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.

On Masculinity and Home Improvement

— Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Home improvement stores are gendered spaces.  I know next to nothing about home improvement.  I come from an elite enough background that when something in our home needed improving, we didn’t (for the most part) do the work ourselves.  We hired others (always men) to come in, assess the situation, make a recommendation, and do the work involved.  This weekend, I thought I was faced with having to improve my own home, but thankfully, I found someone to do it for me at Lowe’s–someone who, as it turns out, was a woman.

My family and I got back from a morning outing only to realize that we neglected to bring our house keys.  [We have so many keys at our new house that we keep them on separate sets, though we had a garage key made for our car keys as a result.]  So, we pulled up to our garage, and realized that we had no way of entering our house.  We left a window unlocked, but had to tear a screen to get into the house.  So… short story long, we had to repair a screen—something we know absolutely nothing about.  I brought the whole screen with me thinking I would just get a new one that size.

When we got to Lowe’s, a woman–Carla*–confronted us as we entered asking what we were looking for.  Holding up the screen, I smiled (with a bit of embarrassment) and said, “Screens and keys.”  She said, “I can take care of both of those for you.”  She brought us over to the screen section.  I didn’t even realize we were there.  She asked what kind of screen we wanted.  I considered trying to act knowledgeable, but said, “We want to make this,” gesturing to the broken screen, “look like new for as cheap as possible.”

“Have you ever done a screen?” she asked.  I laughed—but not as hard as she laughed at me after I laughed.  If it’s far beyond hammering something or turning a screw, I’m a bit out of my league.  So, I asked, “Is there any way you could help me with this?”  Excitedly, she said, “Yeah!  I’ve changed tons of these.  I just did my whole house last year.”  I was struck in many ways because I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say this about a residence I’ve lived in.  I’ve never “done” anything to my whole house.

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Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon – Issues of Access and Space

This post relates some of the ideas in an article just published in the most recent issue of Gender & Society (June 2012). Joya Misra–the current editor-in-chief–is really interested in getting more scholarship from outside of the U.S., and this issue is a great illustration of some of the fruits of her labor. One article that caught my attention documents Amrita Pande’s research on migrant domestic work in Lebanon (here). It deals with inequality and issues of space because Pande documents how migrant domestic workers in Lebanon (primarily from countries like Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) endure severe restrictions on virtually all aspects of their daily lives.

Studying this population at all is pretty amazing. All qualitative researchers confront issues of access, but this struck me as a population incredibly difficult to access. Pande was clearly not deterred by this fact. In fact, one of the initial ways she entered the field was to have “balcony talks” with domestic workers. Migrant domestic workers have sort of colonized balconies as a space for outreach and assistance–some in circumstances of incredibly cruelty and hardship. They speak across balconies with other domestic workers to ask about wages, time off, and trade tips for dealing with some of the more challenging issues with employers. It is a space to which many of them are largely relegated; yet they have found an interesting way of utilizing the space in a way that allows for what Pande refers to as meso-level collective action–playing on James Scott’s conceptualization of “infrapolitics” (here). But their collective action in not confined to the home.

Spatial structures discipline MDWs [migrant domestic workers] in Lebanon in two distinct ways: through the delineation of appropriate space within the employer’s house and through the restriction and surveillance of space outside the house. (390)

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Was Masculinity to Blame for the Space Shuttle Challenger?

Most of my knowledge about NASA, astronauts, and outer-space comes from movies.  When I think of the abstract astronaut in my mind, I picture Tom Hanks in Apollo 13.  I was actually only 4 years old when the Challenger disaster happened, but I remember learning about it in high school.  Thanks to the Challenger, we all know – or think we know – something about “O-rings” and how important they are for space travel.

For the uninitiated, here are the facts:

On January 28, 1986, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger for the last time.  One minute and 13 seconds into the flight the shuttle broke apart, and the pieces of the shuttle spread out over the Atlantic Ocean.  Where the crew of the shuttle were was eventually recovered from the bottom of the ocean, but all seven crew members were killed in the crash.  What happened was the subject of intense debate, legal action, and investigation.  What is known is that the O-rings failed.  At a very basic level, O-rings are a part of the shuttle designed to seal the shuttle from the outside.  They have to be flexible and able to withstand intense temperature changes.  It is now known that the O-rings failed to seal the Challenger Shuttle and as a result, pressurized hot gas reached the external fuel tanks and led to the explosion.

James Messerschmidt – a criminologist and scholar of masculinity – investigated this debate and wrote a fascinating article on NASA as a workplace.  Much of the literature on gender in the workplace focuses on relations between men and women.  Joan Acker famously argued that it was not only workers that were gendered, but that the workplace itself and the jobs they were claiming were gendered before they got there.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Christine Williams, Patricia Yancey Martin, and more have discussed gender in the workplace.  But the typical conversation addresses relations between men and women.

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