The “traditional family,” many would have us believe, is imperiled by everything from women in the workplace and same-sex couples in the bedroom. What these “traditionalists” fail to name among the various threats is income inequality. As described in research published in the American Sociological Review and discussed on Fortune.com, observed increases in the rate of couples having children before marriage can be explained by changing social landscapes.
It’s no surprise to anyone that the middle-class is shrinking or that finding a job can be a tough gig. Andrew Cherlin, David C. Ribar, and Suzumi Yasutake’s research shows people are more likely to postpone marriage, but not parenting, if they can’t get a job. So, with a distinct shortage of available living-wage jobs and growing income inequality, more and more American families are comprised of unmarried couples with children. As the class system becomes even more polarized, it seems marriage boosters might want to consider a different means to their favored end: reducing inequality.
Recently, I reviewed research showing that women in leadership roles may contribute to decreasing gender segregation at lower positions in the same firm. I also noted that gender segregation is a large contributor to the wage gap between men and women. Unfortunately, while a small number of women moving into top positions may help those below, when large numbers of women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the results are not so rosy. Why? Women’s work simply isn’t valued as highly as men’s.
The Washington Post recently featured a study by sociologists Paula England and Asaf Levanon demonstrating this trend. When occupations employing mostly men shifted to employing most women, these jobs started to pay employees considerably less, even when the researchers took employees’ education, work experience, skills, race, and geography into account. For instance, wages for a ticket agent dropped 43 percentage points after the position shifted from mainly male to female. Stereotypically “female” jobs that involve caregiving pay less, regardless of whether men or women hold those jobs:
[T]here was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” Ms. England said. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”
According to British researchers, tall men and thin women are most likely to make the big bucks. Meanwhile, they found evidence to suggest overweight workers, especially women, are likely to get paid less. Still, sociologist Amy Blackstone says companies probably aren’t intentionally penalizing employees based on height and weight.
In an interview with Broadly, Blackstone points to gender biases that extend beyond the workplace. Culturally, Americans associate thinness with beauty and self-discipline in women and tallness with authority for men. “For women, being thin means taking up less space, something that is expected of women both literally and symbolically,” Blackstone says. Thus, it’s no surprise that pay reflects societal views about gender, power, and the body. Nor is it a surprise that other gender inequalities make their way into work spaces, like limitations on contraception coverage in employer provided health care and a lack of paid maternity leave. As contributing editor Diana Tourjee points out, “paying certain men and women less in relation to the way they look is obviously disturbing, but worse is the realization that this data is part of a broader system of oppression that structures the lived experiences of us all.”
In a recent piece for The Atlantic, sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield explains how sexual innuendo can create hostile work environments for black men. As part of her research for her book about gender and race in men’s work, Wingfield interviewed Emergency Room doctors about their workplace experiences. Several recounted that sexual jokes and innuendo are commonplace between doctors and nurses. But these everyday jokes and comments, Winfield argues, create difficult situations for black male doctors.
Most of the black male doctors I interviewed for my research were the only black men in their work environments. They felt sensitive to that fact, and said they moderated their behavior when innuendo entered the conversation.
Black male doctors in these situations, Winfield explains, must navigate upholding a professional working identity while avoiding any link to the long history of black men stereotyped as dangerously hypersexual.
Responding to these interactions tactfully can be essential for black men to navigate their work environment, and the black male doctors I spoke to described feelings of deep discomfort and awkwardness. While some black male ER doctors do experience unique discomfort on the job, what these men encounter is similar to the plight of some black professionals more generally.
In a recent excerpt from her book The Tumbleweed Society: Work and Caring in an Age of Insecurity featured in Salon, sociologist Allison Pugh discusses how the insecure economy has made employees feel wary of their employers but also like they must rush to their defense. Employees often bend over backward to identify with their bosses and meet their needs, but employers are much less likely to reciprocate. What do employers and employees owe each other?
The move away from the old social contract, in which employees traded loyalty and effort for job security, has resulted in real and perceived job insecurity among may adults for whom full-time work is a central piece of identity. Pugh says the result of the opposing trends of increased job insecurity and increased cultural importance of full-time employment is lots of anxiety for employees and a “one-way honor system.” Employees still feel obligated to uphold their end of the social contract by demonstrating loyalty and hard work, they don’t expect the same commitment from their employers. Even those with the lowest-skill and lowest-paying jobs empathize with the employers’ needs for good workers and expect little beyond dignity, respect, and a paycheck.
Part of the reason for the one-way honor system is the perception that intense work commitment is an integral part of being an honorable, moral person:
Survey researchers report, for example, that about the same percentage of women as men—70 percent of full-time working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers)—say they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the “lottery question” (and used by researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic). A strong work ethic was part of good character, part of being fully human, no matter your gender, people maintained.
In other words, it’s not the job itself that’s the source of dignity, it’s the work ethic. So as jobs get more precarious, many people work longer and harder instead of slacking off, partially because they fear those who don’t work hard enough or produce enough will be the first ones to lose those coveted jobs.
Many are familiar with the long history of student activism at University of California at Berkeley, but fewer have heard of the difference-makers at San Jose State University. “San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton told The Nation. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.”
Starting in 2011, students in Myers-Lipton’s Social Action sociology class started thinking about ways they could bring change to their own community. San Jose houses big-name companies like Adobe, eBay, and Cisco Systems, but it’s the sixth most expensive city in the country. Many residents barely eke out a living. Student and after-school worker Marisela Castro, whose parents worked the California farm fields, pitched the idea of working toward raising the minimum wage. (Myers-Lipton estimates that 80% of his students work over 30 hours per week on top of being students.)
Working with South Bay Labor Council leader Cindy Chavez, Myers-Lipton’s students raised $6,000 to hire a polling agency and make thousands of phone calls to see if increasing minimum wage was an issue that voters would support. When over 70% of respondents said they favored minimum wage increase, Chavez went to the board of the Labor Council. Unions pledged over $120,000 to help the cause by the end of the meeting. After collecting 20,000 signatures, the students took their proposal to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The vast network of supporters (including Catholic Charities, United Way, churches, and non-profits) alarmed the Chamber, which raised $400,000 to defeat the measure.
The student activists were not defeated, however. They continued, keeping their message simple. Instead of getting into statistical debates, they touted the importance of economic fairness. On November 6th, San Jose became the fifth and largest city to raise its minimum wage, increasing the income for minimum wage workers by $4,000 per year. What started as a student brainstorming activity in a sociology class brought thousands in San Jose closer to economic sustainability.
San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.
Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”
Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.
College students are tired of sleeping, according to a BBC interview with Catherine M. Coveney. She’s a British sociologist who recently explored the sleeping practices and subjective sleep experiences of two notoriously sleep-deprived groups: shift workers and college students. After conducting 25 semi-structured interviews with individuals dispossessed of rest, she concludes that our social context impacts how we understand the meaning of sleep and how we manage our sleeping schedules as a result.
The hospital-based doctors, nurses, police officers, call center employees, and other shift workers Coveney interviewed describe actively managing their sleep schedules around work patterns, finding childcare, and spending time with their partner. It is something that is constantly at the back of their mind. To illustrate why they view “broken sleep” as part and parcel of the job, Coveney explains how sleeplessness is built-in to the work structure:
There are some occupations where nothing is sanctioned…. The two nurses that I spoke to, they had to work waking nights. So even on their break, they weren’t allowed to go to sleep during the night. That’s not to say it didn’t occasionally happen, but that it was not a sanctioned practice. That was something that was seen as going against the rules of their profession.
On the surface, the sleep patterns of the college students look identical to the shift workers: “They did describe a kind of similar pattern; they did describe taking naps during the day, having a shorter sleep at night, having a two hour nap the next day.” Yet because they see sleep as an “expendable luxury,” they don’t view their own erratic sleep as “broken.” According to Coveney, for the college students,
…it was more flexible, it was more their choice, so in a sense they were customizing their sleep patterns to fit around their social activities…. I suppose it was seen as disposable in a sense, they could cut back on sleep if they chose to, they could indulge in sleep if they chose to.
Although both groups thought of sleep in functional terms—the necessary amount determined by whatwas needed to get them through what they had to do the next day—Coveney reports, “None of the students I spoke to said they would prioritize a night in bed because they thought they hadn’t had enough sleep. If there was something else they wanted to do, they‘d do that. And they’d catch up later, they’d sleep longer the next day, they’d take a nap…. Some of them did go as far as to say if they could get rid of their need for sleep, it would give them much more time to do other things.” Even the value of sleep depends on supply and demand.
Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.
For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.
Gender figures interestingly, too:
Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.
Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.
Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.
Academic work on this topic often wanders into big, macro-level thinking about gender roles and social structures, but a recent article in The Atlanticpushes us to think about this issue in terms of the small, everyday choices that make home better for everyone. Alexandra Bradner outlines the problem for heterosexual families:
Because no one can afford to fully replace themselves at home while they are at the office… working mothers have famously picked up the slack for both partners, subsidizing our market with their free labor… this means that mothers are important, in all of the ways in which socially conservative forces routinely note. But it could also mean that [they] are exploited… to do more than their fair share of the family’s work, all without compensation.
Bradner offers three possible explanations for this problem:
Men don’t see the work that needs to be done
Men see what needs to be done, but don’t think they can do it as easily or effectively as their wives can
Men’s workplace structures won’t let them take the extra time to do their share of the chores
Instead of arguing for a large-scale overhaul of “women’s responsibilities” or workplace regulations, Bradner addresses all three issues with one simple suggestion: Men should ask their partners, “Do I do half the laundry? Do I change half the diapers?” Then, couples can make conscious choices about work distribution.
When husbands and colleagues come through with these “small acts of heroism,” splitting the work, Bradner, agues we get closer to a society that cares about caring for people:
It’s not, exclusively, a conversation for and among women. This is a conversation about families and about babies and their care, which makes it a conversation about kindness, responsiveness, and our nation’s collective future.
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