Behind the gendered workplace

In a law review call and response, a law professor and a sociologist take on the issue of how to address gender discrimination legally.

Duke Law professor Katharine Bartlett argues in the Virginia Law Review that strengthening options for suing employers is not the answer to gender discrimination. Instead, the good intentions of employers and managers should be supported, through

strong, unambiguous norms, trust, teamwork, leadership, positive example, and opportunities to grow and advance. [On the other hand…] Excessive legal control and pressure undermine people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and thus their commitment to nondiscrimination norms.

In other words, we need more carrot and less stick to combat gender discrimination.

In response, sociologist William Bielby, who has worked on behalf of the Wal-mart women’s class-action suit, counters that, even if crude overt discrimination has diminished, not all the remaining gender inequality is caused by unconscious bias. He warns that, since the ” ‘cognitive turn’ in workplace bias discourse”:

…scholars, litigators, human resource professionals, and diversity consultants have become so enamored with the notion of ubiquitous unconscious, implicit, or hidden bias that they are quick to attribute systemic workplace racial and gender inequality to what is going on in people’s heads. Instead, it is vital to consider what is built into organizational structures, processes, and routines.

As it happens, this is the 20th anniversary of the classic article by Joan Acker, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (now the second-most cited article in the history of the journal Gender & Society). In the Spring newsletter for the ASA’s OOW section (don’t ask), Acker has a brief essay in which she reiterates the premise of her original article:

“The worker” under capitalism is implicitly defined as unencumbered by any obligations other than those to the job, and work is usually organized on the basis of this assumption. Historically, women have been seen as encumbered wives and mothers and thus not real workers and not entitled to the rewards and rights of real workers.

She and her colleagues have completed a study of welfare reform — Stretched Thin: Poor Families, Welfare Work, and Welfare Reform. Now she sees welfare reform as “part of the redefinition of most women in neoliberal society.”

Equality may be defined now as the transformation of women into neoliberal gender-neutral unencumbered workers whose main efforts go to the job. This path to gender equality is impossible for many women, and some men, for whom it constitutes a fundamental contradiction: work expectations and family needs do not mesh.

Acker’s article was important for establishing the gendered nature of workplace “structures, processes and routines” that Bielby is talking about — and wrote about in the Wal-mart case. Built-in assumptions are related to ways of thinking, but they are more than that — they become established ways of doing business, imprinting organizations with patterns of inequality — especially having to do with job segregation.

My own research with Matt Huffman has helped establish that women in management positions reduce gender inequality at work (a paper forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly takes this further). We can’t say, however, if that’s because they have different assumptions about men and women, less motivation (and incentive) to discriminate, or more commitment to changing the established ways of doing things.

8 thoughts on “Behind the gendered workplace

  1. Strange isn’t it — the law professor eschewing legal means in favor of touchy-feely? It might make sense if she were talking about management dealing with workers in terms of teamwork and opportunities for growth, not undermining their sense of autonomy, etc. But she’s talking about this stuff for management. Who’s going to institute it?

    If workers are not being treated well by management, which is more likely to get management to change — giving managers opportunities to grow and advance, or suing the bastards?


    1. The problem with constantly resorting to the court system is that it is effectively a sledgehammer being used to solve all problems. It’s the bazooka in your pocket that you don’t want to pull out unless you absolutely have to.

      First, law suits are incredibly expensive. Particularly with discrimination suits, you have to hire lots of very expensive experts to testify on your behalf – and those expenses are not reimbursed, even if your attorneys’ fees are.

      Second, the law moves at a snail’s pace – you could conceivably wait two years before your suit gets heard in court.

      Third, the people administering the law are unpredictable – you could get a sympathetic judge, or you could get an angry MRA who believes women use discrimination suits as a “retirement policy” (see Chief Justice John Roberts).

      Fourth, when do you “sue the bastards”? When your boss says you have nice tits? When you haven’t been promoted, and the younger guy has, and you’re told it’s because you missed too much work caring for your kids?
      What if it’s a career where everybody knows each other, and if you sue, you’ll become the litigation-happy employee no one wants to hire?

      What if you lose, like Lilly Ledbetter did, after going all the way to the US Supreme Court? Sure, Congress passed a law after her case, but she got nothing. Nada. Zilch. You know how much it costs to take a case to the US Supreme Court? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The suggestion here is to include the toolkit. There’s no reason why an already existing administrative agency couldn’t issue some regulations to this effect.


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