What’s in a name?—The Controversy Over “Manholes”

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 9.34.52 AMOccupational 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.

Screen shot 2013-02-14 at 3.09.12 PMAnd this brings us to the “manhole.”
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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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