healthy mix of both males and females, what is the atmosphere of a department made up of only females? This experience can be best compared to a hen house full of hens with no rooster in sight. Working in a small area with a group of women is comparable to the same number of hens sharing a hen house. 

     If you ask anyone who raises laying hens, they will tell you “happy chickens lay happy eggs.” They will also tell you content chickens will lay a greater abundance of eggs than unhappy ones. Happy women experience greater fulfillment in their jobs thereby increasing their productivity. It is predictable that women sharing an office space will bond. Whether the bond is positive or negative is attributed to how they treat one another on a day-to-day basis.

     Most of my working life has been in an environment with a fair mix of males and females. In my previous technically driven position, I was the only female working with eight males. Eight, egotistical, puffed-up, preening roosters who not only crowed at the crack of dawn, but crowed their “cock-a-doodle-doo” every chance they got. There is undeniably a different set of dynamics working with all males in contrast to all females. Even with the sexual harassment laws in effect, the innuendos bounced as rapidly as a super ball in a round room. Their competitive nature was straightforward and fierce, without the subtleties women are famous for. Men are quite able to engage in a heated argument in the morning, and then in the evening, proceed to have a beer with the same person they fought with earlier that day. When hens are around a rooster, they tend to competitively preen, coo and prance for attention. Though I was not interested in any of the males I worked with, there were the “bad hair days”, the “I feel fat” days and the “I don’t have a cute thing to wear” days. It was like prepping for a date every morning, five days a week. After a testosterone saturated 5-years, my feminine side was screaming for a change. It was time to enter the hen house.

     Sharing the feed = twelve women means an abundance of food. Walk into a chicken yard with a bucket of corn in hand, and the hens will come running and chattering. When a hen, busily scratching the ground, finds a particularly abundant supply of worms, she coos and chatters to let the others know to come and share in the bounty. Women love to eat, at least the women I know. Someone is always bringing in something, sharing a recipe, suggesting either a potluck, or ordering out. Meetings, birthdays, and anniversaries are excuses to bring on the foodstuff. There is always chocolate and candy to be found at someone’s desk. Depending on your metabolism, this is either a positive or a negative. The membership into lamentable or blissful metabolism leads to a certain camaraderie. If you happen to be one of the unfortunate ones with a sluggish metabolism, you will find a partner in the office to commiserate, join you in the latest diet or exercise program and pour over low-fat, low-carb recipes. If you are lucky and can eat like a rooster, it’s a guarantee that you will have a partner who can and will join you for that afternoon coffee and chocolate cake. 

     Clucking­ = conversation and gossip. Unless they are asleep (or sick), there is always someone flapping about something in the hen house. Whether it is the latest bit of gossip, news of upcoming store sales, terrific grades or grumbling about spouse and kids, there is always some type of chatter going on. The latest corporate gossip is sent through the rumor mill and added too, much like the game of Post Office. Whether the clucking comes from a hen or woman, the tone, volume and dialect can tell those who are happy, mellow, and angry or down right cranky. Moods are variable from woman to woman, and sometimes within the same woman depending on the day.

     Partaking of the bugs = passing the crud. Because hens tend to nest close to one another, when one is sick, the rest are sick. In a cubical farm, the sneezing, coughing, and blowing start at one end and does not stop until each area has had its share of illness. No matter how much hand washing and sanitizer one uses or how much vitamin C gets ingested, those air born germs spread. Colds, viruses and the flu travel faster than the speed of light it seems, from woman to woman. It’s only a matter of time until you get sick.

     Though many people will tell you they do not like change, countless women have a deep-“seeded” desire to change their living space. It can be as simple as moving around furniture to as complex as changing an entire house. This yearning leads to fighting over the nesting boxes = changing cubicles from time to time. Hens will settle into a particular nesting box and be quite content for a while. That is, until they are not. Then the fighting begins because invariably someone else has the box they want. This similar situation arises in a cubicle farm. Complaints about air flow, noise from the hallway, noise from the coffee maker and microwave are but a few of the reasons to request a change of scenery by switching desks. Perhaps your neighbor is too noisy. Moving to the other side of the room will alleviate this issue. Possibly you suffer from hot flashes and wish to be nearer to the fresh air return.  Maybe you are cold all the time and wish to be nearer the heat source. If the cubicles are not equal in size, the largest becomes prime real estate and an area for contention and a reason to request a move.   

     The biggest disadvantage I have found is the pecking order = who rules the roost. In every hen house, there is a primary hen that runs the show. Not necessarily the oldest one, but the one with the greatest physical or mental strength. The same phenomenon occurs in a group of women. A natural leader emerges. When the office has more than one strong woman, clashes naturally occur. During these clatters the rule of the roost can change, sometimes on a daily basis. In hen houses as well as an office of women, there are those who stay quiet and demure in the background letting the rule change hands without a murmur. Hens will peck at another who is weak or ill until the point of death. Showing weakness in a group of women, while not dangerous to the point of death can be precarious to your emotional health and affect your job performance on a temporary basis. Some employees have been known to change jobs due to the stress from personality clashes.

     There are definite advantages to working in an all female setting. I have learned there are different ways to lay eggs = different strategies for how I do my work. If you put an entire watermelon in a chicken coop, the hens will start pecking together until it is broken open and all the lovely goodness spills out. Hens will also work together to clear a small area of all grass and weeds. By working together we accomplish more than what we can as individuals. Sharing ideas and different approaches for gathering information makes a team faster, efficient and more accurate. I have learned that I can accomplish more in four 10-hour days than I can in five 8-hour days, though they both add up to a 40-hour work-week. I have learned that getting up from my chair (nesting box) to take a five-minute walk every hour and a half clears not only the kinks, but my brain as well, lending to greater focus when I return to the task at hand. I have also learned that many times a second set of eyes will find the answer to a question that I might have missed and have been searching for.

     One of the side effects of a life living with and working with people are day-to-day life lessons received from human (or chicken) interaction. What I’ve learned from the chickens = what my female co-workers have taught me about life. There will always be someone to mother you, no matter your age. In a hen house there is always a mother hen looking out for others. She shares where the choicest bugs and worms can be found and calls to the others when it’s time to head to the roost for night, often cooing them to sleep. The mother hen of the office will share her soft tissues with you when you have a cold and dispense Tylenol along with vitamin C. Her ever-present ear will let you bend it with tales from home, husband, children or lovers. Sharing your pride in their accomplishments and your frustrations at their shortcomings. You may even receive much needed advice and ideas for handling personal issues. 

     I have learned that while you may not always get along, when you receive abnormal mammogram results; you are freely given words of encouragement, tales of personal close calls and hugs without words. When you are on your way for scary and risky brain surgery, they will be there to cheer you on while sending up prayers. They will attend your child’s football games, send their husbands to help with electrical issues and help you track your first deer on a cold night dragging it through the woods with you. They will visit you in the hospital and arrange to have meals delivered during your recovery. They will console you with illness or death of a parent, knowing they will receive the same comfort when it’s their turn. Birthdays and accomplishments are never forgotten and are usually heralded with some small gift or card.

     Given the choice to work with all men or with all women, I would choose working with all women. Being a woman, I’m rarely surprised by what they do and what they say in a given circumstance. Though I grew up with all brothers and have worked in a predominately male office, I still find that men never failed to astonish me with their words and actions on a daily basis. What advice could I pass along to someone in a female dominated workplace? I decided the answer to this question would best be served by asking my female co-workers.  I share their comments of:  “confront issues when they arise”, “you have to find balance”, “exercise patience”, “develop a thick skin”, “don’t take things personal or serious”, “be careful how you respond, for responses can be interpreted in many different ways”, “speak for yourself and not for everyone else”, and my favorite, “make sure you have lots of chocolate, Kleenex and Midol on hand”. All of these suggestions, with the exception of the last, are really about dealing with people in general. Whether you are working with or living with males and/or females, working in a close environment means treating people, as you would like to be treated. The respectful way we deal with one another enables us to create better working and personal relationships. Especially in an all female office.  

© Avie Layne 2012