Photo by stephalicious, Flickr CC

From sexual harassment to salary gaps, stories about gender inequality at work are all over the news. How does this happen? Social science research finds that people often place into different jobs by gender, race, and class, and this sorting has consequences for inequality in earnings and career prestige. Just like a middle school dance where students congregate on opposite sides of the floor because of both self-sorting and social norms, gendered occupational segregation comes from a combination of choice and implicit discrimination based on workplace “fit.” Women often choose less prestigious occupations based on how they perceive their personalities and competence, and employers and colleagues tend to favor people like themselves when hiring, promoting, and collaborating.

When people choose their jobs, they often think about careers to match their personalities. Gender socialization and stereotypes about competence, personality traits, and innate abilities influence how women and men consider which  jobs are right for them. Many women learn to perceive themselves as emotional, systematic, or people-oriented. They also tend to think they possess the right traits to work in female-dominated jobs like teaching and nursing. Women are more likely to think they will perform poorly at careers in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) because they have learned to think they are not “naturally” as good at these subjects as men are.
Outright gender-based discrimination in hiring and workplace practice is illegal, but it still occurs through implicit biases to the detriment of women. Employers often look for people who will blend well with their workplace’s culture, and this results in hiring candidates similar to themselves, in terms of both gender and social class. Once hired, colleagues tend to collaborate and share resources with those they think are like them as well, often isolating women in male-dominated workplaces. As a result, many women leave highly-paid, highly-skilled positions in favor of less prestigious jobs with more women and friendlier environments.
Graphic via Washington Post. Click for original and animation.
Graphic via Washington Post. Click for original and animation.

The Washington Post highlights the growing morbidity and mortality rates of rural white women. The rates of sickness and death for white women have climbed steadily over the past couple of decades, but the most dramatic increase is in rural areas. Sociologists and demographers have long investigated these trends. Poverty, stress, and timing of childbirth all matter for mortality, but the combination of these factors have stronger effects on rural, white women—surprising, because poverty confounds our typical understandings of race and inequality.

Mortality rates have decreased overall since the latter half of the 20th century, though several factors, many related to poverty and education, contribute to the increasing death rates of certain groups. Those with less education tend to have higher mortality rates and rates of heart disease and lung cancer.
Less education tends to correlate with lower socioeconomic status and difficulty finding employment. Sociologists Link and Phelan point to poverty as a “fundamental cause” of mortality and morbidity. Low socioeconomic status means difficulty is accessing resources: not only do poor people have trouble obtaining the means to maintain a healthy life, they also tend to lack the time, transportation, social networks, and money to help them recover from sickness.
Some of the health issues tied to poverty affect women more than men. Women with high stress levels are more likely than men to die from cancer-related illnesses. Other health patterns related to social class, such as the timing of childbirth, matter, too. Poorer women are more likely to have children before age 20, which correlates with increased risk of death, heart and lung disease, and cancer.
Vintage postcard via Blue Mountains Library, Flickr CC.
Vintage postcard via Blue Mountains Library, Flickr CC.

This is the time of year that many people throw open their windows and begin their yearly spring cleaning. Long ago, springtime cleaning had religious significance and coincided with holidays such as Passover and Easter. By the 19th century, spring cleaning had become more about practicality than piety. Particularly in places that suffered cold, wet winters, March and April were a perfect time for dusting because it was warm enough to open windows, but still too chilly for bugs to fly in the house. Ideally, the wind would help blow the dust out of the home instead of swirling it around the rooms.

The blame for a dusty shelf tends to fall on women’s shoulders because the home has traditionally been “her place” in society. Although the 1950s vision of June Cleaver has shifted and more women now participate in the labor force, women still tend to take on the bulk of the housework. Women employed outside the home have a “second shift” of cooking, cleaning, and childcare when they come home from work.
Women who work in more masculinized jobs tend to do more cooking and cleaning, and men with feminized professions engage in more “manly” tasks like yard work and auto repair to neutralize their gender-atypical occupations. Even in couples that are not comprised of a cis-man and a cis-woman, the gendered division of household labor persists. In couples consisting of trans*-men and cis-women, the women end up taking on the “Cinderella roles,” which they often link to personal preference rather than socialization or gender roles.
And what of the sociological significance of dust? A dusty book can show a lack of interest in the material, and the old adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” speaks to the moral implications of a dust-free, spotless home. Dust and dirt are out of place in the well-tended home, and their presence highlights a lack of control over the environment. Additionally, a lack of cleanliness has long served as a social indicator of moral disorder in Western Culture, acting as rallying point of social solidarity over what is socially acceptable.
Vicodin tablets photographed by frankieleon, Flickr CC.
Vicodin tablets photographed by frankieleon, Flickr CC.

In September, blogger Erin Jones posted a photo on Facebook that would spark a fight against the stigma of mental health and medication for it. Her hashtag #medicatedandmighty has inspired others who take prescription medication for depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health needs to share their own photos and “come out.”

What makes it possible for the #MedicatedAndMighty to fight back against stigma in mental illness? Since doctors and researchers do not have complete monopoly over medical knowledge, the lay person (non-medical person) plays a role in constructing the meaning of mental illness. Patients’ lived experiences with an illness confirm or challenge expert knowledge, contributing to the continual shaping of the biomedical and cultural understandings of the condition.
Cultural meanings of illness shapes responses to them, making all mental illnesses socially constructed experiences . Claims-makers and interested parties, not just doctors and scientists, create medical knowledge—what makes an illness “real,” and what constitutes its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Often, negative understandings of specific illnesses come from elite moral entrepreneurs whose elite socioeconomic status and moral legitimacy give them framing power.