Occupational gender segregation matters and can be attributed to a number of factors. But, a significant factor is cultural. Jobs are gendered. Often not in any necessarily straight-forward way, but jobs acquire gendered attributes and meanings. In fact, occupational gender segregation probably plays a key role in producing our understandings of what is “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place. As Joan Acker famously argued, the “abstract worker” is imagined to be a man (here). This idea is perpetuated in a variety of ways—through formal and informal workplace policies, through curricular gender segregation as areas of study acquire “gendered” meaning, through the ways we frame the work itself as demanding a “masculine” or “feminine” strengths and/or sensibilities, and often, through things as simple as job titles.
The feminist movement fought long and hard to have firemen referred to as firefighters, policemen as police officers, etc. The lack of gender-neutral language was a subtle, but symbolic, way through which women were culturally excluded from certain occupations (even in cases where no laws or formal policies necessarily precluded women’s entry). This is a shift that is–to put it mildly–incomplete. For instance, many high schools, colleges and universities still refer to incoming cohorts of students as “freshmen,” while others have opted for the more gender-neutral language of “first-years” (though not without the occasional backlash).
Language is important. It’s a small part of a larger system of power and inequality that helps to organize our lives. Legal feminist scholars have asked that we rid ourselves of language in laws that reflect gender bias. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s more complicated that clicking Command+F and either replacing “men” with “people” or “men and women” and adding “/she” to the “he’s” or replacing them with “them/their” instead. The tricky part has been when we literally lack gender-neutral language for something. As one journalist put it, “Some gender-specific words just aren’t that easy to replace” (here). While firefighter, police officer, and first-year might have been interpreted as easy changes, more difficulty surrounded words and positions like: ombudsman, penmanship, servicemen.
In crafting gender-neutral language in Washington state, the person in charge of revising the code to rid it of gender biased language was stumped. “There was no clear alternative to manhole… Revisers considered utility hole, but that doesn’t connote size like manhole does. One might only be able to stick a wire through a ‘utility hole’… but a manhole—that’s for humans” (here). Aside from the fact that there are probably a lot of not-so-complicated linguistic solutions to this issue (a response on Ms. Magazine’s post on this topic suggests “sewer access cover” or “_____ access cover” depending upon where the “manhole” leads), it’s an interesting issue. Does it really matter that we find a new name for “manholes”?
Manhole presumes that it’s a hole for men. And in fact, jobs that require using manholes (AKA “human access tunnels”) are jobs that are disproportionately occupied by men (I’ve posted on similar issues before: here and here). So, things associated with this kind of work acquire a sort of masculine cultural patina. This is why we think of hard hats as masculine (or “macho” depending on who you ask), or tools and tool belts. This is why “Men Working” signs exist as well–though like “manhole,” these signs too are sometime protested (here and here). It’s not that these objects are somehow naturally “masculine.” Rather, they acquire gendered meaning through segregation, use, and display.
So, the use of “manhole” and “Men Working” signs are more than a matter of symbolism. They are a small part of the process through which occupational spaces are gendered. They reinforce the notion that it is really only men who can do the work required beneath “manholes” or the physical labor required on sites that display “Men Working” signs. So, challenging the naming of “manholes” is important because it is one small piece of a larger project of opening them up (pun intended) to women–not just legally, but culturally as well.