In the early hours of the morning, while the rest of Paris is still asleep, a small city on the outskirts gets to work. This city is the industrial complex called Rungis Marché, the agricultural market where businesses get the food that feeds Paris. The nocturnal Parisians that operate Rungis’ meat, poultry, and fish sections trade daylight hours for chilly white fluorescent warehouses, lined with animals that do not yet look quite like food. To the visitors that ignores the life cycle of their burgers before they land on their plates, Rungis is a strange new world, where questions arise faster than any busy worker can pause to answer.
But even this unusual setting might seem all too familiar to women who venture into the rows of bloodied meat racks. Rungis is still, it seems, a man’s world, populated by very few women and comparatively many more age-old stereotypes.
The atmosphere is like an old photograph of butchers a century ago brought to life, joking in the camaraderie of the all-male, manly-man setting of fish and meat markets. Rungis’ head of Public Affairs and Governance, Bérengère Banquey, is a confident woman with clear command of her industry. She was the only female, though, in most of the warehouses through which she toured the student journalists visiting from Princeton University this morning.
The hierarchical relationship between Banquey and the male workers might make it tempting to dismiss the gender imbalance in Rungis – explaining the ratio away as a consequence of the shift hours, or perhaps the element of physical labor. However, some students sensed an uncomfortable atmosphere when their conversations unraveled into flirtation bordering on harassment, which might suggest otherwise.
When Princeton junior Lavinia Liang lingered in the poultry section to chat with Gary, an employee with a minimal English vocabulary, the conversation turned to hometowns. After Lavinia explained she was from New York, Gary continued to press her for more details about the city. Confused, but amiable, Liang offered more details about New York, and assumed they were misunderstanding one another. When a row of men across the aisle started to yell in French, the sociable atmosphere began to seem strange. Then Liang realized what Gary was asking for.
“It was all very friendly camaraderie – until I found out he kept asking me for my address. He had been asking for my habitación,” Liang said. When she realized what the men were joking about, she left to meet up with others from the group.
Further down the aisle, though, “they started making meowing noises at us,” Liang said.
“Just don’t respond,” another female classmate told her.
Gary’s flirtation and the workers’ cat-calling might have been isolated incidents, and perhaps not indicative of Rungis’ culture or workers. “It seemed to me that, on average, the men working in the poultry section seemed younger, but that might have been because of the people I was interacting with.”
Liang also learned that the poultry section is more lively because the employees all work for the same company, whereas the other sections contain multiple companies, and the employees work more quietly and more professionally. Even if none of the other people in Rungis would call attention to gender this way, nearly all those other people in Rungis are, still, men. Other than Banquey, Liang said, there were no women in the poultry section, and the fish and meat sections were similarly lacking in women.
One other female worker besides Banquey did stroll through the rows of hanging meat racks, donning a white coat and white wedges, blood-free despite the blood-spattered floor. This was the daughter of the Director of the meat section, her manicured hands and neatly made-up face standing in sharp contrast to her surroundings. She was not there to just look pretty; she was there to work, having recently studied business and preparing to potentially take over the business from her father.
Only 23 years old, she had studied business in school and toured the student journalists around her workplace as confidently as any of her other fellow workers. When the journalists asked about her job, though, she did not pretend her wedge shoes blended right in.
“I did want to work in luxury,” she said. “But here I am.”