24 October 2016

How gender changes our jobs

One of the things I love about teaching anthropology is thinking about and showing how -- through everyday experiences -- broad processes shape local lives.

I think that these connections come out very clearly in this piece from The Atlantic, "What Programming's Past Reveals About Today's Gender-Pay Gap" (2016). The hook of the piece is that computer programming, which is now a male-dominated field, actually began as a career considered particularly suited to women. So, what happened?

The answer comes down in a very real way to how our
Margaret Hamilton, Programmer for NASA (1969)
conceptions of “expertise” are inseparable from gender. As Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, has argued, “The classification of women’s jobs as unskilled and men’s jobs as skilled frequently bears little relation to the actual amount of training or ability required for them. Skill definitions are saturated with gender bias.” Gender stereotypes pervade definitions of competence and status, contrasting work that requires brain or brawn; mathematical or verbal ability; individualism or cooperation. When an occupation undergoes a shift in gender composition, the description of the job often morphs to better align with the gender of the incoming hires—such as when programming went from being understood as clerical work suitable for women to a job that demands advanced mathematical facility. When women replaced men as typists, it went from a job that was seen as requiring physical stamina to one that needed a woman’s dexterity. In providing profiles not only the male-dominated field of programming, but the female-dominated field of teaching, this piece underscores how our perceptions of different careers, their power, prestige, and the paycheck that goes along with them is deeply coloured by our culturally-informed ideas of gender.
Dr. Christine Darden. Courtesy NASA
This piece is also interesting to use to think about how structure and actions based on socially constructed qualities associated (even unconsciously) with gender and race have helped to shape certain fields, and to keep individuals out of working in certain fields, e.g. women and people of colour in STEM.

Quick links & further reading: