Image: Dave Crosby via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image: Dave Crosby via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

by Peter Fleming

Are you paid what you are worth? What is the relationship between the actual work you do and the remuneration you receive?

The revelation that London dog walkers are paid considerably higher (£32,356) than the national wage average (£22,044) tells us much about how employment functions today. Not only are dog walkers paid more, but they work only half the hours of the average employee.

It is clear that the relationship between jobs and pay is now governed by a new principle. The old days in which your pay was linked to the number of hours you clocked up, the skill required and the societal worth of the job are long over. Other factors play a bigger role in determining how much you are rewarded today. This is why we live in a world where the task of walking a millionaire’s dog through Hyde Park is considered more valuable than an NHS nurse (starting salary £21k).

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Credit: Chrysler Group (Creative Commons BY NC ND)

by William Lazonick and Tony Huzzard

In manufacturing plants all over the world, both managers and workers have discovered that when employees are involved in workplace decision-making, productivity rises. So in the United States, it made national news when in February workers at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee rejected representation by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) by a vote 712 to 626. Unfortunately, the Chattanooga workers said no to just the type of employee involvement in productivity improvement that will be necessary to sustain their jobs going forward. To compete on the world stage, a strong employee voice in the workplace matters.

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By Deborah Hargreaves

LONDON — The issue of pay ratios has become the latest front in a worldwide debate about inequality and the widening gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. In the United States, the financial reforms of the Dodd-Frank Act contained a provision that would force American companies to disclose the ratio of the compensation of their chief executive officer to the median compensation of their employees. Yet fierce criticism from the business sector has succeeded in delaying this measure for four years — and counting.

Now the European Commission in Brussels has weighed in, with a proposal currently under discussion that the European Union’s 10,000 listed companies reveal their pay ratios and allow shareholders to vote on whether they are appropriate. This has unleashed howls of protest against the European Union’s unpopular, unelected commissioners. Fund managers have called the plan weird, and business leaders have objected that shareholders don’t want such power.

Pay ratio proposals, in fact, have a venerable history. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” George Orwell advocated a limitation of incomes so that the best-paid would earn no more than 10 times the lowest-paid. But this was controversial territory, even for Orwell. A few paragraphs on, he retreated and wrote: “In practice it is impossible that earnings should be limited quite as rigidly as I have suggested.”

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The WIP team is delighted to welcome a new regular contributor, Martha Crowley, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University.

Martha has published leading research on inequality, poverty, work intensification and job insecurity. Her most recent research has focused on dignity at work.

In her first post here, Martha presents a critical review of the recent Gallop report on “employee engagement” at work, which, she argues, incorrectly blames the lack of engagement at work on individual employees while neglecting the more important role played by organizational design and good management.

In making sense of the desegregation trajectories that have developed since passage of the Civil Rights Act, the book makes highly creative use of social closure theory, applied alongside the shifting American political landscape. The book finds that racial and gender segregation has remained especially pronounced in higher paying industries and occupations (much as closure theory would predict). But the book also finds that organizations that rely on formal professional credentials exhibit a much more level playing field than do firms that rely on less formal markers of skill and expertise. This finding calls for important modifications in social closure theory, since it suggests that educational credentials can enable (and not merely block) access to job rewards among historically excluded groups. This is a vital and important finding. But in presenting these results, the book does not always show us why this pattern is the case. Did the class or racial advantages that white women enjoy give them easier access to credentialing institutions? Was the effect of meritocracy also apparent in industries that rely heavily personnel in STEM fields? Or are the leveling effects of educational credentials limited to professional contexts such as law, accounting, social work and teaching? Arguably, heavily feminized professions account for much of this meritocracy effect. My point is that the nature and sources of the meritocracy trend need more discussion than the authors provide.

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Lately, I’ve become convinced that those of us who study work organizations have kind of missed the boat. Which boat? I suppose that vessel can best be described as popular culture. Let me explain.

I teach social theory pretty often, and if you do that, you more or less have to come to grips with the relation between power, culture, and social inequality. With me so far?

So. When I put on my sociology of work hat, and read through our various efforts to understand the working out of power, I find it hard not to feel as if this field is culturally deprived. Oh sure, there’s a slew of studies focusing on organizational culture (whatever that means). But very, very little that asks where and how workers acquire the images of work and authority  which they bring with them into their work situations.

It’s as if we’ve missed the “cultural turn” entirely, abandoning the whole field of popular culture to the cultural studies types (most of whom wouldn’t know honest employment if they fell over it).

lion as md

Kidding there! But I am serious when I opine that we need to pay much closer attention to media, television, movies, advertising, magazines, and children’s literature.

Which brings me to the odd-looking image shown above. One of my department’s graduate students gave me as a Christmas present Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day? A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in Busytown. On a lark (so to speak), I googled the book, and eventually came up with a brilliant piece of analysis by John Levi Martin (see his 2000 article, “What Do Animals Do All Day?” in Poetics). To oversimplify greatly: Martin constructs a sophisticated empirical analysis of nearly 300 children’s books, and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs). Pigs in particular are substantially overrepresented in  subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.

pigs as laborers

In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life –that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves.  Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn.

Levi Martin’s paper reminds me of the important 1997 paper in ASR by Bernice Pescosolido and her colleagues, who studied the portrayal of blacks in children’s books (and found some very interesting patterns, involving the “symbolic annihilation” of African Americans in this literary genre). So it seems reasonable to ask: Why don’t we have more such studies in the sociology of work and social inequalities? In answering the question, “How do people learn to labor?” (the play on Paul Willis’s classic title is fully intended), haven’t we focused too narrowly on the workplace itself, to the neglect of earlier stages of life or extra-organizational life (e.g., popular culture) as such?

To be sure, there is a small handful of studies that have examined how work is represented in popular culture –but reviewing this literature doesn’t take much time. Beth Montemurro has written an interesting analysis of how sexual harassment is transformed into the substance of comedy on television (see her 2003 article, “Not a Laughing Matter,” in Sex Roles).

Kelly Massoni has a smart analysis called “Modeling Work: Occupational Messages in Seventeen Magazine” that appeared in Gender and Society, in 2004. The latter piece argues that the skewed occupational images presented to teenage girls generate highly distorted occupational aspirations, ill-equipping them to navigate the world of paid employment. But these studies are really the exception, with the larger patten a pronounced silence in this field. And there is virtually nothing that traces the “reception” of cultural objects by those who listen to, read, or watch them.

Which leads me to suggest that it’s time for us to think anew about work organizations. In a culture such as ours, which provides few if any outlets for discussion about the nature of work, maybe there’s a reason why “The Office,” and “Dilbert” are so popular. Or why some of the best and most engaging television shows –“The West Wing,” “House,” and even “The Wire” –are at their heart dramatizations of workplace life. The only puzzling thing is why we sociologists of work have largely neglected this point.

Even wonder why so few men enter the child care profession, especially as caretakers for very young children?  In Germany, the government is spending (a lot of) money to recruit men into the profession.  In that country men are in high demand because many parents don’t want their children looked after exclusively by women and about one third of mothers and fathers prefer day care facilities that have male staff. In the U.S., the situation is somewhat different; male childcare workers often have to explain themselves and why they do their job.

In the following piece, a guest blogger Lata Murti, contemplates a situation in her child’s daycare center involving a male childcare worker.  We invited sociologists Christine Williams, Barbara Risman, and Andrew Cognard-Black to comment and discuss some of the issues surrounding men who work in the childcare profession.