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.

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.”

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A Brief History of the Masculinization of the Garage

In the U.S., garages did not really become a part of the “typical” American home (if we can say such a thing) until the start of the 20th century.  Certainly garages existed; but they weren’t seen as a necessity.  Two things you’d probably guess drove garage production initially: the increasing presence of cars owned by individual families and suburbanization.  But,garage-mtneerman-2006 suburbanization was also accompanied by a renewed interest in a sort of “do-it-yourself” lifestyle, and garages played a role in this history.  There’s some disagreement concerning whether a “do-it-yourself” zeitgeist prompted suburban retreat or the other way around.  But, the important bit is that they are related.

Industrialization and suburbanization brought about fantastic transformations in family life and gender relations.  Men and women began to rely upon one another in new and unprecedented ways.  Divisions between work and leisure became more pronounced for men and this same boundary was probably blurred more than ever before for women.  The same forces that led Lasch to call the family “a haven in a heartless world” were inequitably distributed between family members.  This fact is reverberated in our design and use of home architecture.

If you have a home built in the early 20th century that hasn’t been remodeled, it’s likely that you have a fairly closed-off, small kitchen and probably only one centrally-located bathroom.  These are just two examples but they’re a powerful illustration of an important issue to do with gender and space.  Small kitchens, structurally isolated in homes are a remnant of a particular set of gender relations in families.  When architects were designing homes for my grandparent’s generation, kitchens were small and segregated because few people were thought to have reason to inhabit them.  Multiple bathrooms seemed a waste of space until the hustle and bustle of dual-earning couples’ morning routines became a national norm.

Garages, basements, and more, have historically served as spaces to which men retreat to work on projects around the house, hobbies, to read, watch television, or “to tinker” as my grandmother-in-law says of her husband.   Continue reading

Daryl Vocat–Challenging the Boy Scouts through Art

My parents never signed me up for Scouts. So, I’m always an outsider when groups of men have the “How close to Eagle Scout were you?” conversation. The object of this status game (as far as I can tell) is to have been closer than your opponent, or – in the event of a tie – to have had a cooler, more daring, or more significant project to have achieved the rank. I remember thinking (or better said: I remember correctly realizing) that the outfits were ugly. But I did like the idea of collecting the badges. Even before I studied masculinity academically, I also remember thinking that tying knots and pitching tents were sort of odd things to decide that all “real boys” ought to know.

The Boy Scouts has always been a movement about masculinity. From its beginnings, The Boy Scouts of America was understood as necessary as economic transformations caused men to play smaller roles in the raising of their sons. As families moved from farms to cities, many worried that young men would never learn to embody the manliness forged in the daily toil of rural life. American boys–so we were told–needed traditions restored that were thought to be responsible for turning their fathers and grandfathers into the men they became. So, the Scouts stepped in at a historical moment in which men were stepping out of family life, creating “masculine” social spaces in which men could help turn boys into men.

There’s a nostalgia that surrounds the group that can’t be ignored. The Boys Scouts are an organization that we like to think can do no harm. Sure they segregate boys and girls, but there are Girl Scouts too. Sure they’ve systematically denied access to non-heterosexual boys and Scoutmasters, but those cases were brought to court. And most recently, sure they participated in a cover-up of that concealed instances of child abuse and molestation, but… Well, we’re still waiting to hear how this “but” gets worked out.

Scouting manuals are a source of tremendous cultural nostalgia as well (see Kathleen Denny‘s work on Girl and Boy Scout handbooks here). The Scouts and Scoutmasters were drawn in a very particular style. You know the style: we still use it for “how-to” instructions when we depict people in them. White, heterosexual-appearing, middle- middle-upper class boys and men were drawn as well-groomed, of medium weight and build, casually interacting in ways that illustrated focused attention on a common goal. It’s potentially the case that few boys experienced Boy Scouts as it was depicted in those manuals, but the power of those stuffy old anesthetized images is palpable.

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Material Feminists – Challenging the Shape of and Relations between Domestic Spaces

screen-shot-2012-10-22-at-10-19-47-am  Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Vernacular house forms are economic diagrams of the reproduction of the human race; they are also aesthetic essays on the meaning of life within a particular culture, its joys and rituals, its superstitions and stigmas.  House forms cannot be separated from their physical and social contexts. (Hayden 1984:  98)

The history of American home architectural design and the design of suburban space were never foregone conclusions.  From about 1870 through 1930, American home architecture was the topic of heated debate.  The homes that we live in today, their spatial arrangements, barriers, rituals, and traditions, and the shapes, uses, and meanings of our neighborhoods were fiercely debated topics.  And the debates that emerged out of the late 19th century still structure our lives today.

What kind (of kinds) of home(s) Americans needed has always been a question without a simple answer—with many competing perspectives.  The designs of our home not only allocates our belongings throughout the house, it structures the ways in which we interact with one another and the communities in which we live.

Dolores Hayden suggests that building programs competed to define American homes.  Overly simplified, a “building program” is a statement concerning the spatial and architectural requirements of some built space, typically defining the type of building along with a list of the sorts of activities that the building is intended to shelter (sleeping, eating, cooking, playing, lounging, entertaining, etc.).  At a general level, building programs communicate the requirements (economic, technical, social) of a building, including an explanation of how the built space accommodates the activities it is intended to house.  But buildings do more than accommodate social interactions.  They also structure our interactions, preclude or present the possibility of interactional flexibility, and make symbolic boundaries physical.

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Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

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Feminism as a Gendered Space — “Gendering Feminism”

Feminism isn’t really a space—but it’s certainly an ideological terrain of sorts.  It’s an identity people “adopt,” a stance people “take,” and insult people “hurl,” a set of theories people “cite,” a part of a movement people “join,” and more.  British suffragist Rebecca West famously stated: “Feminism is the radical notion than women are people.”  Feminism—to me—is the revolutionary idea that gender inequality exists, but that it doesn’t exist of necessity or inevitably.

In my research on men’s participation in marches dedicated to raising awareness about issues of violence against women (here), I came to think of feminism as a gendered space—as gendered ideological terrain.  Men’s adoption or support of “feminist” views or issues often seemed to be implicitly understood as a gender transgression.  This was all the more interesting, because, at the particular events I observed, men were required to transgress other gender boundaries as well—they dressed in drag.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®” marches require participants to walk one mile wearing “women’s” shoes—which are almost also understood as high heels.  The event is gender segregated by design: men walk, women watch.  Playing on the adage that to truly understand someone else’s experience requires walking a mile in her/his shoes, this event makes literal that which was perhaps never meant to be taken literally.  The movement-sponsored shoe is a 4-inch, red, patent leather, heel.  Men (not all, but some) at all of the marches I attended referred to these shoes as “stripper heels”).  Some men wear traditional masculine attire aside from the shoes (business suits, sports team uniforms, jeans and shirts, etc.).  But many men take the event as an opportunity to dress in drag.  And when these–primarily heterosexual–men dressed in drag, they often also performed stereotypes of women and gay men that seemed directly opposed to the message organizers sought to send with the event.  Although I did see examples of women (and less often men) uncomfortable with some of the men’s behaviors, the majority of marches and audience members laughed with and at them.

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