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January 16, 2014 / brockportsociology

New Year, Same Inequality

peter 1by Peter Rydzewski*

I recently came across a calendar from a safety supply company: Condor. It depicts workers in various occupations, from construction to dentistry. Most of the images depict manual-labor jobs (lifting, working with hazardous chemicals, or operating dangerous machinery). The small sample of images speaks to the ways in which we rely on simplistic categorizations to share messages about safety through commonly-held beliefs about who will need it most.

paapIn Kris Paap’s book, Working Construction: Why White Working-Class Men Put Themselves – and the Labor Movement – in Harm’s Way, she explores gender and racial inequality in construction jobs. The calendar’s lack of racial diversity (only three minority groups are depicted) helps to illustrate some of Paap’s findings.  Women and racial minority groups are subtly discouraged from participating in this work setting, limiting their options for employment prior to a fair assessment of their abilities. In addition, this discussion contributes to the idea that masculinity – as with gender – cannot be easily defined. It’s situational, location-sensitive, and always in flux.

The most interesting of these twelve calendar images is the one that depicts a woman wearing safely glasses. Even though she is pictured in the calendar with men working various manual-labor jobs, calendar 1this image does not show the advertised safety gear in motion and, in fact, the description under this woman speaks not of safety from harsh conditions, but only about the customized lens colors. It reads, “choose from various lens colors and anti-fog or scratch-resistant coatings.” While most of the images in the calendar speak of “high-impact” protection and using safety to “improve productivity,” only three of the twelve images reference color as an important factor to the gear itself.

Although we may observe changes in favor of more diverse work settings, this calendar exemplifies the ways in which intersections of race (no black individuals in the calendar) and gender (one woman working but not seen performing manual labor) are artificially represented (or not) as participating in “masculine” or “white” work settings. calendar 2These are not only depictions of the “right” individuals that can succeed in manual labor jobs. Rather we should think of it, as in Barrie Thorne’s famous analysis in Gender Play, as a form of “borderwork.”  It is through representations like Condor’s calendar that we are helped to think about work as “men’s work” or “white work.”  Indeed, the calendar helps to erect borders between work thought of as “for men” or “for women.”

This gendered and racialized encouragement system is readily studied in sociological examinations of the media, and has recently been a topic of debate in the realm of gendered toy choices for young boys and girls (see “Goldieblox” toys discussion here and here, and a discussion on race and occupations here).

As Joan Acker (here) found, even if women enter the same job as men, they may be doing work completely different and for different opportunities and wages. The single image of the woman with safety glasses is a wonderful example of Acker’s findings. She’s in the calendar, but not in the same way as the men. She’s wearing safety gear, but she’s not depicted as using them or even as participating in any kind of work that might necessitate their use. The images in the calendar limit our understandings of workers’ skills to gender-based and race-restricting assumptions about ability.

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*Peter Rydzewski is a senior sociology major at The College at Brockport.  He’s currently applying to graduate school to study gender and sexual inequality in families and the workplace.

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