I once made a mortal enemy by stopping a guy from losing a foot to a woodchipper. I’m not talking about one of those cute home-gardening toys: I’m talking about a fully-fledged industrial machine, with a hopper big enough to accommodate a human limb, if not an entire adult human.
We’d been working together, me and the guy. He wasn’t very happy about that arrangement, so he started to try to outdo me: trying to fill the machine as fast as possible so I couldn’t feed in my stash, putting in trees too large for me too lift, etc. Unfortunately, in outdoing me he was also exceeding the capacity of the chipper, until he finally clogged it up. In order to help it along, he decided to push the stuck materials in with his foot.
For those of you who’re not familiar with woodchippers, that was not a good idea. Chippers are lovely machines, but they need to be respected. Murphy’s law being in operation, he did manage to get the tree unstuck, but his shoelace got tangled in a branch. The safety bar that operates the feed wheels was stuck because the tree had got jammed right into it, so he couldn’t stop the chipper feeding itself. So the guy was getting dragged by the foot into the hopper.
I dropped what I was doing, ran around the side of the machine, pushed the emergency cut-off button, and switched the thing off. And that’s when my problems started.
Other workers had heard the machine cut out. They came over to see what was going on, and found him disentangling his foot, halfway down the hopper. Not much was said, but it was made pretty clear that he’d made a rookie mistake, and that I’d saved him from potentially horrific injuries. From that moment on, he hated me with a passion.
You see, the guy was a true-blue misogynist. He truly believed that women were lesser creatures than men – not only different, but profoundly, inherently inferior. He also didn’t have much to be proud of, so he was deeply invested in his job. He had liked me well enough when I started working there, because I didn’t know much and I wasn’t much good. He loved having a clueless, small woman to patronise, which actually made him act very nicely towards me.
Unfortunately, soon enough I started to find my feet. Not only I could do some things as well as the guys (chainsaws are great equalisers), but, being nimbler and faster, I was actually better at a handful of tasks. At that point, his attitude did a u-turn. I was not only insulting him by purporting to be his equal, but actively assaulting his ego by beating him at his job. He went from being patronisingly chivalrous to finding faults with everything I did, how I did what I did, how I spoke, if I spoke, myself as a person, my presence there, and so on and so forth. If I did it, it was wrong; if it was not wrong then I must have done it wrongly; and if I hadn’t done it wrongly then I was wrong in having done it at all, and that was that. Things weren’t good between us. The woodchipper incident was the last straw.
As Rory Miller wrote, “The monkey cannot distinguish between humiliation and death.” Our limbic system, the seat of our emotions and social concerns, has its own priorities. I’m sure the guy would not have actually preferred to have had a leg turned into soggy confetti, but that fact was obscured by the huge blow his ego had just taken.
From that day onwards, his antagonism towards me became not only open, but actively dangerous. It doesn’t take much to cause serious accidents when you’re playing with that kind of toy. Eventually, things got so visibly out of hand that the management had to step in.
This isn’t a blog about how sexist men are. This is a blog about the worst case of sexism I have encountered, as a woman, from a man. I play with a lot of guys a lot of the time, and most of them are absolutely splendid. But when I meet one who clearly isn’t, I like to remind myself that I have to be on my toes, because things could to get ugly; I like to remind myself that there are guys out there who’d rather lose a foot to a chipper than acknowledge my equality.