A Year in Review & Best of 2016 – Inequality by (Interior) Design Edition

Inequality by (Interior) Design turned 5 this year!  Five!?!?!  I’m sort of shocked by that news.  It wasn’t a phenomenal blogging year for me in terms of post volume.  In fact, I wrote fewer posts in 2016 than any other year since I first started blogging.  But I haven’t given up. I promise.  The posts I did write were a lot of fun, and from the reader statistics, I can tell they were of interest to readers. More than a few of this year’s posts are regularly linked to from course management sites at various colleges and universities.  And I learned a few new data visualization tricks that have been fun to incorporate.  In addition to sharing my “best” (most read) posts from the year as well as my personal favorites, I wanted to take a moment to share about some of the work I did that helped account for a bit less blogging this year.

Many of the posts I wrote this year were small pieces that I’m using for a larger project I’ve been working on all year.  I joined Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson to rewrite, revise, update, and digitize the content of Sociology NOW an introductory textbook in sociology.  In addition to updating the facts and figures (and special thanks to Sarah Diefendorf who has been working with me tirelessly all year helping with this), Michael, Amy, and I propose a new framework for teaching the field.  We address the “three paradigms” framework (functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism); but it’s not the organizing framework for the book.  Our framework focuses on the way sociologists look at the world – a perspective we call “iSoc.”  You’ll love it.  We also continue to highlight the time-honored research that continues to shape the field.  But we incorporate lots of research highlights from younger and emerging scholars.   Final plug – this edition will be a print and digital edition, but the digital version is where the really interesting stuff will be (and will be a lot cheaper for students).  We’re producing videos for each chapter, a series of animations to explain key concepts, ideas, perspectives, and findings (I’m doing the audio for these and I cannot wait).  And, we’ve done a massive overhaul on charts, graphs, maps, and images in the book as well.  Many of the charts, graphs, and maps will be interactive and we have a host of widgets in each chapter that will enable students to play around with some data a bit to learn more or to personalize what they’re learning, and to put their own ideas, opinions, and perspectives into context.  I’ll blog more about the process as it unfolds.  Stay tuned for Sociology NOW, 3e, by Michael Kimmel, Amy Aronson, and Tristan Bridges.

Pascoe and Bridges - Exploring MasculinitiesMy anthology with C.J. Pascoe, Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change, has continued to do well.  The collection was favorably reviewed twice this year – in Teaching Sociology and Sex Roles.  C.J. and I Skype’d into a collection of classes using the book and regularly email with faculty using the book.  The larger project of the anthology was an argument suggesting that the field needs a bit of reorganization.  And the essays that we wrote for the book explain that project in detail.  That work has also started to get cited and we’re hoping that it continues to help scholars understand that the boundaries of the field are far wider than they are often recognized to be – and we have much to gain from recognizing this fact.  We are also managing to keep up with social media for the anthology , with a facebook page and Twitter account.  Follow along whether you’ve read the book or not.  We’d love to have you as a part of those communities.

In addition to this, C.J. and my theoretical framework – “hybrid masculinities” – has been a project we have continued.  Scholars are finding the framework useful for making sense of a great diversity of findings.  And that has been really incredible.  In fact, we just recently finished a chapter for a new anthology on shifts in gender theory edited by Raewyn Connell, Patricia Yancey Martin, James Messerschmidt, and Michael Messner.  Keep your eye out for this anthology.  It’s going to be phenomenal (NYU Press).  And I’m about as proud of our chapter as anything I’ve ever written – “On the Elasticity of Gender Hegemony: Why Hybrid Masculinities Fail to Undermine Gender and Sexual Inequality.”  It was an incredible opportunity to be included and we’re excited to have been offered the space to discuss how we see the theory as connected with Raewyn Connell’s theoretical project.  In addition to this, C.J. and I have partnered with Sarah Diefendorf to put together a hybrid masculinities reader which will include some incredible work.  And I’m also continuing to work on my own book manuscript which contributes to and further theorizes this framework as well.  More on both of those this year.

Okay, enough about about research.  All of the blogs I follow have a post (or series of posts) at the end of each year celebrating some of their biggest and best posts of the year.  And I’ve done it each year.  I now blog here, still have my column at Girl W/ Pen! with C.J., and also write for and am an editor at Feminist Reflections as well.  But I share all of that work here as a sort of central hub for all my blogging.  Below are my top five most popular posts of the year along with an assortment of my personal favorites.

Top 5 Most Popular Posts of 2016

  1. Baby Name Frequencies#HerWorkToo – Acknowledging and Accounting for the Gender Recognition Gap (Tristan Pascoe and C.J. Bridges – Yes, that was intentional)
  2. Why Popular Boy Names are More Popular than Popular Girl Names (Tristan Bridges)
  3. Google, Tell Me. Is My Son Gay? Picture1(Tristan Bridges)
  4. Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender (Tristan Bridges and James Messerschmidt)
  5. Much Ado about “Sex Roles” (Tristan Bridges)


My Personal Favorites from 2016

Scholarly blogging is largely a labor of love.  It’s not rewarded in any traditional or systematic way.  It doesn’t “count” toward the work that scholars are asked to do – at least not in any easily measurable way.  But, it’s immensely rewarding and, I think, vitally important work.  Blogging is one way that we can reach audiences not possible with scholarly writing – attempting to have an impact on the forms of inequality we study and help other people connect with sociological knowledge, research, and theory.  Increasing the number of feminist sociological imaginations in the world can only make for a better place.  Looking forward to 2017.  As always, thanks for reading!

Masculinity, Inequality, and the 2016 Presidential Election

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-10-20-03-amOriginally published HERE, in ASA Footnotes, 2016 44 (8).

by: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Shock, surprise, handwringing, sadness, recrimination, and analysis by social commentators, academics, activists, and politicians themselves followed the 2016 presidential election. Certainly there have been no shortage of explanations as to how a rich white man with no political experience, multiple failed businesses and marriages, who is on trial for sexual assault, whose recent claim to fame involves starring on a reality television series, and whose supporters feature bumper stickers reading things like “Trump that Bitch” will become the 45th president of the United States. As many of these commentaries have pointed out, this election is the perfect storm of intersecting inequalities: inequalities of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nation among others. Indeed, the anger that fueled this election reflects the conservative and populist movements across the globe in recent years.

Sociological research and theory on masculinity and gender inequality explain, in part, the success of a man who uses “locker room talk,” regularly objectifies women, calls them “nasty,” and looms over them in a way that is recognized as dangerous by survivors of violent relationships or sexual harassment. The easy answer is that men are voting for the continuation of an unequal gender system that privileges them.

Economically struggling white men were among the most eager to embrace (or overlook?) Trump’s support for gender inequality. 53 percent of men voted for Trump, while 41 percent voted for Clinton. 72 percent of white men with no college education supported Trump; less than one quarter of that group voted for Clinton. Given Trump’s advocacy of gendered (and raced) inequality, this may come as little surprise. What might be more complicated to explain is that 62 percent of white women with less than a college education and 45 percent of college-educated white women voted for Trump, too.

It’s not just men voting in men’s “interest.” It’s women as well. This might be best understood with a concept that never gained much traction in the sociology of men and masculinities, but is worth revisiting—sociologist Arthur Brittan’s concept of “masculinism.” As Brittan wrote almost three decades ago, “Masculinity refers to those aspects of men’s behaviour that fluctuate over time…. Masculinism is the ideology that justifies and naturalizes male domination… Moreover, the masculine ideology is not subject to the vagaries of fashion – it tends to be relatively resistant to change” (Brittan 1989, emphasis ours). Brittan’s work reminds us that, despite incredible change, ideologies that justify inequality are most visible when the forms of inequality they justify are under siege. It is under those moments that we get a good look at how ideologies perpetuate inequality. When systems of inequality are challenged, questioned, and made to sweat, ideologies can’t be passively relied upon to work for those in power. They require work, renewed efforts to maintain legitimacy if they are to stand up to such attacks. Masculinism was publicly challenged this election; a spotlight was shown on forms of privilege and inequality that are rarely so visible to the naked eye. …

Read the rest at ASA Footnotes (online or print).

 

On Straight Men’s Marriageability Across the Class Divide

by: Tristan Bridges and Melody L. Boyd

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

The situation. Americans are delaying and foregoing marriage in larger numbers than they used to.  In 1980, about 5% of 40-year-old women with only a high school education or less had never been married.  Almost 9% of 40-year-old women with at least a BA had never married.  And these numbers have been rising for all of these groups, some more than others.  It’s all the more interesting because, in this same time period, marriage has become legally accessible to more individuals.  But, by 2013, the proportions of 40-year-old women who had never married exploded (see graph below*).  There are a variety of reasons that account for this shift.  At a basic level, women are getting more education and have more life options than they did 30+ years ago.  But are heterosexual women foregoing marriage altogether, or are they still waiting for “Mr. Right”?  And if they’re waiting, are there enough Mr. Rights to go around?

never-married-women-by-education-1980-2013

The man question. With the rise of women’s options not to marry, no wonder questioning men’s status as “marriage material” is pervasive in popular culture.  This “man question” is so accepted that further elaboration is not typically required when suggesting an individual man fails to pass muster.  But, sociologists take the idea seriously. We have examined three decades of research to demonstrate the rise of the man question—and the ways it relates both to rising gender equality and economic inequality.

Marriageability = jobs? In the late 1980s, sociologist William Julius Wilson sought to give the phenomenon a social scientific name and a more precise and measurable quality. Wilson studied poor and working-class communities and discovered that inner-city joblessness among lower-income black men was resulting in a dilemma for inner-city lower-income black women: a growing shortage of men who might qualify as marriageable. Since the majority of marriages and relationships in the U.S. (both then and now) are between people with similar class and racial backgrounds, this extended the gap even further.

Wilson defined men’s “marriageability” in terms of economic stability. Employment was key, in his view, to men’s suitability as marital partners. Changes in the economy in the prior several decades had produced ripple effects that left fewer men in this group able to find gainful employment. And these problems still exist.  Using education as a proxy for class status, lower-income heterosexual women still face a pool of marriageable men that is too small for them to all find husbands.  In fact, the data above suggest that it may very well be a problem that has gotten worse, particularly for Black Americans.  In recent times, we have seen returns to higher education for Black women increase at a modest rate, while Black college educated men’s returns have actually declined.  And the lack of employment for those without a college degree—which is hard to obtain for both Black men and women—has become more difficult for Black men.  This means fewer and fewer men match women in terms of education, jobs, and other social class characteristics.

But who is thinking about men as more than a pay check? Wilson’s suggestion that too many lower-class men are not really marriage material because of the job market produced a stream of research on how lower-income women are navigating this challenging terrain. In the 1990s, the use of economic stability as the primary measure of “marriageability” received little push-back from other scholars.  Few scholars, for instance, have sought to examine men’s marriageability outside of lower-income groups. And from the graph above, you can see that less educated women’s rates of never marrying have increased much more than more educated women’s.  But, are middle- and upper-class women measuring men by the same yardstick?  And if so, how do they measure up?

We examined over thirty years of research from 1984 – 2015.  Our overview confirmed that “marriageability” research that emphasizes men’s value as a paycheck focuses exclusively on lower income groups of women and neglects the ways that women across the class divide may struggle finding “marriageable” men, but perhaps for different reasons.  Our overview confirmed that “marriageability” research neglects a consideration of more complex measures than economic stability and is limited to research examining the lower-class. We suggest that scholars begin to ask about men’s “marriageability” across the class divide.

If it is about jobs, why are middle class men subject to the marriageable man question? Existing research suggests that the yardsticks for working class and middle class men are distinct—but maybe not in the way you’d expect.  Our review of the research shows that while lower-income men often fail to measure up as a result of joblessness, substance abuse, and incarceration (all issues which negatively impact their employment), middle- and upper-class men able to find employment are not always understood as marriageable.  Data from online dating sites like OkCupid.com illustrate this issue, too. In online dating profiles, straight men are much more likely than straight women to list words associated with jobs and professions (assuming these are the qualities women are looking for).  But, as studies of middle- and upper-class women show, that just isn’t enough. These women’s understandings of what qualifies as a “marriageable” man goes beyond a paycheck—it has to do with relationship quality and equality as well.

Meanwhile, women’s expectations for their relationships have transformed across the class divide.  Women want more out of marriage.  Many still want the economic security associated with marital households, though women today may not need to lean on this security as much as they did thirty years ago.  But, they also want a set of intangibles that is much more related to the quality of the relationship than the individual qualities any given man might possess.  High quality relationships provide economic support, but they also come with emotional support, shared commitments to household labor, childcare, and more.  They want a partner in every sense of the word. And within this transformation, men of different class backgrounds are failing to prove themselves “marriageable”—but not necessarily for the same reasons.

For instance, research shows that in the face of economic constraints that make the breadwinner model unattainable to many working-class and poor fathers, they are redefining this role to prioritize what they can and do bring to the table—a more involved form of parenthood. Ironically, this kind of relational fathering sounds like what many middle- and upper-class women with children or desiring children say they want more of from their partners. Middle- and upper-class fathers, however, end up prioritizing the paycheck and minimizing parenting involvement due primarily to workplace policies and constraints. Many lower-income men fail by the old metric—income.  But research suggests that in some ways, they fulfill many women’s desires for egalitarian relationships.  Conversely, middle- and upper-income men are more likely to qualify as “marriageable” by the old metric (income), but fail by new egalitarian standards for relationships—relationships both women and men claim to desire.

Men’s “marriageability” is best understood, we find, in the context of two trends: increasing expectations of gender equality among both women and men and growing economic inequality and insecurity.  Research shows that these twin trends make egalitarian relationships and marriages available to relatively few.  Wilson used income as synonymous with marriageability; a steady and reliable paycheck was all men needed.  But, marriageability is more complex than that.  Today, income is more of a baseline expectation for consideration.  And research suggests that some men may be prizing these qualities in themselves to the detriment of things that women might actually want from them.

____________________________

Thanks to Virginia Rutter for advanced comments on this draft (a while ago).

*Thanks to Philip Cohen for the data.

Much Ado About “Sex Roles”

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

sex rolesThe journal, Sex Roles, is among the most highly ranked and influential journals publishing research on gender in the world.  I recently joined the editorial board and am really honored to evaluate research considered for publication there.  This isn’t a  post about the content of the journal, though; it’s a post about the title.  I want to suggest that we change it.  I recognize what a logistical nightmare this would be for the publisher, Springer, and how much work would need to be done to re-brand the journal.  But, I also think that some of the most cutting edge scholarship going on in gender might never see the journal as an appropriate venue with a dated title that relies on a concept and pays homage to a theory gender sociologists moved away from over three decades ago.

Sex role theory was the first systematic attempt to theorize gender when sociology was dominated by the paradigm of structural functionalism.  But, when we teach undergraduate and graduate students about sex role theory today, we often address the various failings of the theory (and to be clear, there are many).  Sex role theory was really the first systematic attempt to tie the structure of gender identities and what others called personality or “sex temperament” to the structure of society.  This might sound like a small feat today, because it is so taken for granted as a basic assumption behind so much scholarship motivated by this simple premise.  Put another way, sex role theory helped to label something “social” that lacked status as something to be studied by sociologists, at least in the ways sex role theory invited.

Like structural functionalist theory more generally, however, sex role theory was subject to a variety of critiques.  In C.J. Pascoe and my introduction in Exploring Masculinities, we summarize four prevalent critiques of sex role theory.  The theory is tautological, teleological, ahistorical, and fails to account for gender diversity or inequality–damning critiques, to be sure.  I won’t belabor the point.  Rather, I’ll put it this way.  The first time I submitted something to Gender & Society there was a brief caveat in the manuscript submission guidelines that explicitly stated that work relying on sex role theory was not appropriate for publication in the journal.  It’s since been removed–and I’d imagine this was probably done because people no longer submit articles that attempt to use the theory to explain their findings.  But it speaks to the level of agreement about the demise of the framework.

The current editor of Sex Roles, Janice Yoder, is fantastic.  She wrote a really insightful and inspiring essay in her new role as editor in December of 2015–“Sex Roles: An Up-To-Date Gender Journal With An Outdated Name.”  I won’t reiterate all of the great points Yoder addresses there (but you should read them).  What I will say is that she addresses the origins of the journal in the 1970s, as an publication desiring to publish scholarship focusing on “sex roles” as opposed to “biological, dimorphic sex”–an important project.  At the time, sex role theory was in vogue, and it was a concept and theory that had purchase in a variety of disciplines, likely helping initial editors justify the need for a journal in a still-emerging field of study.  The first issue was published in 1975.  Other journals emerged around this time as well, like Feminist Studies (1972) and Signs (1975) for instance.

But a separate collections of journals arrived a bit later like Gender & Society (1987), the Journal of Gender Studies (1991), and a whole collection of journals around the world and in different fields of study.  Sex Roles has consistently been ranked a top 10 journal publishing gender studies research.  Below, I want to compare the journal to the top ranked journal publishing research on gender–currently Gender & Society–to illustrate the impact of Sex Roles.  This is helpful to sociologists, I think, because Gender & Society is the gender journal many use to evaluate other gender journals in this field.  Gender & Society and Sex Roles are both hugely influential in the field (Figure 1).  Both journals have climbed in the rankings recently and have seen their impact grow.  Gender & Society is also a journal with a high citation per article count, and articles published in Sex Roles are not far behind (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Sex Roles, however, has also been published over a longer period of time and publishes more articles over the course of a year.  So, while the average article published in Gender & Society receives more citations than the average article published in Sex Roles, the total number of citations that articles published in Sex Roles receive is roughly 2-3 times the number received by Gender & Society (Figure 3).

Figure 3

All this is to say that there are certainly lots of ways to measure influence.  And by all measures, Sex Roles has a lot.  It matters–and the research published in Sex Roles ends up in a whole lot more reference sections of books and articles than does the work published in Gender & Society.

I think the journal should change the title.  And I realize that I’m not centrally involved in the work that would be required to undertake this task.  But, I’d wager that most of the scholars publishing research in that journal would support the critiques leveled against sex role theory in the 1980s by scholars like Barrie Thorne, Judith Stacey, and Raewyn Connell.  And I think a larger group of scholars would consider Sex Roles as an outlet for their research with a different title.  I realize that the logistics of this are much more complex than simply changing the cover and masthead.  It would involve a campaign on the part of Springer, current and former editors, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration among gender researchers.

After considering the change possible, the very first step would likely be to figure out what the new title of the journal might be.  My vote would be for “Gender Relations,” a concept that comes out of Raewyn Connell’s theory of gender.  Embedded in this concept was a critique of sex role theory and the biological reductionism that Yoder discusses in the essay I mentioned earlier.  On top of this, when we look at the mentions of the concept of “sex roles” in Google ngrams, you can see the decline of use over the years from a high point right around 1980.  Since then, the concept has fallen out of favor–a shift that coincides neatly with the increasing prevalence of “gender relations” (see below).

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 12.43.51 PM

As I’ve become more familiar with the journal over the past couple years and enjoy the research published there.  I realize that I have little influence and that this blog post is unlikely to initiate this change.  But when I’ve discussed this with other sociologists who study gender, I have yet to get into a conversation with someone who doesn’t have a problem with the title.  Maybe we can do something about it.

Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender

by: Tristan Bridges and James W. Messerschmidt

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique.

Joan Acker was among a group of scholars concerned about the limitations of this focus; in particular, patriarchy was criticized for being a universal, trans-historical, and trans-cultural phenomenon—“women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways” (1989a: 235).  Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up.  It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.  We’ve been relying on their suggestion ever since.

Acker’s short 6-page article was published in the same journal that had published Raewyn Connell’s article, “Theorizing Gender” (1985), which spelled out her initial delineation of the problems with sex role theory and what she labeled “categoricalism.” Connell was also concerned with how feminist theories of patriarchy failed to differentiate among the categories of “women” and “men”—that is, femininities and masculinities. Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne’s “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology” (in Social Problems) was published that year as well (1985), specifically criticizing sociology for solely including gender as a variable but not as a theoretical construct. Acker (1989a) explained why feminist social scientists ought to follow this trend and shift their focus from patriarchy to gender relations and the construction of gender in social life.  As Acker wrote, “From asking about how the subordination of women is produced, maintained, and changed we move to questions about how gender is involved in processes and structures that previously have been conceived as having nothing to do with gender” (1989a: 238).  And in another piece published in the same year—“Making Gender Visible” (1989b) in the anthology, Feminism and Sociological Theory—Acker argued for a paradigm shift that would place gender more centrally in understanding social relations as a whole. Acker suggested a feminist theoretical framework that was able to conceptualize how all social relations are gendered—how “gender shapes and is implicated in all kinds of social phenomena” (1989b: 77). Today, this might read as a subtle shift.  But it was monumental when Acker proposed it and it helped open the door too much of what we recognize as feminist sociology today.

Acker published what became her most well-known article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”—in Gender & Society (1990) as an illustration of what the type of work she was proposing would look like.  She was concerned with attempts that simply tacked patriarchy onto existing theories which had been casually treated as though they were gender-neutral.  She explained in detail how this assumption is problematic and limits our ability to understand “how deeply patriarchal modes are embedded in our theorizing” (1989: 239).  And Acker illustrated this potential in her theorizing about gender in organizations.  But her suggestion went far beyond organizational life.

And by all measures, we took up Acker’s suggestion:  “Gender,” “gender relations,” and “gender inequality” are now the central foci of sociological theory and research on gender.  But Acker also concluded her short 1989 article with a warning.  She wrote,

[T]here is a danger in abandoning the project of patriarchy.  In the move to gender, the connections between urgent political issues and theoretical analysis, which made the development of feminist thought possible, may be weakened.  Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may be more easily assimilated and coopted than patriarchy. (1989a: 239-240)

Certainly, Acker’s concern leads us to honestly ask: Will shifting the theoretical conversation from patriarchy to gender eventually result in simply a cursory consideration of gendered structured inequality? Will the shift to gender actually loosen our connections with conceptualizations of gendered power? We don’t think so but one way to commemorate the legacy of Joan Acker is to both celebrate gender diversity while simultaneously visualizing and practicing gender equality.  This means continuing to recognize that inequality is perpetuated by the very organization of society, the structure of social institutions, and the historical contexts which give rise to each.

___________________________
References
Acker, Joan. 1989a. “The Problem with Patriarchy.” Sociology 23(2): 235-240.
Acker, Joan. 1989b. “Making Gender Visible.” Pp. 65-81 in Wallace, P.A., Ed., Sociological Theory and Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2): 139-158.
Connell, Raewyn. 1985. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19(2): 260-272.
Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology.” Social Problems 32(4): 301-316.

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son Gay?

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Screen-Shot-2016-06-01-at-3.40.39-PM-300x290In 2014, a story in The New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went viral using Google Trend data to address gender bias in parental assessments of their children—“Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?”  People ask Google whether sons are “gifted” at a rate 2.5x higher than they do for daughters.  When asking about sons on Google, people are also more likely to inquire about genius, intelligence, stupidity, happiness, and leadership than they are about daughters.  When asking about daughters on Google, people are much more likely to inquire about beauty, ugliness, body weight, and just marginally more likely to ask about depression.  It’s a pretty powerful way of showing that we judge girls based on appearance and boys based on abilities.  It doesn’t mean that parents are necessarily consciously attempting to reproduce gender inequality.  But it might mean that they are simply much more likely to take note of and celebrate different elements of who their children are depending on whether those children are girls or boys.

To get the figures, Stephens-Davidowitz relied on data from Google Trends. The tool does not give you a sense of the total number of searches utilizing specific search terms; it presents the relative popularity of search terms compared with one another on a scale from 0 to 100, and over time (since 2004).  For instance, it allows people selling used car parts to see whether people searching for used car parts are more likely to search for “used car parts,” “used auto parts,” or something else entirely before they decide how to list their merchandise online.  I recently looked over the data the author relied on for the piece.  Stephens-Davidowitz charted searches for “is my son gifted” against searches for “is my daughter gifted” and then replaced that last word in the search with: smart, beautiful, overweight, etc.

And while people are more likely to turn to Google to ask about their son’s intelligence than whether or not their daughters are overweight, people are much more likely to ask Google about children’s sexualities than any other quality mentioned in the article.  And to be even more precise, parents on Google are primarily concerned with boy’s sexuality.  Below, I’ve charted the relative popularity of searches for “is my son gay” alongside searches for “is my daughter gay,” “is my child gay,” and “is my son gifted.”  I included “child” to illustrate that Google searches here are more commonly gender-specific.  And I include “gifted” to illustrate how much more common searches for son’s sexuality is compared with searches for son’s giftedness (which was among the more common searches in Stephens-Davidowitz’s article).Picture1The general trend of the graph is toward increasing popularity.  People are more likely to ask Google about their children’s sexuality since 2004 (and slightly less likely to ask Google about their children’s “giftedness” over that same time period).  But they are much more likely to inquire about son’s sexuality.  At two points, the graph hits the ceiling.  The first, in November of 2010, corresponds with the release of the movie “Oy Vey! My Son is Gay” about a Jewish family coming to terms with a son coming out as gay and dating a non-Jewish young man.  The second high point, in September of 2011, occurred during a great deal of press surrounding Apple’s recently released “Is my son gay?” app, which was later taken off the market after a great deal of protest.  And certainly, some residual popularity in searches may be associated with increased relative search volume since.  But, the increase in relative searches for “is my son gay” happens earlier than either of these events.

Relative Search Popularity

Indeed, over the period of time illustrated here, people were 28x more likely to search for “is my son gay” than they were for “is my son gifted.”  And searches for “is my son gay” were 4.7x more common than searches for “is my daughter gay.”

Reading Google Trends is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s certainly open to interpretation.  For instance, this could mean that parents are increasingly open to sexual diversity and are increasingly attempting to help their children navigate coming to terms with their sexual identities (whatever those identities happen to be).  Though, were this the case, it’s interesting that parents are apparently more interested in helping their sons navigate any presumed challenges than their daughters.  It could mean that as performances of masculinity shift and take on new forms, sons are simply much more likely to engage with gender in ways that cause their parents to question their (hetero)sexuality than they used to.  Or it could mean that parents are more scared that their sons might be gay.  It is likely all of these things.

I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that the trend can only be seen as a sign of the endurance of gender and sexual inequality.  But one measure of that might be to check back in with Google Trends to see if people start asking Google whether their sons and daughters are straight.  At present, both searches are uncommon enough that Google Trends won’t even display their relative popularity.

The Enduring Feminist Sociology of Joan Acker

Joan Acker recently passed away.  I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.”  It’s true.  Her scholarship was titanic.  Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since.  Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable.  As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.”  Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense.  She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways.  She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is.

Acker’s theory never gained the same kind of popularity associated with West and Zimmerman’s interactional theory of gender.  But we all rely on Acker.  When we refer to formal and informal collections of jobs, people, and organizations as “gendered,” we’re relying on her work.  Society is organized in ways that cause some people to experience a more seamless “fit” in some positions than others.  Stay-at-home fathers have a unique set of struggles associated with lacking a clear “fit” in similar ways to women who occupy jobs in the upper echelons of organizations dominated by men.  Society is organized in ways that cause us to experience this.Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.31.13 PM

Acker labeled this and theorized a language to study it and shine some much-needed light and attention on the ways that gender difference and inequality are part of the very structure of society at a fundamental level. Acker’s most cited and celebrated publication was published in Gender & Society in 1990: “Jobs, Hierarchies, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.”  In it she begins:

“Most of us spend most of our days in work organizations that are almost always dominated by men.  The most powerful organizational positions are almost entirely occupied my men, with the exception of the occasional biological female who acts as a social man.  Power at the national and world level is located in all-male enclaves at the pinnacle of large state and economic organizations.  These facts are not news, although sociologists paid no attention to them until feminism came along to point out the problematic nature of the obvious.  Writers on organizations and organizational theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained.”

Building on many other feminist scholars (including Heidi Hartmann, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Dorothy Smith, and more), Acker helped to show how gender differences in organizational behavior and outcomes were best explained by structural and organizational characteristics.  Gender difference was/is embedded in organizational structure, and Acker designed a language and theory for examining just what it means to consider gender inequality as “institutionalized.”

Within the logic of organizations, jobs are technically open to anyone; and they are stratified by complexity and responsibility.  This is how we create workplace hierarchies.  And they feel gender neutral.  Acker questioned this assumption.  Abstract jobs have the appearance of gender neutrality until we try to take a concrete example which necessitates something else—an ideal worker.

“Such a hypothetical worker cannot have other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job…  Too many obligations outside the boundaries of the job would make a worker unsuited for the position.  The closet the disembodied worker doing the abstract job comes to a real worker is the male worker whose life centers on his full-time, life-long job, while his wife or another woman takes care of his personal needs and his children…  The concept of ‘a job’ is thus implicitly a gendered concept, even though organizational logic presents it as gender neutral.”

These are, today, routine assumptions from which scholars of gender from a range of disciplines proceed to study gender and inequality.  But they weren’t when Joan Acker was studying.  Acker’s theorization of institutionalized forms of inequality is a dominant theoretical perspective in the sociology of gender today.  At the conclusion of her article, she theorizes what it would take to dissolve the institutionalized forms of inequality in organizations.

“Such a transformation would be radical in practice because it would probably require the end of organizations as they exist today, along with a redefinition of work and work relations.  The rhythm and timing of work would be adapted to the rhythms of life outside of work.  Caring work would be just as important and well rewarded as any other; having a baby or taking care of a sick mother would be as valued as making an automobile or designing computer software.  Hierarchy would be abolished, and workers would run things themselves.  Of course, women and men would share equally in different kinds of work.  Perhaps there would be some communal or collective form of organization where work and intimate relations are closely related, children learn in places close to working adults, and workmates, lovers, and friends are all part of the same group.”

Like much of the structural theory of gender—particularly that work being published in the late 80s and early 90s—Acker proceeds from an unapologetically Marxist orientation.  And while we continue to study gender inequality from Acker’s vantage point, less has been done toward her vision of social transformation than she might have imagined would be when she published this a quarter century ago.  It still sounds so radical listed out above.  But is it really so radical a notion?  She concluded that article with a simple point.  We can organize society differently, in ways that continue to ensure that what needs doing gets done without all of the dominance, control, and subordination currently connected with these tasks.  The battles will always be fought over what actually comprises the “what needs doing.”  But Acker’s proposal for what needs doing is beautiful in its simplicity: “producing goods, caring for people, disposing of the garbage.”  Why any of the three of those should be considered more important than the rest is something we should continue to question.