Illustration by Shonagh Rae of posted mail
© Shonagh Rae

This weekend an army of postal workers will deliver Christmas cards and other holiday packages across the western world. No surprise there: though we live in a cyber-age, December still produces a blizzard of mail in North America and Europe.

But in one respect, there is a quirky and little-noticed difference in this blizzard on both sides of the Atlantic. If you live in the UK, the person delivering your Christmas cards is probably a man. At present almost nine out of 10 of the Royal Mail’s “postmen” are male, a proportion that has barely changed in decades.

Normally this causes no comment. British children grow up watching programmes such as Postman Pat (and singing its irritating little song), which take it for granted that the post is delivered by men. Indeed, to my knowledge nobody has ever suggested creating a Postwoman Patricia.

But in reality it is not inevitable that mail delivery people should be male. In Canada, almost half of them are women and in the US the proportion is 40 per cent (and higher in rural areas). If anyone tried to start a kids’ show called Postman Pat in the US it would probably end up sparking lawsuits from the offended and excluded Patricias.

It is an issue that Moya Greene, the female chief executive officer of Royal Mail, has good reason to ponder. Greene was appointed to her post three years ago after building a career in Canada, or a place brimming with postwomen. When she arrived in Britain, she knew she would experience some change as a result of crossing the Atlantic: the Royal Mail had never had a female CEO and there are precious few women leaders at large British companies. But the stark contrast in gender patterns at the grassroots of the postal system took even her by surprise.

These days she – like most other senior postal managers – admits to being a little baffled about why this pattern persists. In the case of the Royal Mail, for example, it used to be presumed that men were naturally better at the job because women lacked the strength to carry postbags or walk and cycle for miles through bad British weather. There were also concerns that women might be vulnerable if they travelled by themselves to remote locations. But those arguments now seem hard to sustain, given that delivery staff usually push their stack of Christmas cards in trolleys or travel in vans. And these issues have not deterred women over in Canada or the US, never mind the fact that the weather there can be far more harsh. On the contrary, in America women have been handling mail and running post offices since the 19th century. As long ago as 1906, George Cortelyou, the postmaster general, declared that the role of “postmistress” was “clean and honourable” for women, partly because “no part of the Government’s work comes more in contact with the home and family than the postal service”. (In England, by contrast, it was generally assumed in this period that post offices should be run by men, since they needed to support their families and were better suited to community leadership.)

Though North American women did not start delivering mail in significant numbers until the 1970s, once they entered the ranks of the workforce, their numbers mushroomed. One reason for the disparity with the UK may be the unions: in this country some suspect that the unions have fought to preserve jobs and working practices in a fairly rigid manner, which means that the older generations of male postmen have largely stayed in place – and there has been less chance to hire new workers on flexible hours and change the gender balance. But another distinction is that during the course of the 20th century the US Postal Service came to be perceived as a good place for immigrants and ethnic minorities to find jobs, which forced a rethink of stereotypes in a wider sense.

Either way, perhaps the most interesting question to ask is whether this transatlantic split could now be healed.

Greene is certainly trying to do that. Royal Mail is working with consultants to find ways to counter what Kay Clements, its inclusion manager, describes as a “lack of confidence” among British postwomen. It is also actively recruiting female postal workers and extolling the family-friendly nature of a job which often finishes before the end of the school day. And Greene – who is an outspoken supporter of gender quotas in senior management roles – has been pulling more women into the upper echelons of Royal Mail. Indeed, at board level, 36 per cent of members are female.

But, despite a commitment to improving the gender balance across all areas of its business, nobody expects rapid change at the grassroots soon or not while unions remain so powerful (and so prickly after a highly controversial privatisation of the Royal Mail). So the next time you get a Christmas card, check to see who delivered it – and then reflect on the way that cultural patterns can shape gender roles, often in ways that we never even notice at all.

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