New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact. In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.
To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware. (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)
Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).
This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us. Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong. And that stuff matters.
Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.
The other day when the Pew report on mothers who are breadwinners came out, I complained about calling wives “breadwinners” if they earn $1 more than their husbands:
A wife who earns $1 more than her husband for one year is not the “breadwinner” of the family. That’s not what made “traditional” men the breadwinners of their families — that image is of a long-term pattern in which the husband/father earns all or almost all of the money, which implies a more entrenched economic domination.
To elaborate a little, there are two issues here. One is empirical: today’s female breadwinners are much less economically dominant than the classical male breadwinner — and even than the contemporary male breadwinner, as I will show. And second, conceptually breadwinner not a majority-share concept determined by a fixed percentage of income, but an ideologically specific construction of family provision.
Let’s go back to the Pew data setup: heterogamously married couples with children under age 18 in the year 2011 (from Census data provided by IPUMS). In 23% of those couples the wife’s personal income is greater than her husband’s — that’s the big news, since it’s an increase from 4% half a century ago. This, to the Pew authors and media everywhere, makes her the “primary breadwinner,” or, in shortened form (as in their title), “breadwinner moms.” (That’s completely reasonable with single mothers, by the way; I’m just working on the married-couple side of the issue — just a short chasm away.)
The 50%+1 standard conceals that these male “breadwinners” are winning a greater share of the bread than are their female counterparts. Specifically, the average father-earning-more-than-his-wife earns 81% of the couple’s income; the average mother-earning-more-than-her-husband earns 69% of the couple’s income. Here is the distribution in more detail:
This shows that by far the most common situation for a female “breadwinner” is to be earning between 50% and 60% of the couple’s income — the case for 38% of such women. For the father “breadwinners,” though, the most common situation — for 28% of them — is to be earning all of the income, a situation that is three-times more common than the reverse.
Collapsing data into categories is essential for understanding the world. But putting these two groups into the same category and speaking as if they are equal is misleading.
This is especially problematic, I think, because of the historical connotation of the term breadwinner. The term dates back to 1821, says the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s from the heyday of America’s separate spheres ideology, which elevated to reverential status the woman-home/man-work ideal. Breadwinners in that Industrial Revolution era were not defined by earning 1% more than their wives. They earned all of the money, ideally (meaning, if their earnings were sufficient) but, just as importantly, they were the only one permanently working for pay outside the home. (JSTOR has references going back to the 1860s which confirm this usage.)
Modifying “breadwinner” with “primary” is better than not, but that subtlety has been completely lost in the media coverage. Consider these headlines from a Google news search just now:
While the flight attendant might be a quintessentially feminized occupation today, the first “stewardess” was, in fact, a “steward.” Pan American had an all-male steward workforce — and a ban on hiring women — for 16 years. It was forced to integrate during the male labor shortage of World War II, when female flight attendants were considered as revolutionary as “Rosie” riveters and welders. By 1958, their ban on hiring women would be reversed. There was now a ban on hiring men. This is just some of the fascinating history in Phil Tiemeyer‘s new book, Plane Queer, a history of the male flight attendant.
By the 1950s women dominated the aisles in the sky. Airlines accepted this. Women (1) were cheaper to employ, (2) domesticated the cabin, making commercial travel seem suitable for women and children, and (3) sexualized the experience for the business men who still made up the bulk of travelers.
By the time Celio Diaz Jr. invoked the 1964 Civil Rights Act and sued Pan Am on the basis of gender discrimination, whitemale flight attendants were seen as downright queer. Servile behavior — the cooking, serving, nurturing, and aiding behavior characteristic of the job at the time — was both gendered and racialized. When black men or white women performed domestic duties, it was seen as natural. (The gender dimension might seem obvious but, from slavery to the early 1900s, black men were also concentrated in domestic occupations: coachmen, waiters, footmen, butlers, valets etc.)
So, when white men served others — but not black men or white women — it challenged the supposedly natural order on which both hierarchies were founded. This is why male flight attendants caused such a stir. The airlines wouldn’t hire black men or women, so they hired white men and women. The men, as a result, were suspected of being not-quite-heterosexual from the get-go and have suffered the ups and downs of homophobia ever since.
The double-definition of servile behavior as simultaneously racialized and gendered absolutely leapt out at me when I saw this commercial for Virgin Atlantic, sent in by Grace P. It captures both the race and gender dimension of a segregated workforce. The two women and single black man play the role of service worker, while the two white men are a pilot and an engineer. Each is framed as being literally born to do these jobs, thus the insistent and troubling naturalization of these hierarchical roles.
Earlier this year President Obama described California attorney general Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Even though the crowd reportedly laughed at the comment, Obama was criticized for making sexist remarks and quickly apologized to Harris.
But some people claimed to be confused: why was Obama wrong to compliment a woman on her looks? From the Washington Times:
Please, give us a chance to learn the rules. Give us a minute to catch our breath…
We were taught (most of us were) that girls and women were to be given flowers for their beauty of character and good looks.
Exactly what is wrong with this?
But one morning we were told that it is okay, even required, to tell a woman that she looks marvelous. Next morning, hey, we can go to jail for this!
This is not the first time a president has run into this sort of trouble. This picture of reporter Helen Thomas ran in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on August 7, 1973.*
The accompanying story was titled “Nixon Turns Fashion Critic, ‘Turn Around…’” It included the following:
President Nixon, a gentleman of the old school, teased a newspaper woman yesterday about wearing slacks to the White House and made it clear that he prefers dresses on women.
After a bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office, the President stood up from his desk and in a teasing voice said to UPI’s Helen Thomas: “Helen, are you still wearing slacks? Do you prefer them actually? Every time I see girls in slacks it reminds me of China.”
Nixon went on, asking Thomas to present her rear:
“This is not said in an uncomplimentary way, but slacks can do something for some people and some it can’t.” He hastened to add, “but I think you do very well. Turn around.”
As Nixon, Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson, FBI Director Clarence Kelley and other high-ranking law enforcement officials smiling [sic], Miss Thomas did a pirouette for the President. She was wearing white pants, a navy blue jersey shirt, long white beads and navy blue patent leather shoes with red trim.
There are several parallels between this incident and the Obama one: they took place at the tail end of an official event, when the president apparently thought he could take some time for harmless jokes. The women involved were highly acclaimed professional women. In both events, we see a powerful man verbally change a woman from a respected professional to an attractive female.
We know how the public responded to Obama’s comment. What about reception in 1973?
First of all, Helen Thomas herself wrote the article about this incident; according to anthropologist Michael Silverstein, “this is what we call ‘payback’ time.” At first glance, it seems like a neutral report of a conversation, but take a closer look. From the very beginning, Nixon is set up as the bad guy – a “gentleman of the old school” who “teased a newspaper woman.”
The mocking, faux fashion report tone continues from the headline into the description of Thomas’s outfit. What seems like a harmless personal interest story tacked onto a news article was actually a protest against this treatment – and it required damage control by the president. Within the next week, Thomas’s fellow reporters went on the record as saying that they were on her side, and wished she had not played along with the president. Even the First Lady weighed in, saying that there was no rule against women wearing pants in the White House.
The rules haven’t changed: there’s nothing new about presidents talking about professional women’s appearance, and even in 1973 it was recognized as inappropriate.
In a wonderfully provocative article titled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text), writer and poet Adrienne Rich argues, among other things, that the assumption of heterosexuality in the context of patriarchy alternatively erases and stigmatizes woman-to-woman bonds.
Though the title specifies lesbianism, she means intense and meaningful relationships between women more generally. In other words, an overbearing heterosexuality orients women towards men not just as sexual and romantic partners, but as the arbiters of all that is good and right. Accordingly, women don’t turn to other women to validate their ideas, their value, their beauty, or anything else about them. This post, analyzing the reality show Battle of the Bods, is a stark example.
If only men can validate women’s worth, then other women exist only as competition for their approval. This is good for patriarchy; it divides and conquers women, keeping them constantly looking to please the men around them and making them feel invisible and worthless if they can’t get attention from or endorsement from men.
There are various strategies for getting men’s stamp of approval: being the busy and useful mother of a man’s children is one way, while being a childless so-called “trophy wife” is another. You can imagine, right away, that these two kinds of women might see themselves as in competition. One may be more harried, with less time to tend to her physical fitness and keep her hair shiny and her make-up and clothes just right. The other may have plenty of time to keep herself fit and beautiful, but knows that her connection to her husband may feel less permanent without children to tie her to him. Moreover, the childless wife is often a second wife. So all sexy, single, childless women are, theoretically, a threat to the wife and mother. And all husband/dads are, theoretically, a target for wanna-be second wives.
Pop culture constantly re-affirms these narratives. It frequently naturalizes the idea that women should turn to men, and not women, to reinforce their value. Portraying women as in competition is part of that. The “trophy wife” vs. the “busy mom” is one of those match-ups. Enter this Volvo ad, sent in by Dolores R.:
The ad encourages us to think mean-spirited thoughts about the married but (presumably) childless woman with the puckered lips. She clearly sees herself as in competition with the redhead, looking over to check that she is, in fact, more beautiful, and looking satisfied that she is. The redhead, though, has (supposedly) more important things to do than check herself out in the mirror. She’s got kids. How shallow the blond, we’re told to think, how fake. ”Designed for real people,” the narrator explains, “designed around you.”
As my good friend Caroline Heldman says, when we see women that excel in some way — whether they be accomplished in their career, impressive fashionistas, incredible parents, truly loved partners, inspired artists, or what-have-you — we are taught to find something about them to dismiss because they make us feel insecure. Instead, we should think “How fabulous is she! I want to tell her how great she is and be her friend!”
I live in Los Angeles where saying that you don’t like movies is tantamount to claiming atheism in a church. But I don’t like movies, generally speaking. In contrast, I quite like TV. Does this seem weird?
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media offers a clue as to why I might lean towards television. The Institute did a content analysis of 11,927 speaking characters in “family films” (G, PG, and PG-13) and prime-time and children’s TV shows (see it here). They looked at the presence of female and male characters and the jobs those characters were doing. In almost every instance, women had greater visibility, and better jobs, on prime-time TV than they did in either movies or children’s shows.
Women are, for example, 39% of characters on prime time, but only 31% of characters on kids’ shows and only 28% in movies. Casts are twice as likely to be gender-balanced on prime time (45-55% female), compared to movies. Half of the casts of family films are 75% or more male, compared to only 20% of the casts on TV shows and 39% of children’s shows.
Almost half of all American workers are female, but they hold only 20% of the jobs on the big screen and 25% of the jobs on children’s shows. Again, here prime-time does somewhat better: 34% of the jobs on evening TV are held by women.
The next two tables reveal how men and women are distributed among different kinds of occupations in films and on prime time. Men are over-represented in almost all cases, but the disproportion in movies is almost always significantly worse than it is on TV.
If you’re one of the people that contributed to Star Trek Into Darkness‘ $70.6 million opening weekend this week, this data might not be surprising. I didn’t count, but I suspect it falls into the 50% of films that has a cast that is at least 75% male. It certainly didn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the two female speaking characters, if I remember correctly, never spoke to one another at all, and so they couldn’t have spoken to each other about something other than a man (that’s the test). (Oh wait, I think one of the twins with tails in bed with Kirk said “hey” when he leapt out to go do something important, so that’s three women with speaking roles).
So, like in lots and lots of films, women in Star Trek were woefully under-represented except as love interests for the two protagonists (Uhura in this movie and Carol, it was foreshadowed, in the next). I’m used to it, so it doesn’t really stir me up, but that doesn’t mean I have to like movies. I’ll stick to TV, thank you very much. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Hollywood.
Instances of this phenomenon have been a fun series on the blog; we featured another one just this past weekend, on how (not) to write obituaries. Then today SocImages Contributor Philip Cohen sent along another great example that we couldn’t resist sharing. The graphic below, released by Bloomberg Business Week, is meant to help us understand who is in and out of the labor force. While 3% of Americans want to work but can’t find a job, large proportions are also permanently or temporarily out of work on purpose: they’re retired, in college, in the military, disabled, or a stay-at-home parent.
For our purposes in this post, what’s interesting is the way they illustrate the categories. See what you see:
In all cases but one, the stick figured is either non-sexed and therefore implicitly male (e.g., the newspaper reader and the disabled) or explicitly male (the business-suited full-time employees, the mustachioed retiree). The one exception, of course, is for the stay-at-home parent. Suddenly the stick figure is a female. We see this all over. As soon as parenting or housework is involved, all those neutral/male stick figures sprout skirts.
But what jumped out at me was that the stall in progress did not feature much in Pew’s narrative. I really noticed that when the Joy Cardin show featured the report on Wisconsin Public Radio, and Cardin’s intro was this:
Family gender roles are converging, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Father’s have more than doubled the time they spend on housework. More moms are paid to work outside the home (audio here).
Those facts are true, but old news — older than the new news, which is that nothing much has happened since the early 1990s. Here are the trends, in Pew’s nice graphics. See if you can find the stall point in each figure.
****** ****** ****** ****** ******
The last one, parents’ child care time, is the only one that shows continued real progress, albeit slower, in the last decade.
I favor three explanations for this gender stall:
Work-family policy that encourages specialization in domestic or labor force roles, as described by Stephanie Coontz here.
Cultural trends toward “egalitarian essentialism,” which “blends aspects of feminist equality and traditional motherhood roles” (e.g., intensive parenting mania), as described by David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman here.
Weaker government enforcement of anti-discrimination law, as described in the new book Documenting Desegregation, by Don Tomaskovic-Devey and Kevin Stainback.
These explanations do not exclude others.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.