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Image: UNIDO via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image: UNIDO via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

by Maria Azocar and Myra Marx Ferree

Important changes are under way in the world of lawyers. Their work has become increasingly dominated by large organizations, globalization has re-structured their work to be increasingly transnational, and demographic changes have redefined the profession. For example, an increasing participation of women in the legal profession is a global trend, with Latin American countries leading the rankings in terms of the number of women who enroll in and graduate from law schools.

What can the sociology of professions say about these changes? The consensus view of the field would be that these changes will translate into increasing jurisdictional battles over lawyers’ claims to expertise. Expertise is sociologically understood as knowledge that people have to accomplish a given task (Abbott 1988; Freidson 2001; Larson 1979). In this scholarship, the focus of study is often on the sites where expertise is produced and recognized, for example in practices of credentialing and licensing. Gender (and other) inequalities in a profession would be analyzed in terms of women’s struggles with men who are often considered more valuable workers or through considering the causes and effects of sex segregation in setting values, rewards or access to power.

These are important insights, but from a gender perspective, expertise not only involves practices of discrimination against women or the segregation of women from men. Expertise can itself be gendered through the differential evaluations of competences and expert claims. Science studies, especially actor-network theory (Latour 1987, Eyal 2013), also suggest asking how objects, technologies, and institutions are gendered and how they acquire stability as jurisdictional boundaries. In addition to claims and competences, networks of social arrangements can be gendered, and their gender can work independently of the gender of the individuals making use of them to advance their relative position.

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dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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stokes_image1by Allyson Stokes

Fashion design is an occupation where women far outnumber men, yet there is a widespread perception that gay men are the most successful. Scholars, journalists, and industry insiders have all commented on how gay men (e.g. Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs) are “media darlings,” win more awards, and have more prestigious jobs. Why is this the case?

On the one hand, gay men’s successes in fashion design are cause for celebration. LGBTQ people have historically faced discrimination and disadvantages in the broader labor market, but fashion is one of a few creative fields considered more or less “gay friendly,” and it employs large numbers of gay men. However, recent research finds that even “gay friendly” workplaces can reproduce old stereotypes and inequalities between gay and straight, men and women. And since fashion design is numerically dominated by women, the success of men designers is suggestive of gender inequality.

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Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other.  This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.

There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead.  Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again.  As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.

This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board.  They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off.  There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”

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Image credit: National Library of Australia

Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it — and also by a culture of confession.  The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized.  So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable.  Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal.  “The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.”  It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.

So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.  This post was cross-posted at Sociological Images and The Huffington Post.

Documenting Desegregation

Over the last few months, in various parts of the country, several scholars have been invited to critique and discuss fellow OOW members Kevin Stainback and Don Tomaskovic-Devey’s new book, Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private-Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012. 

This panel brings together a few of these scholars’ voices in an attempt to kick start a conversation about occupational sex and race segregation and, in many cases to move forward with more research. 

You will want to read OOW member and Work in Progress blog editorial board member Steve Vallas’ summary below.

The book is the first major study use EEO-1 data to examine the nature and consequences of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) over time. The book is painstaking in its use of data, but also careful and creative in its application of theory (largely, social closure theory). Major findings emerge in the book, some of which confirm existing assumptions about corporate policy, and others that are highly counter-intuitive. The book has generated much debate in the few months since its publication, and seems destined to provide a touchstone in this field now and for the foreseeable future.

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I’d like to focus on two issues that are not addressed in-depth in this otherwise wonderful book.  First, the book overlooks the importance of the substantive legal doctrine that emerged between 1966 and the 1980s.  Title VII says that employers may not “discriminate against any individual with respect to . . . employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”  But what exactly does it mean to “discriminate . . . because of”?  Over time, the courts converged on the view that the employer must have been consciously motivated by the relevant characteristic at the time of making the adverse employment decision.  Under this definition, only a very narrow range of behavior gives rise to legal liability.

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