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Tag Archives: work

by Julie A. Kmec, Lindsey T. O’Connor, and Scott Schieman

President Obama’s State of the Union address last month recognized that working women—and men—should not face hardship for taking care of their family responsibilities.Recent research by sociologists,Julie A. Kmec, Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Scott Schieman suggests that workplaces have a long way to go before realizing the President’s message.  In new research, they find that working mothers perceive penalties—like feeling ignored and that they are given the worst tasks—when they adjust their work schedules after having children.  They suggest that policies and practices that challenge societal assumptions about ideal work are a good starting place in attempts to realize President Obama’s call to give working parents a “break.”

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social-mediaWe–fellow Work in Progress Blogger Adia Harvey Wingfield and I–recently attended a summit centered on Redesigning and Redefining Work. This summit, organized by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, had lofty goals:  to join academic researchers, government policy makers, members of the media, and company representatives to discuss, among other things, new ways to redesign the world of work so that workplaces can better align—for the long term—with the composition and needs of today’s workforce while at the same time allowing workers and businesses to flourish.

The summit focused, among other things, on how flexible work arrangements have the potential to change work environments in ways that produce greater gender equality. Presenters from corporate and academic sectors considered the ways that these programs have been implemented, barriers to implementation, successes, challenges, and benefits.  The program offered a number of different perspectives on ways that flexible work arrangements can have multiple, expected, and possibly surprising benefits for workers and for corporations.

We wanted to share our personal observations of the summit, whose agenda can be found here, because we feel that sociologists of work should be keyed into the discussion of redesign.  We also think the public should be aware of—and join in via commenting here—work redesign discussions happening in academic, workplace, and policy circles.

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It’s an old question, really, but an important one — are managerial practices and work design responsible for the behavior of employees? Or does worker engagement and behavior come down to individual personalities, with responsibility thus resting primarily with workers? And what are the impacts on a firm’s financial success?

These questions received newfound attention with the publication of a study conducted by the Gallup organization, based on deceptively interesting survey data. Interesting, because they mirror critical concepts we sociologists of work use in our research. Deceptive, because the report stands as a textbook example of the kind of shallow reasoning that results when analysts proceed without concepts such as power, organizational design, and the normative climate fostered by management.

The report, titled “State of the American Workplace:  Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders ” uses data collected from individuals and their employers to show that a variety of factors that Gallup terms “employee engagement” enhance productivity, profitability and customer ratings while reducing accidents, theft, absenteeism, turnover and defects.

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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.

The latest issue of Work, Employment and Society (27,3) is a special issue celebrating 25 years of publication. It is freely available to all readers until 31 July 2013:  http://wes.sagepub.com/content/current

  • Reflections on work and employment into the 21st century: between equal rights, force decides, by Mark Stuart, Irena Grugulis, Jennifer Tomlinson, Chris Forde and Robert MacKenzie
  • Unsustainable employment portfolios, by John Buchanan, Gary Dymski, Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal, Adam Leaver and Karel Williams
  • Women and recession revisited, by Jill Rubery and Anthony Rafferty
  • The nature of front-line service work: distinctive features and continuity in the employment relationship, by Jacques Bélanger and Paul Edwards
  • Postfordism as a dysfunctional accumulation regime: a comparative analysis of the USA, the UK and Germany, by Matt Vidal
  • Financialization and the workplace: extending and applying the disconnected capitalism thesis, by Paul Thompson
  • Finance versus Democracy? Theorizing finance in society, by Sylvia Walby
  • Work, employment and society through the lens of moral economy, by Sharon C Bolton and Knut Laaser
  • Ethnographic fallacies: reflections on labour studies in the era of market fundamentalism, by Michael Burawoy
  • Review of Scott Lash & John Urry The End of Organized Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987, £18.00 pbk, (ISBN: 9780745600697), 248pp, Gibson Burrell, Miguel Lucio Martinez, Ian Greer Response to reviews, Scott Lash and John Urry
  • 25 Favourite WES Articles chosen by WES readers, editors and authors

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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The book’s scope is sweeping:  it details a half century of the political landscape of social change and also attends to the micro–organizational and local–levels.  In other words, the authors successfully position themselves both on the balcony and the dance floor:  The balcony gives them the wide-ranging view, and the dance floor lets them show off the intricate footwork at the local and organizational levels.

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