Flashback Friday.

Heather L. sent us a link to a business called The Occasional Wife. It’s slogan: “The Modern Solution To Your Busy Life.” The store sells products that help you organize your home and office, and provides all kinds of helpful services to support your personal goals.

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There are two things worth noting here:

First, the business relies on and reproduces the very idea of “wife.”  As the website makes clear, wives are people who (a) make your life more pleasurable by taking care of details and daily life-maintenance (such as running errands), (b) organize special events in your life (such as holidays), and (c) deal with work-intensive home-related burdens (such as moving), all while perfectly coiffed and in high heels.

But, the business only makes sense in a world where “real” wives are obsolete.  Prior to industrialization, most men and women worked together on home farms.  With industrialization, all but the wealthiest of families relied on (at least) two breadwinners. In the 1950s, the era to which this business implicitly harkens, Americans were bombarded with ideological propaganda praising stay-at-home wives and mothers (in part to pressure women out of jobs that “belonged” to men after the war).  Since then, women have increasingly participated in wage labor.  Today, the two parent, single-earner family is only a minority of families.

So, in our “modern” world, even when there is a wife in the picture, there’s rarely a “wife.”  But, as the founder explains, it’d sure be nice to have one:captureb

See, she was his wife, but not a wife.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Tasks performed by wives have been increasingly commodified (that is, turned into services for which people pay): for example, house cleaning, cooking, and child care.  This business just makes the transition in reality explicit by referencing the ideology.  The fact that the use of the term “wife” works in this way (i.e., brings to mind the 1950s stereotype) in the face of a reality that looks very different, just goes to show how powerful ideology can be.

Originally posted in 2009; the business has grown from one location to four.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The original compute-ers, people who operated computing machines, were mostly women. At that period of history, most typists were women and their skills seemed to transfer from that job to the next. As late as the second half of the 1960s, women were seen as naturals for working with computers. As Grace Hopper explained in a 1967 Cosmopolitan article:

It’s just like planning dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are “naturals” at computer programming.

But then, this happened:

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Computer programming was masculinized.

The folks at NPR, who made the chart, interviewed information studies professor Jane Margolis. She interviewed hundreds of computer science majors in the 1990s, right after women started dropping out of the field. She found that having a personal computer as a kid was a strong predictor of choosing the major, and that parents were much more likely to buy a PC for their sons than they were for their daughters.

This may have been related to the advertising at the time. From NPR:

These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almostentirely to men and boys. This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative.

By the 1990s, students in introductory computer science classes were expected to have some experience with computers. The professors assumed so, inadvertently punishing students who hadn’t been so lucky, disproportionately women.

So it sounds like that’s at least part of the story.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Thansk to Meia G. for sending in these “tool set” ornaments for sale at Home Depot. Notice that they don’t just group these tools into ones associated with women (gardening) and men (building), they actually label them as women’s and men’s on the price sticker. This is a great example of how gender isn’t just something we encounter in objects because we know enough to read gender into them, it’s actually prescribed to us.

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Christmas gift advertising tends to be highly gendered in part because buying gifts can be difficult and time-consuming. Gender helps us narrow down options or find something that seems suitable for someone we don’t know very well. Marketers exploit this imperative and its uncertainty for all its worth.

And perhaps all this was just an excuse to re-post Sarah Haskins on holiday jewelry advertising. You’re welcome.

I added the tools sets to our constantly expanding collection of pointlessly gendered products. It’s our most popular Pinterest board and we can see why! Recent additions include gendered pickles“Junior Park Ranger” and “Park Princess” vests for sale at a Yellowstone gift shop; scissors, q-tips, and dryer sheets for men only; and globes and glue just for girls.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:

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What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:

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I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:

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Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:

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I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Way back in 1996, sociologist Sharon Hays coined the phrase “the ideology of intensive motherhood.” She intended to draw attention to a new norm for mothering that involved, among other things, making children the center of one’s life and subordinating your own needs and wants to theirs.

I can’t help but think of Hays and her beleaguered mothers every time I see this commercial:

“When we’re having this much fun,” the voiceover says, “why quit?”

And I think, “No, seriously, quit it.”

But the mother in the ad doesn’t tell the kid to quit it. She beams. And then she gives the younger child his own glass of chocolate milk and claps as he learns how to blow bubbles in it.

Bounty glamorizes the clean-up work the mother has to do after her child blows his chocolate milk all over the kitchen table and floor. As if letting a child make an unnecessary mess is the most unselfish sign of love. It’s an excellent example of the ideology of intensive motherhood: everyone knows that this is going to be additional work for the mother, but the kids are having a good time and that’s what’s important.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

We recently got the news that Apple and Facebook were going to offer women egg freezing as a fringe benefit of employment.  The internet exploded with concerns that the practice discouraged women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age, either by offering an alternative or by sending a not-so-subtle message that childbearing would hurt their careers.

I wasn’t so sure.

First of all, it didn’t seem to me that these women were likely to delay their childbearing till, say, after retirement. So what did it matter to these companies if they had kids at 33 or 43?  If anything, an employee taken out of commission at 43 would be even a greater loss, since they’d accumulated more expertise and pulled a higher salary during maternity leave.

Second of all, the discussion seemed to assume that every 30-something female employee was in a happy and stable marriage to a man. The possibility that some women were 30-something and single — that freezing their eggs had nothing to do with their jobs and everything to do with a dearth of marriageable men — didn’t seem to enter into the equation. To me, that seemed like quite the oversight.

So, I was grateful when sociologists Tristan Bridges and Melody Boyd intervened in this debate. They found actual real data on why women choose “oocyte cryopreservation” and the big answer is not related to their job. As my never-married, 40-year-old self suspected, it was “lack of partner” 88% of the time.

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Bridges and Boyd are working on an article re-thinking what it means for women to enter a market full of “unmarriageable men.” In the past, it was mostly working class and poor women who didn’t marry, in part because so few men of their own social status had stable enough employment to contribute to a household. Today women of other class backgrounds are also forgoing marriage, but it isn’t because the men around them don’t make money.

“Men who might be capable of financially providing,” they write, “are not necessarily all women want out of a relationship today.” Women of all classes increasingly want equality, but research shows that many men agree in principle, but fall back on traditional roles in practice.

Freezing one’s eggs is a feminist issue, but not the one that so captivated us a couple weeks ago. It seems to me that Apple and Facebook are simply offering this option as part of a benefits arms race. From that point of view, it’s about class and the widening gap between the rich and everyone else. When women choose this option, though, it’s likely because the gender revolution has stalled. Women have changed; men aren’t keeping up.  In the meantime, ladies aren’t settling, even if they’re holding out hope.

Cross-posted at Gender & Society and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

1 (3) - CopyWhen Julia Pierson’s name first appeared in national headlines last year, it must have sounded like a perfect solution. President Obama appointed Pierson as the nation’s first female Director of the Secret Service following the aftermath of an embarrassing scandal in which several agents hired prostitutes on a presidential trip to Columbia. Many saw Pierson as uniquely positioned to purge the organization of its hyper-masculine culture and revive its good name.

After an intruder succeeded in running across the lawn and into the East Room of the White House, however, a firestorm of criticism prompted Pierson’s resignation. Writing in the New Republic, Bryce Covert suggests that the very gendered conditions of Pierson’s hire preconfigured her administration’s failure from the start. Such is the unfortunate case, he argues, for a large number of women in leadership roles:

As with Pierson, women are often put in these positions because rough patches make people think they need to shake things up and try something new—like putting a woman in charge. When it’s smooth sailing, on the other hand, men get to maintain control of the steering wheel. Women are also thought to have qualities associated with cleaning up messes.

You’re familiar with that unseen barrier to power called the “glass ceiling”? Covert cites research by psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam to show that female leaders often reach top jobs that come with an inordinately high risk of failure. Social scientists call this precarious position the “glass cliff”.

Covert builds his case on a wealth of research exploring the risks that await women at the top of the corporate world:

Multiple studies have found that women are most likely to be given a chance at top roles in the corporate world when things are already bad. One found that before a woman took over as CEO of a Fortune 500 company between 1996 and 2010, its previous performance was significantly negative. Another found that FTSE 100 companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have had five months of consistently bad performance compared to those who picked men. Another found that companies were most likely to choose women for their boards after a loss that signaled the company was underperforming. Even in a lab, students and business leaders are more likely to pick a woman to lead a hypothetical organization when performance is on the decline.

Looking for more on the barriers facing women in positions of power? Our own Anne Kaduk shows “There’s Research on That!

Matt Gunther is a new contributor to The Society Pages, where he co-edits and produces the Office Hours podcast. He’s a second year graduate student studying sociology at the University of Minnesota. His research deals mainly with cultural politics in the global food system.

Cross-posted at Citings & Sightings. Photos by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC and at indychannel.

Women in the U.S. have made some monumental gains at work.  We’re now at least half the labor force and more women today are middle- and upper- managers in corporate America.  Even so, I wasn’t surprised to discover that women have not (yet) made similar inroads into high-level corporate crime.

Rather, it’s “business as usual” when it comes to who is responsible for orchestrating and carrying out major corporate frauds.

For the American Sociological Review, Darrell Steffensmeier, Michael Roche, and I studied accounting malpractices like security fraud, insider trading, and Ponzi schemes in America’s public companies to find out just how involved women were in these conspiracies.  The Corporate Fraud Task Force indicted 436 individuals involved in 83 such schemes during July 2002 to 2009.  We read and recorded information from indictments and other documents or reports that described who was involved and what they did.

I expected the share of women in corporate fraud to be low – definitely less than the near-half that are women among (low-profit) embezzlers arrested each year– like your bank teller or local non-profit treasurer.   However, I was surprised that women corporate fraudsters were about as rare as female killers or robbers – less than 10% of those sorts of offenders.  Of the 400+ indicted for corporate fraud, only 37 were women.

Most of these frauds were complex enough to require co-conspiracy over several years and a criminal division of labor.  Often, women weren’t included at all in these groups.  When they were, they were nearly always in the minority, often alone, and most typically played rather small roles.

The Enron conspiracy, for example, led to over 30 indictments; three were women and each played a minor role. The five women indicted among 19 in the HealthSouth fraud were in accounting-related positions and instructed by senior personnel to falsify financial books and create fictitious records.  Martha Stewart, rather than criminal mastermind of an insider trading conspiracy, committed “one of the most ill-fated white-collar crimes ever” in which she saved just $46,000 after receiving a stock-tip second-hand from her broker.

Women were almost never the ringleader or even a major player in the fraud.  Only one woman CEO led a fraud – the smallest fraud we studied – and two women with their husbands.  One reason surely must be that women are not as often in positions to lead these schemes.  However, even when we compared women and men in similar corporate positions, women were less likely to play leadership roles in the fraud.  Is there a “glass ceiling” in the white-collar crime world?

What most surprised me, however, was how little the women benefited from their illicit involvement.  The wage gap in illicit corporate enterprise may be larger than in the legitimate job market.  Over half the women did not financially gain at all whereas half the men pocketed half a million dollars or more.  The difference in illicit-gains persisted even if we compared women to their co-conspirators.  Males profited much more. Women identified “gains” such as keeping one’s job.

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Even when women are in the positions to orchestrate these frauds, it’s likely that the men who initiate these conspiracies prefer to bypass women, involving them in minor roles when need dictates or when trust develops through a close personal relationship.  And women hardly initiated any schemes.  Women business leaders tend to be more risk-averse and apt to stress social responsibility and equity, perhaps making corporate fraud unlikely.

So, would having more female leaders reduce corporate crime?  We don’t know, but we think it’s likely.  Women executives tend to make more ethical decisions, avoid excessive risk-taking, and create corporate cultures unsupportive of illegal business practices.  Time will tell if, on the other hand, women moving up the corporate ladder increasingly adopt a wheeler-dealer, “dominance at all costs” corporate ethic.

Some may be a little disappointed that women either cannot yet or do not exercise their power over others to illegally advance their business (and personal) interests as men have been doing for generations.  There are moments when I catch myself “rooting” for a more successful pink-collar offender – and examples exist.  However, when I consider the destruction and havoc wrought on the U.S. economy and so many peoples’ lives by these financial crimes, I am reminded that this is not the way in which I hope women wield power when business leadership roles are more equally shared.

This posts originally appeared at the Gender & Society blog.

Jennifer Schwartz, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University.  Her research focuses on the gender and race demographics of criminal offenders, violence, and substance abuse.