Originally posted at Huff Post Women and Inequality by (Interior) Design

Most people think of gender as some kind of inalienable property of individuals — as something we either are or have. Decades of scholarship on gender have uncovered a perspective at odds with the conventional wisdom. The thing about conventional wisdom, though, is that it’s difficult to challenge even when we can prove it wrong. It’s much more accurate to talk about gender as something we “do” than as something we simply “are” or “have.” While this might initially seem like splitting hairs, people’s lives, legislation, and more hang in the balance. Sociologists Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt just published a new study on how the media manage moments of conflict over who “counts” as a woman or a man, and they’ve uncovered new reasons why we ought to care more about this distinction than you might have thought. Their study of how media navigate transgender individuals tells us more than why transgender people challenge conventional wisdom on gender. They continue a tradition in the sociology of gender of relying of the experiences of transgender people to provide new insights into what gender is and how taken for granted gender inequality has become.

Transgender individuals have long been of interest to sociologists of sex and gender. Transgender people are a powerful illustration of some of the cracks in the ways we think about gender and gender difference, and they often have the most to tell us about what gender is and how it gets produced. But, before I explain why Westbrook and Schilt’s new research is so important, I want to provide a short history of why the experiences of transgender people are so important. Perhaps the most famous transgender woman to be studied is a woman who scholars refer to as “Agnes” to protect her anonymity. Agnes is an American woman who, in the 1960s, was in her late teens when she heard about study at UCLA concerned with “disorders of gender identity” on the radio. The research team was interested in coming up with a set of medical guidelines for determining who ought to be allowed to undergo what were then called sex reassignment surgeries (now more accurately and respectfully referred to as gender confirmation surgeries).

Agnes first came in to meet with the research team because she was had a dilemma she couldn’t solve on her own and she was hopeful they could help. Agnes had all of the bodily signs of femininity you might expect with one small exception. She had a small waist, slender fingers and wrists, long hair, feminine breasts, and more. Beyond this, Agnes had the gamut of feminine intangibles. She was soft-spoken, moved slowly, sat with her legs together, crossed at the ankle. She waited to have doors opened for her, rarely interrupted. She was, in other words, a paragon of femininity. And, despite coming in to talk with a group of researchers concerned with disorders of gender identity, there really wasn’t anything “disordered” about Agnes’ gender at all. She was completely comfortable with and confident in her gender. Her real problem was that she had a penis and was interested in receiving a surgery that would better help her body confirm her gender more completely.

Agnes was studied by surgeons, endocrinologists, psychologists, all manner of medical professionals, and — as fate would have it — a sociologist named Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel wasn’t a sociologist of gender; indeed, the sociology of gender didn’t even really exist at that point. And it may very well be Agnes that we should thank for its production. While the medical professionals meeting with Agnes (among others) were all concerned with helping her, they were also all casually in agreement that it was Agnes who was the one with the problem. Garfinkel’s great insight was to recognize that while her desire for surgery may be statistically rare, there was nothing at all “problematic” about her gender. In fact, Garfinkel found that Agnes knew quite a bit more about her gender than most. Rather than teaching Agnes how to better “fit in” or “pass” as a woman, Garfinkel became increasingly interested in what he could learn from Agnes about gender.

Having been raised as a boy in her youth, much of what Agnes understood about femininity was learned a bit more deliberately on her part and practiced more intentionally than it is for many young women. She was able to talk about the subtleties of gender in ways that are invisible to many people. Transgender communities and medical professionals still use the term “passing” to assess how well transgender people are able to “pass” as the gender with which they identify. Indeed, having successfully passed as a woman or man for a defined period of time is often considered part of the criteria for receiving a diagnosis that enables transgender people to undergo gender confirmation surgeries (if they so desire). But it was Agnes’ intricate insights into her daily performances of gender that allowed Garfinkel to realize that gender is a performance for everyone. It wasn’t just Agnes who was passing; we’re all passing as men and women. Agnes was just better able to talk about it than most. It becomes so much a part of who we think we are that most of us don’t even recognize the daily work we do to pass as men and women (shaving, make-up, clothes, hair cuts, styles of walking, talking, sitting, how to interact conversationally, carrying wallets or a purse, and more). It’s exhausting once you list it all out, and we’re constantly at work.

Passing is important to many transgender people on different levels: from issue of violence personal safety to the psychological pleasures associated with being publicly recognized with who we understand ourselves to be. Yet, transgender people struggle with more than simply being publicly recognized. They also struggle with recognition from a variety of institutions, and it’s here that Westbrook and Schilt break new ground in research and theory on gender and inequality. Transgender men and women struggle having government documents altered to reflect their identities. But, access to legibly and legally gendered identities also comes with access to institutions, like workplaces, housing, competitive sports, and all variety of public accommodations (like, restrooms for instance). We don’t often think about this, but like Agnes, transgender people often make gender more visible — they lay bare gender arrangements in our society, like our fierce allegiance to the idea that bathroom and sports teams (among other things) ought to be gender segregated.

Deciding that a transwoman “counts” as a woman is done on multiple levels. It’s done in our interactions when we publicly recognize her identity. But it’s also done institutionally, if we consider whether or not she ought to be allowed to change her driver’s license to represent her gender or whether we ought to let her compete against other women in competitive sports. A great deal of anxiety is often provoked around these issues — what Westbrook and Schilt refer to as “gender panics” — and Westbrook and Schilt use the media as a litmus test of that collective angst. Surveying newspaper articles surrounding gender panics to do with three separate issues (transgender rights legislation, a 2006 policy proposal in New York to remove genital surgery as a requirement to change sex markers on birth certificates, and controversies over transgender athletes), Westbrook and Schilt provide a new way of thinking about and measuring gender inequality.

It turns out that the criteria for determining a person’s gender vary — they’re not the same everywhere. As Westbrook and Schilt argue, while most people “keep the same classification in all spaces, transgender people may be given different gender classifications… depending on the type of interaction occurring in the space.” So, for instance, while we might collectively acknowledge transgender women as women in their daily lives, we are often less willing (or have a different set of criteria) to acknowledge them as women in restrooms or on sports fields. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — the body that, among other things, makes decisions about the gender categories in which transgender and intersex athletes can compete — has an elaborate set of criteria for considering whether or not transgender athletes can compete as the gender with which they identify. But we don’t rely on these same criteria in most social interactions. Gender-segregated settings are much more heavily policed and women’s spaces are more heavily policed than men’s. Gender-integrated settings — like workplaces — involve fewer gender panics. It’s those spaces we think men and women ought to be separate that provoke the most powerful reactions.

Westbrook and Schilt also found that the criteria for being considered a man are much less demanding than the criteria to be considered a woman. The real anxiety appears around people who have penises who enter women’s-only spaces. Not everyone with a penis identifies or is identified as a man, nor do all those without penises identify as women. But, the penis is a powerful cultural proxy. Thus, in Katie Couric’s recent interview with Laverne Cox (a transgender woman and actress), it’s not surprising that Cox was asked about the status of her genitals. Cox deftly dealt with the question by refocusing the conversation on transgender people’s lives rather than their genitals. Westbrook and Schilt found that a great deal less anxiety appears around transgender people — even in gender-integrated settings — when the transgender person is penis-free (regardless of whether the person in question identifies as a woman or man). This interesting insight enables Westbrook and Schilt to say something really powerful about gender inequality and our collective investment in its existence.

Public reactions to and acceptance of transgender people function as a sort of gender inequality Rorschach test. This cultural anxiety provoked by penises in “women’s” spaces belies a larger investment in a twin set of cultural ideals: the belief that all people with penises are uniquely capable of violence and the belief that those without penises are uniquely vulnerable. While this anxiety might be easily upset by recognizing that transgender women are most often the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence, Westbrook and Schilt’s research shows that this fact is less publicly recognized than it should be. Indeed, Schilt and Westbrook address violence against transgender women in their previous research as did Cox in her interview with Couric. And our collective failure to recognize violence against transgender women is a testament to the power of conventional wisdom about gender. While transgender people have a unique capacity to help us understand gender as more flexible than we often imagine, Westbrook and Schilt’s research illustrates the ways that the challenges brought about by transgender individuals are often dealt with in ways that have the effect of shoring up our faith in gender as innate and gender inequality is inevitable. This research helps us learn more about some of the most deeply held beliefs in our culture about gender. Their findings show that, despite the many gains toward greater gender equality, we still fervently hold onto a set of beliefs that speak to the endurance of inequality and just how difficult it will be to overcome.

I studied a group of fathers’ rights activists and men undergoing divorce, separation, and custody battles for a little over a year.  Fathers’ rights organizations were, for me, an interesting place to study anti-feminist gender politics because they are, in many ways, one of the most successful arms of the men’s rights movement more generally.  Fathers’ rights activists and advocates are asking for things feminists have long sought from men: a greater investment in their children, a move toward a model of parenting that moves beyond the “provider” model.  And all of these things make fathers’ rights groups the most politically palatable and mainstream of the virulent misogyny that characterizes the men’s rights movement more generally.

At the weekly meetings I attended, I regularly heard men pushing back against this stereotype, wanting to be “more than a paycheck” in their kids’ lives.  And in my experience, the men who gave up on their custody battles the most quickly, those who lost contact with their children, or failed to show up at the times designated by the court had one thing in common: most of them had daughters.  In the group I studied, men with sons stuck with and struggled through really challenging custody arrangements and incredibly tense relationships with the mothers of their children. My study did not involve a sample from which I can generalize about this idea.  But there is a host of interesting scholarship on how fathers in straight couples engage with their children contingent upon the gender of their children.

Gender is a big topic of discussion when people have babies.  It shapes the sorts of names we consider (or don’t).   It shapes the way we set up the nursery, what color we paint the walls, the infant clothes we buy and receive, the things we imagine our child doing one day (or not). And research suggests that, among heterosexual couples, fathers are more invested in gender conformity than mothers. It’s not uncommon to hear that heterosexual men want boys—or are expected to want boys.  Sex selective abortion is a really powerful illustration of son preference.  But son preference can be measured in other ways as well.

I just read a working paper by economist, Laura Giuliano examining the effects of having sons versus daughters on heterosexual marriages.*  The paper was initially published as a working paper in 2007.  So, it’s a little dated.  But the data and argument are really fascinating, if frustrating. Children take a toll on marital happiness for both mothers and fathers (shocking, I know).  Among heterosexual married mothers in Giuliano’s sample, there was no meaningful difference in the level of marital happiness among mothers who had sons compared to those who had daughters.  Among fathers, however, the story is a bit more complex.  Heterosexual married fathers with sons had significantly higher levels of marital happiness than those with daughters (see graph below).

Marital Happines by Child Gender

This makes men look like the problem here.  But, Giuliano found that women are invested in this issue as well.  She also discovered, for instance, that couples in which  the fathers had higher levels of marital happiness but the mothers said that they would be as happy or happier NOT married were disproportionately likely to be couples with sons.  This suggests that mothers in heterosexual marriages that make them unhappy are much more likely to remain married if the child happens to be a boy.  One hypothesis for which Giuliano found support is that this discrepancy is produced by a collective perception that sons and daughters have different needs and that fathers are more essential in the raising of boys than girls.  Add to this that fathers of sons in Giuliano’s sample also engaged in different parenting practices.  Fathers with sons were more likely to look after and spend more time with their kids and the wives of fathers with sons held more positive views of them as parents.

There’s a lot of literature out there on how we need to get men engaged in modeling healthy masculinity to the next generation—showing boys that parenting and care work aren’t feminine practices; they’re human practices.  But all of this can’t be accomplished alongside an “androcentric” ideology that holds that boys and men are somehow more important than girls and women, more deserving of our time, attention, and apparently even affection sometimes.  It’s great that men are participating more as parents.  But we have a long way to go if they’re still waiting to see if the child is going to be “Matthew” or “Megan” before deciding whether to ask for a more flexible schedule at work.

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*I learned about this research from Emily Bobrow’s great essay in The Economist, “It’s a Boy Thing” (shared on social media by Philip Cohen).

This week my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with comments about the Man Book Club, featured in Jennifer Miller’s New York Times article. This club is for men, by men, and feature men. In fact, the golden rule of the Man Book Club is: “No books by women about women.” And the International Ultra Manly Book Club, also featured in the article, announces they are “not your mother’s book club.”

At first blush, these clubs appear transgressive. Book clubs are, after all, associated with women. Men getting together to chat about the book of the month seems out of the ordinary or even humorous. One member noted that a woman he met at a bar figured he must be gay since he was in a book club. If book clubs are places for women to talk about fiction, which Houston Men’s Book Club member, Edward Nawotka, said, “is designed to examine empathy,” then these groups are redefining the book club.

Image Source: Salon.com
Image Source: Salon.com

When I read this article, I wondered: When and why did reading become feminine and something only women do? And why do these men feel like they need a place where they can escape women—both in the flesh and as meaningful literary characters? As a woman and a gender scholar who studies these things, I bristled at the idea that leaving women out is something pleasurable to men, something they seek.

Leaving women out is nothing new. And neither is defining masculinity as the avoidance of empathy. In fact, research time and again shows that discouraging men from showing their emotions and from sharing their feelings is harmful to everyone. Scholars have linked emotional distance to men’s loneliness and poor educational performance and the privileging of aggressive manhood to violence against women, other men, and genderqueer people alike. Books highlighted in these clubs thus unsurprisingly promote this theme. Sure, this is not true of all the books, but the list of the “Top 100 Books for Every Man” includes amongst its titles the James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and The Call of the Wild. Classic books? Sure. Books that romanticize womanizing and define men as animalistic? Also yes.

Image Source: iumbc.com
Image Source: iumbc.com

Both of these clubs aim to break supposed stereotypes that men are not thinkers. “[W]e too, are intellectuals,” proclaims the International Ultra Manly Book Club’s webpage. Their vision includes: “That one day we men of the world could be more educated, have deeper conversations, and connect with our fellow men.” But what sort of education leaves women out of the conversation? How are women represented in these discussions if they are not protagonists who help to shape the world?

Women on my Facebook feed responded to this article with sarcasm about how difficult it must be for these clubs to find a book without a female lead or one that is written by a man. These comments play on the fact that women are already underrepresented as lead characters (especially in books written by men) and as authors in literature courses, as well as in other forms of entertainment (See here for a discussion of sexism in Hollywood).

Some men’s book club members Miller interviewed did note that these are important places for them to bond with other men—and not just around misogynistic ideas of women and manhood. Miller quotes one member, Haruki Murakami, as having said, “We’ve seen each other through family tragedies… I turned to these guys.” And so men in these clubs might be able to seek out intimate friendships they often lack, especially straight men. (See also Lisa Wade’s Salon article). At the same time, these friendships are forged in a sex-segregated environment where hypermasculinity is highly regarded. And this contradiction is important. It keeps these clubs from becoming truly transgressive—and transformative—spaces.

let's talk sexMy friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer to stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.

healthy futures 2When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”.  Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources.  But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:

woman concern 2A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.   

I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.

The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs

According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms. According to researchers, Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.

ab onlyAOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.

The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”

The case for comprehensive sexuality education

According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.

sex edA series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.

A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs

dollarOver the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!

Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!

Power of the parents…

After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school. We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.

orgs comp edWe presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:

We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.

We went to dozens of meetings  – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.

we wonIn the end we won!  After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!

With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including:  Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…

states sex ed

Merriam-Webster announced on Twitter yesterday that it added “cisgender” and “genderqueer” to its dictionary. This is big news for gender and sexuality scholars and activists, who have long been fighting for the legal equality and social acceptance of LGBTQ. Oxford added the terms to their dictionary in 2015, so Merriam-Webster is a bit behind the curve. But at a time when state legislators are promoting and passing new laws to deny the identities of, restrict the movement of, and allow discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, this institutionalization of language reflects a larger move toward inclusion (see here, here, and here).

English, like all languages, is constantly evolving, and gender scholars emphasize its importance is not just in reflecting existing cultural trends but also in creating new possibilities. Language and gender are simultaneously formed, and in recent history it has established dichotomies that suggest there are two clear categories into which people fall: male/female; and thus two clear ways people should identify, appear, and behave: masculine/feminine. And we have an elaborate language to stigmatize people who fall outside of these binaries, including “sissy,” “fag,” and “dyke.” Some people might label cisgender men—men who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth—as “fags” if they don’t participate in the collective sexual objectification of women, for example. Prove you’re masculine, this word suggests, and make sure it’s straight.

Source: http://www.transstudent.org/gender101
Source: http://www.transstudent.org/gender101

But language that sets up binaries of any kind is inadequate because it will never fully reflect the diversity of people’s desires, identities, or practices. This inadequacy of course does serve a purpose by naturalizing the existence of some and making “others” deviant or invisible, and invisible people don’t get rights because they technically don’t exist. Advocates of identity politics make it clear that labels are important in pulling marginalized groups out of invisibility, and so “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” help us have a larger discussion of sexuality. Similarly, “cisgender” allows us to examine the privileged norm, and this is an important turn.

“Genderqueer,” which refers to an individual whose gender identity is neither, both, or a combination of male/female, or otherwise cannot be labeled, is a uniquely important term because it pushes back against the notion that gendered categories are stable in the first place. While gender scholars and theorists alike are popularly teased for coining too many terms, coming up with language to reflect diversity and to challenge our current way of thinking is a crucial part of gender revolution. To understand that change is possible first requires us to have a language for imagining what the world might look like if change occurred. In other words, new language can allow some to imagine a world they never thought possible.

“[A]n analysis of traffic can enrich sociological theory.” (Schmidt-Relenberg, 1968: 121)

Almost everywhere we go is a “gendered space.”  Although men and women both go to grocery stores, different days of the week and times of the day are associated with different gender compositions of shoppers.  Most of our jobs are gendered spaces.  In fact, Census data show that roughly 30% of the 66,000,000 women in the U.S. labor force occupy only 10 of the 503 listed occupations on the U.S. Census.  You’d probably be able to guess what some of these jobs are just as easily as you might be able to guess some of the very few Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.  Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as occupational segregation, and it’s nothing new.  Recently, I did read about a gender segregated space that is new (at least to me): traffic.

When I picture traffic in my head, I think of grumpy men driving to jobs they hate, but this is a horrible stereotype of traffic that’s misleading.  Women actually make up the vast majority of congestion on the roads.  One way of looking at this is to argue that women are causing more congestion on our roads.  But another way to talk about this issue (and the way to talk about this issue that is consistent with actual research – and ought to make us feminists smile) is to say that women endure more congestion on the roads.

Women were actually the first market for household automobiles in the U.S.  Men generally traveled to work by public transportation.  Cars sold to households were marketed to women for daily errands.  This is why, for instance, early automobiles had fancy radiator caps with things like wings, angels and goddesses on them.  These were thought to appeal to women’s more fanciful desires.

Traffic increased a great deal when women moved into the labor force.  But this is not exactly what accounts for the gender gap.  In the 1950s, car trips that were work-related accounted for about 40% of all car use.  Today that number is less than 16%.  The vast majority of car trips are made for various errands: taking children to school, picking up groceries, eating out, going to or from day care, shopping, and more shopping.  And it’s women who are making most of these trips.  It’s a less acknowledged portion of the “second shift” which typically highlights women’s disproportionate contribution to the division of labor inside the household even when they are working outside of the household as well.  Sandra Rosenbloom‘s work on this topic is fantastic (see her chapter summarizing some of her research here).

Traffic research has shown that women are more than two times more likely than men to be taking someone else where they need to go when driving (see Nobis and Lenz’s chapter here and Rosenbloom’s research here).  Men are  more likely to be driving themselves somewhere.  Women are also much more likely to string other errands onto the trips in which they are driving themselves somewhere (like stopping at the grocery store on the drive home, going to day care on the way to work, etc.).  Traffic experts call this “trip chaining,” but the rest of us call it multi-tasking.  What’s more, we also know that women, on average, leave just a bit later than men do for work, and as a result, are much more likely to be making those longer (and more involved) trips right in the middle of peak hours for traffic.

Who knew?  It’s an under-acknowledged gendered space that deserves more attention (at least from sociologists).  Traffic is awful, and if we count up all that extra time and add it to the second shift calculations made by Arlie Hochschild, I think we have a new form of inequality to complain about.

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This post originally appeared at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.

No Support To Attend SWS Meetings

I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!

I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?

Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.

Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.

Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.

Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community

Tressie Me Perry DawnSo, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.

In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!

Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?

I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.

Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community

Adia Ray MeWhat I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.

I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.

So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.

___________________

Dr. Eric Anthony GrollmanEric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. Their research focuses on the impact of prejudice and discrimination on the health, well-being, and worldviews of oppressed groups, especially those marginalized by multiple systems of oppression (e.g., LGBTQ people of color). They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which is now hosted by Inside Higher Ed.

maiden madonna maiden

My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit.  “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.

Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.

Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.

While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.

Short history of the bra

There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.bra ancient1

And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.

An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).

Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design

She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately.  Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.

bra ancient2
World War II era utility bra

During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.

Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.

In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.

Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant

It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.

In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!hello boys

While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.

So how about today?

In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust.  If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”

This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?

Research on bras…

Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besançon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.

So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra?  NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good!  Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.

Here’s a great piece about a woman who experiments with not wearing a bra for a week, and discovers that she initially feels naked, discovers her breasts are lop-sided, learns that it’s not as painful as she thought it would be and eventually realizes it’s more comfortable without. She also goes out clubbing and realizes that no one notices!

And here’s another great video with a few women who try it for one week!

 

* A Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls signifying that they are now full-fledged members of the Jewish community with associated responsibilities.

 

 

People are often shockingly wrong about how much time they dedicate to various tasks.  In general, we tend to overestimate how much time it takes to do things we dislike and underestimate how much time we spend on tasks we enjoy.  So, people ritualistically overestimate how much time they spend on laundry, cleaning bathrooms, working out and underestimate how much time they spend watching television, napping, eating, or doing any number of tasks that provide them with joy.

Asking about how people use their time has been a mainstay on surveys dealing with households and family life.  We ask people to assess how much time they spend on all manner of mundane tasks in their lives–everything from shopping, sleeping, watching television, attending to their children, and household labor is divided up into an astonishing number of variables.  The assumption, of course, is that people can provide meaningful information or that their responses are an accurate (or approximately accurate) portrayal of the time they actually spend (see here).  This is why time diary studies came into being–they produce a more accurate picture of how people use their time.  People record their actual time use throughout the day in a diary, marking starting and stopping points of various activities.  And there are a number of different scholars who rely on this method and these data.  But Liana Sayer is among the leading scholars in the field.  When I’ve seen her present, or others present on time use data, the data are almost always visualized in the same way (as stacked column charts).  Personally, I love seeing the data this way.  The changes jump out at me and I feel like I instantly recognize trends and distinctions they discuss. But I have learned in my classroom that students do not always have the same reaction.

I’m interested because I use data visualizations in class a lot.  And in my (admittedly limited) experience, students have an easier time interpreting the story of time use data when it is visualized in some ways over others.

All of the examples here are pretty basic changes in data visualizations.  But, learning these basics are necessary to help students read the more complex data visualizations they may encounter.  Being able to interpret visualizations of temporal data is important; it’s part of what helps social scientists consider, measure, and critique the idea of “feminist change.”  Distinguishing between men’s and women’s time use is only one pocket of this field.  But, it’s the one I’ll focus on here, and on which Liana Sayer is among the foremost experts.  The data I’m visualizing below come from one of Sayer’s most cited articles: “Gender, Time and Inequality: Trends in Women’s and Men’s Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and Free Time” (here – behind a paywall).

It’s fairly common to present time use data with a series of stacked columns (the same way the Census often illustrates shifts in household types).  Below is a visualization of the differences between women’s and men’s minutes per day allocated to paid work, unpaid work, free time, and time dedicated to self care.  It’s all time diary data and we talk about why this is more reliable and a better measure – but also why it is more difficult to collect, etc.  Some students see the story of this graph immediately.  I do too.  Men’s time allocated to paid labor decreased while women’s increased.  And women perform more unpaid work than do men.  Lots of students, however, are stumped. stacked column

But when I present the data differently, students often have an easier time seeing the story the chart is produced to illustrate.  The Pew Research Center visualizes a lot of their data using stacked bar graphs.  And maybe it’s because these are more easily recognized by people with less experience with data visualization.  I have found that more of my students are able to read the chart below than the one above (at least for temporal time use data comparisons).stacked bar

Another way of presenting these data might be to use clustered columns.  I have also found that students are more quick to recognize the trend in these data with the graph below than they are with the initial stacked column chart.cluster column

But, I’ve found that students have the easiest time with line charts for temporal time use data.  On the chart below, I deleted the grid lines because The New York Times sometimes displays time trend data this way (see Philip Cohen’s piece on NYT Opinionater, “How Can We Jump-Start the Struggle for Gender Equality?” for an example).  Students that struggle to recognize the trend in the clustered column chart, are much faster to see the trend here.line

These aren’t an exhaustive set of examples, and all of them are basic visualizations.  For instance, we might use a stacked area chart to show these data (as trends in the racial composition of the U.S. are often depicted), a scatterplot (as data on GDP and fertility rates are often illustrated), a series of pie charts (as men’s and women’s various compositions in different economic sectors are sometimes visualized), or something else entirely. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 9.59.28 AMIn fact, The New York Times produced a really incredible interactive stream graph visualizing data from The American Time Use Survey that illustrates differences in time use between groups. I sometimes have students explore this graph in my course on the sociology of gender.  But many struggle interpreting it.  This is, I think, in part due to the fact that we often take data visualization literacy for granted.  It’s a skill, and it’s one we should be better at teaching.

I think the point I want to make is that we (or I, at least) need to think more carefully about how we visualize our data and findings to different audiences.  Liana Sayer has an incredible mastery of this (she presents data in all of the ways mentioned in this post and more throughout her work).  One thing that I’m thinking more about as I write and teach about research and findings amenable to data visualization is which visualizations are best suited to which kinds of data (something all scientists are concerned with), but also which visualizations work with which kinds of audiences.  This is new territory to me.

Visualizing feminist change in a single chart is difficult.  And it’s often accompanied by, “Well, this is true, but let me tell you about what these data don’t show…”  But, I’m interested in how we make choices about visualizing feminist research and whether we need to make different kinds of choices when we talk about the findings with different kinds of audiences.

I am headed to the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston, MA this week. My main focus is the Digital Sociology mini-conference that is held in conjunction with the event. The mini conference’s first year was 2015, when I co-organized it with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory. My name is still on the organizers’ list this year with Jessie and Leslie Jones. I should say upfront that Leslie and Jessie did all of the legwork this year. My year was spent in various stages of completing three book manuscripts and settling into the first year of my tenure track job at Virginia Commonwealth University. This will be my first year presenting, organizing and contributing to an academic conversation as a “legitimate” sociologist. more...