Notes on Gender and Work-Related Death

Occupational sex segregation is really nothing new. As more and more women entered the workforce, they were often headed into different spaces from the men (sometimes entirely different physical locations, and sometimes only subtly differentiated spaces). This might mean different buildings, but even within buildings, occupations can be sex segregated. So, women and men are both working. But this simple statement disguises the fact that they’re not necessarily doing the same work–not precisely. In fact, it’s a smaller proportion of people than you might think who work alongside someone doing the same work, with the same occupational title, on the same shift. Approximately 1 in 10 workers in the U.S. labor force fit this description of a gender-integrated occupation. So, if you’re one of them, take a moment to count yourself lucky and consider just how truly odd you are.

Roughly one third of the 66,000,000 women in the workforce in the early 2000’s could be accounted for by only 10 (of the 503) occupations listed on the U.S. Census. That’s occupational segregation! The “occupational ghettos” that have been feminized are often “rewarded” with more care work, less pay, and lower levels of cultural status and prestige. These are the jobs we sometimes refer to as “pink-collar work.” Some of men’s occupational preserves are rewarded with higher status, more money, and a great deal of power. But this is not true of all of men’s jobs.

Blue-collar work has been in sharp decline in the U.S. for some time. We may “put things together,” but by and large, we don’t build things from the ground up like we used to in the U.S. That said, blue-collar work has not completely disappeared. And blue-collar work is sometimes “rewarded” by ranking among the most life-threatening occupations.

NPR story picNPR’s “Planet Money” blog just ran a story on the jobs with the highest rates of work-related deaths–the “deadliest jobs”. Collecting data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2011, they produced the graph here (right) to illustrate those jobs with some of the highest (and lowest) rates of on-the-job deaths compared with the national average of 3.5 deaths per 100,000 full-time (or equivalent) employed persons.

It’s an interesting image. But in the short post, I was struck that gender was not mentioned once. Looking down the list of jobs with the highest work-related deaths listed, gender seemed to jump out of the figure at me (fishermen, loggers, pilots, farmers and ranchers, police officers, construction workers). These are all jobs that most Americans probably picture a man “doing.”

firefightersSIDE NOTE: One of the most interesting findings depicted is the fact that firefighters actually have a lower on-the-job death rate than the national average. This is a fact we might be hard-pressed to think given their cultural apotheosis. Firemen have a bit of a reputation for putting themselves in harm’s way, and if I had to guess prior to seeing this graph, I’d have guessed that they would at the very least have ranked above the national average for work-related deaths. Turns out, it’s a career with about as much danger of death as “personal and laundry services.” Who knew? Surely this is partially accounted for by–as the post on Planet Money explains–fewer structural fires due to increased safety standards, etc. But, it’s still an interesting statistic.

Work-Related Deaths1I went through the data used to produce the article from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (here), and collected a few more occupations that were significantly above the national average (3.5 per 100,000). While the author of the piece on NPR reported some of the highest outliers (like the fishing industry, loggers, and pilots), there were other jobs not reported that seemed relevant to make some general comments on gender and job-related death. My graph is to the left here (I kept firefighters in for fun). Then, I checked the gender composition for each of the jobs that ranked highest on work-related deaths (here). These results are illustrated as pie charts for each of the occupations I included (see image on the right).Occupational Gender Compositions

Women were the most significant proportion of farmers of all the occupations listed among those with the highest work-related death rates–but, even here, women only accounted for roughly 21%. In many of the occupations listed, women don’t even fully account for a percentage of the workforce (like fishermen, loggers, stone workers (here: “extraction workers”), iron and steel workers, and power-line workers.

This matters because danger at work is inequitably distributed. And it’s not just inequitably distributed by gender, but also–and significantly–by race and class. I’ve posted on the masculinization of risks to personal health before (here), but this struck me as a really interesting illustration. Men are simply dramatically more likely to be killed because of their work than are women. In fact, in 2011, men accounted for approximately 92% of work-related deaths.

One way of making sense of this is to say that men are choosing these jobs in some sense, or that men are responsible for preserving a “masculine” culture within these occupations, making them undesirable work spaces for women. And, if Kris Paap’s work on the construction industry is any indication, there’s certainly some merit to this argument. But, to say that men are “choosing” these occupations as though all others are equally available is to miss the (sociological) point. We are tracked into occupations in a variety of ways, often subtly, but sometimes in ways that are almost unimaginably without subtlety. And this is not to say that all “masculine” occupations have high rates of work-related death. Firefighters are but one example. Though they rank below the national average, it remains an extremely male-dominated occupation.

Men’s work-related deaths are a wonderful illustration of what feminist scholars of masculinities mean when they argue that ideologies of masculinity don’t only harm women; they harm men as well.

To conclude, it’s worth noting that the occupations listed as ranking among the “deadliest” here include only civilian jobs. Including military occupations opens up an entirely different discussion–not to mention the fact that the numbers of work-related death in the military would simply dwarf civilian work-related deaths. As the Pentagon has recently moved to permit women on the front lines of military combat, it seemed an appropriate time for this post. I’m struggling with how I feel about this. So, I think I’ll just finish with some questions: Does women’s ability to more equitably share in the risks associated with men’s various preserves (along with their privileges and advantages) indicate a move toward gender equality? Or, is women’s entry to the front lines more accurately understood–as Noah Bertlasky suggests–as “acquiescence to war as a moral force and a moral standard” (here)?

Should we try to distribute various risks to life more equitably or should we structure a world in which fewer lives are risked in the first place? While we might imagine a world in which armed conflict is not seen as a reasonable way to resolve international disagreements and struggles, is it possible to catch fish with fewer risks to life? I have absolutely no idea.

I just noticed that The Atlantic ran a story on this as well and did briefly mention some issues I bring up here (click here for the post).

8 thoughts on “Notes on Gender and Work-Related Death

  1. And so the evolution of gendered work continues, but this is definitely an interesting piece of it. It was a pleasure to read, thank you.

    • Thanks so much for reading, ETabor. I was cautioned to consider that the ways that we measure “work-related deaths” actually preclude some of the ways that women may die or be injured “on the job” in addition to other groups of men. If I’d considered illicit work (like drug dealing or sex work) as well as unpaid labor (like childbearing and parenting) gender might be differently represented. But, it’s an interesting topic. Thanks again.

  2. “Economics tells us that total worker compensation takes the form of both monetary and non-monetary factors. The less favorable the non-monetary factors of a job are (e.g., physically demanding labor in relatively dangerous work conditions), the more monetary compensation is required to offset those undesirable job characteristics. Because male workers are disproportionately exposed to dangerous work conditions, the wages in many male-dominated professions reflect a wage premium to compensate for the higher occupational risk, and this is one reason for a gender wage gap.”

    “This has nothing to do with discrimination, but can be explained by gender differences in workplace risk tolerance. On average, men are more willing than women to accept higher compensation for a higher risk of work-related death or injury.”‘equal-occupational-fatality-day’-occurs-next-in-2021/#mbl

    I really don’t think that women will choose dangerous occpations. They never have and never will. When more women die in the numbers men do, more attention will be paid to workplace deaths and mortality. Do women really want to die in the same numbers as men to achive “equality?”

    I don’t think so.

    The harsh reality is that every society NEEDS men…just as much as we need women. Men do dangerous jobs and do things women generally don’t want to.

    Feminism does not need to point out how any ideologues of masculinty hurts anyone. The facts have proven for centuries that a natural order of life exists. Men and women are different for specific reasons. Enjoy our differnces so we can work together.

    We will never be “equal” – we are differnet.

    • I feel the need to reply to your response, as I find that it misses the point of this post, and this entire blog, on a number of levels. I will set aside the essentialist, “natural” understanding of gender you put forth for a minute to tackle this statement: ‘”Do women really want to die in the same numbers as men to achieve “equality?”‘

      The author of this blog is not arguing that women need to choose dangerous occupations, and therefore increase their risk of death, in order to ensure “equality”. The concept of “choice” in this sense is wrong, as the author points out that to think of men and women choosing into certain occupations ignores a sociological understanding of these numbers. Men and women are sometimes very subtly, and sometimes very overtly, tracked into certain occupations due to a variety of combinations of early socialization, cultural and normative understandings of masculinities and femininities, and the ways in which such definitions of gender pair with other characteristics–in this case, perhaps, the associations between normative masculinity and risk-taking. To talk about such occupational divides purely as a result of choice takes an individualistic approach to the social world that ignores both macro and micro forces at play.

      As long as people use assumptions of inherent, biologically-based gender “difference” to justify inequality, we absolutely need to point out the myriad ways in which our understandings of masculinities and femininities have the potential to hurt everyone.

    • Hi Clayton,

      Thanks for writing. I agree with sdeif here as well. The whole “every society NEEDS men” rhetoric has been really important for groups working to defend what they frame as “men’s final frontiers” and the like. Interestingly, much of the actual biological and psychological research on sex and gender differences has found that there’s a lot less to this argument that you seem to feel. Despite this, a great deal of effort is expended to talk about “natural differences” as decisive, framing efforts to help women and men engaging in work and activities seen as transgressing gender boundaries as “working against nature.”

      And it’s common, I think, for people engaging in this kind of argument–as you do–to jump quickly from statements of conjecture to fact. (So, you say, “I don’t really THINK that women will choose dangerous occupations.” But then follow that up with a statement of certainty: “They never have and never will” casually implying some kind of universality.) But if history has taught us anything, it’s that “separate but equal” has often sounded a lot better in the abstract than when it’s put into practice.

      Saying something like “We will never be ‘equal’ – we are different” promotes this same kind of discourse. And it’s problematic for a number of reasons beyond being oversimplified and inaccurate. When we frame gender differences as entirely natural, inequality appears inevitable. But, when we understand (as biological, psychological, historical, and sociological research has all shown) that we cannot speak of sex or gender “universals,” possibilities for change open up that are ignored when we hide behind folk essentialist theories of sex and gender. Saying gender is socially constructed doesn’t mean men are worthless, or that they have nothing to offer; it simply means they are capable of change–on a greater level than you might imagine.

      Thanks again for replying, and for being respectful of the ideas as you disagreed with them.


  3. “Men’s work-related deaths are a wonderful illustration of what feminist scholars of masculinities mean when they argue that ideologies of masculinity don’t only harm women; they harm men as well.” – Don’t you think this is discrediting the men who do these jobs? It sounds like you’re saying their work hurts women, and it hurts themselves a little too. It ignores the real value those men generate for our society: notably for women (who benefit from the increased circulation of resources, services, and infrastructure (and their relationships with the men who do the work) but who don’t partake in the risk. Perhaps it would suffice to say that traditionally male roles are more sacrificial than their female counterparts (traditional or modern)?

  4. Pingback: Comic Books, Superhero Movies, and Gender Inequality » Girl w/ Pen

  5. Pingback: Comic Books, Superhero Movies, and Gender Inequality | Inequality by (Interior) Design

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