Women and Gender in Socio-Economics

The issue of gender runs through the field of socio-economics—across disciplinary boundaries, subfields, methods, and specialties. Whether you study the low-wage workforce, the welfare state, the finance industry, international development, types of economic exchange, or the role of algorithms in contemporary society, you can consider the issue of gender and, in doing so, unearth new dimensions of social structure and axes of stratification. 

Yet the question of gender is often overlooked. In assessing the effect of the 2008 recession, few labor scholars noticed that austerity policies had a disproportionate effect on women. In understanding the global supply chain, scholars are attuned to tensions between labor and management, but fail to acknowledge how those tensions are also gender tensions: between male management and female labor. In looking toward the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming clear that the economic costs will likely fall disproportionately on women—women concentrated in the low-wage “essential” work that leaves them vulnerable to infection; women excluded from the high-status jobs that can afford to keep them employed through a crisis; and women whose obligations at home will require them to step back from their professional commitments

Gender is also a important within the professional world of academia. Men are still overrepresented in the top positions at universities, more highly cited, and more likely to present at international conferences. The SASE Women and Gender Forum has emerged to advance the careers of women, trans, and gender non-conforming scholars, and others interested in gender in the field of socio-economics. As an organization within SASE, the Forum advocates for greater representation and inclusion at the conference and among the leadership, supports SASE members’ career development, and foregrounds gender as an issue for scholarly investigation. In doing so, they shed light on the fact that no organizational, economic, or labor issue can be fully understood without accounting for women and gender. As Stephanie Barrientos, the 2020 Women and Gender Forum keynote speaker, put it, the goal is to “mainstream gender equality and gender perspectives across all dimensions of SASE… to get [the gender perspective] into the DNA of academic research and the way academia functions.” 

The idea for the Women and Gender Forum began to take shape in 2017. At the SASE conference in Lyon, Chiara Benassi noticed something unsettling. At the panels she went to, the featured speakers were men; the books being commented on were written by men, and the network organizers who created the sessions were mostly men. Meanwhile, the audience was filled with women. Although women constituted a majority of the SASE Executive Council, which had already started to discuss these inequities, women’s representation had not yet filtered down throughout the organization. As a junior professor, Benassi was keenly aware of the value of conference presentation opportunities. Scholars are evaluated not only on their teaching and research but also on their engagement with broader discipline. If women had fewer opportunities—even in the context of a progressive organization like SASE—how could they expect to succeed in an increasingly competitive academic field? 

At the same time, Dorottya Sallai was noticing something different. A naturally social person, she found that “forming social networks [at SASE was] not straightforward,” especially “for those women who [did] not come from large, research-intensive institutions,” for whom gender heightened the lack of institutional connections. Sallai had participated in other international conferences where there were opportunities for women to connect, expanding their networks in ways that would enrich their research and potentially advance their careers. This inspired her “to create a safe place for female scholars to engage in a debate about issues that matter for them in relation to their research and academic life, and at the same time provide an informal space for building social and research-related networks.”

Sallai proposed an initiative to the Executive Board, at the same time that they were receiving a letter from Benassi, who—upon returning home from Lyon—had tallied the representation of women on panels, as featured speakers, and in leadership roles such as network organizer. Sallai and Benassi joined forces, along with colleagues Caroline Ruiner, Virginia Doellgast, Jacqueline O’Reilly, and Sarah Ashwin, to form the Women and Gender Forum. Immediately, there was evidence of demand. A survey of SASE members received over one hundred responses within hours. The Forum first met in Kyoto, in 2018, with over 80 attendees. From these participants, the Forum leadership took its directions. Women, trans, and gender non-conforming scholars were looking for professional development guidance and opportunities to build new relationships with one another. The meetings would provide these opportunities, with sessions dedicated to publishing in journals, balancing work and personal commitments, and career progression. 

At the same time, the Forum pursued a policy agenda, promoting more gender balance across the organization and the annual meeting program. As Sallai put it, “networking and dialogue alone is not enough to drive change,” you also need “influence in decision-making and representation across the institutional structure… to provide diversity of views and equal opportunities for all members.” The progressive orientation of SASE meant that concern about gender inequality was already salient and SASE leadership, including network organizers, actively responded to the new efforts of the Forum. Upon encouraging networks to incorporate women into their leadership, nearly all immediately ensured that there was at least one woman as a network organizer. By 2019, there was significantly more representation of women at plenary sessions and across the New York conference program. These successful efforts were folded into a broader effort to promote racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity within SASE—an effort led by Doellgast along with current president Nitsan Chorev and president-elect Sigrid Quack.

While the Women and Gender Forum has made quick progress in promoting women within the SASE organization, there remains substantial work to be done to integrate a gender perspective into the study of socio-economics. Without addressing gender, we not only overlook the subjective experiences of half the global population, but also miss out on insights into the shape of stratification in the economy. Two leading scholars of socio-economics, Stephanie Barrientos and Jill Rubery, shared with me their perspectives on the importance of women and gender in economic sociology. The following are edited excerpts of conversations in which I spoke with Barrientos and Rubery about their research.

Stephanie Barrientos

Stephanie Barrientos

2020 Women and Gender Forum Keynote Speaker

I’ve been a member of SASE for a long time. My involvement in SASE has been in the global value chain stream [Network O] and I’ve been doing research in this area for the last 15 years… I don’t expect everyone to become a gender scholar, but even people who do not study gender should consider it. For instance, apparel is an enormous value chain that can only be fully understood by considering gender. Many books written on the subject don’t take account of the fact that 50 or 60 percent, and sometimes 90 percent, of apparel workers are women. Women are concentrated in the low-skilled jobs and men are in management. So researchers talk about labor/management conflict without taking account of the fact that this is also a gender conflict. 

I do a lot of work on Corporate Social Responsibility and in a lot of codes of conduct there’s a statement against mistreatment of women. Thousands of audits have been done, but less than 1 percent of those audits report noncompliance on gender discrimination. That’s in countries where 60 or 70 percent of women are saying they’re concerned about discrimination or harassment. So the issue of gender discrimination doesn’t come up in the audits, but that’s because it’s not being reported. If you overlook this gender dimension, you can’t understand what is happening in the factories. For instance, many researchers find that workers are not motivated, or that they keep changing jobs. You have to ask yourself: why? It’s not just conflict between managers and workers, it’s male managers and female workers. So if workers are being harassed, they will want to change jobs. If managers are harassing them, the workers don’t want to become managers. 

At SASE, I hope for a greater gender awareness in all aspects of research. That would be important progress. Obviously, I’d like more people to study gender, but that’s a subset. SASE brings together some of the most progressive thinking across disciplines, so if SASE academics are still struggling to integrate a gender perspective into their work, then you can imagine it’s a bigger issue elsewhere. Eventually, we need to have more women in senior positions, more women and men doing research on gender issues, and more awareness—then you can put better systems in place. It’s a process: we need to be scaling up on all these fronts.  

Jill Rubery

Jill Rubery

I went to Cambridge to study low-wage employment and that clearly brought me into the issue of women’s employment. In 1979, I co-founded the International Working Party of Labor Segmentation and began to focus on how institutions, including gender relations, shape the organization of labor markets. My first foray into comparative gender research was an edited book on women and recession, which I published in 1988, looking at the experiences across the UK, the United States, France, and Italy. Shortly after that, I started to coordinate the gender and employment network of experts for the European Commission. Through this network, I worked with colleagues on a huge amount of comparative research on gender and employment—topics that were relatively understudied in those days. I learned very quickly about differences across countries that are linked to gender and other institutional forms. More is known now, but it is still mainly women who study gender in comparative international work. 

Indeed, many scholars continue to be gender blind. The best example is the research on the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity policies that were subsequently promoted across Europe and elsewhere. These events had a particularly strong effect on those employed in the public sector and people who used public services—but there was very little attention to the fact that both of these issues mainly concerned women. So there was limited analysis, certainly in the midst of the crisis, on how austerity policies would affect men and women differently. 

There is also a tendency for gender to be brought in as an afterthought. You can see this in the varieties of capitalism literature, where they look at sex—for instance, noting that the coordinated economies invest less in skills for women because they assume women will leave the labor market. This has been the case traditionally in countries such as Germany. But this explanation won’t work for countries such as Sweden, where women do not usually stop working. To understand how welfare state systems shape economic choices, we have to account for the ways that gender norms vary across national contexts and not fall back on universal stereotypes about women’s roles and behaviors. 

It is also the case that gender scholars would benefit from further integrating socio-economic factors into their research and analysis. I’ve been looking into the problem of equal pay and how changing conditions in the labor market and social systems generate new obstacles to equality, constantly moving the goalposts. For example, women may have removed the gender gap in education, but this has coincided with a massive expansion in the pay distribution for people with higher education. So, as Blau and Kahn argued, women often have to swim against the tide to achieve more equality and, when they do make progress, something else may come along to knock them back. People are not sufficiently aware of how welfare systems and labor markets shape gender inequality—to address gender inequality we may have to think about addressing overall inequality. 

I see progress towards gender equality not as a linear process—there can be steps forward but also steps back and gains that have been made may be undone by new developments in labor markets and welfare systems. For progress to be sustained, it needs to be embedded in new norms about how labor markets are organized, otherwise improvements may be unstable and unequally distributed among women.

As we begin to enter a new world marked by COVID-19, there are important ways in which gender will shape social and economic life. As Rubery explains, gender segregation is the main cause of men’s and women’s different employment outcomes, and will define the gendered impacts of the current crisis, as some of the predominantly-female sectors will see mass layoffs while others see an increase in demand for labor. 

On the former, women may be concentrated in jobs or industries where employers do not choose to take advantage of state-funded retention schemes. For low-wage workers—among whom women are overrepresented, not to mention racial and ethnic minorities—employers may find it more efficient to lay everyone off, or may take advantage of rising unemployment to extract concessions from their workers. On the flip side, there may be more attention—consciously or unconsciously—to protecting the jobs occupied primarily by male breadwinners. Predominantly-female jobs may therefore be left out of recovery plans, made redundant, or rehired on adverse terms.  

At the same time, women constitute the bulk of many “key” or “essential” jobs that are continuing to work throughout the pandemic, from nursing to grocery and retail to home health aides. This largely female workforce has seen continued employment, but at the risk of their health and the health of their family members and communities. 

Gender is also shaping the response to the pandemic in ways other than direct employment or unemployment, by means of behaviors informed by gender ideologies. For instance, Caroline Ruiner has found that the truck drivers she studies, who are primarily male, adopt a stereotypically masculine attitude that leads them to accept more risk and be less careful about social distancing and other precautionary measures (a pattern also seen in U.S. government leadership). And at home, women are responsible for most of the burden of childcare, education, and housework, at the expense to their productivity—the falling share of journal submissions authored by women are an early signal of what may prove to be large-scale and long-term impacts on women’s career progression, in academia as well as other fields. Embedding a gender perspective in the DNA of academic research can help scholars measure these and other impacts of the pandemic that might otherwise go unnoticed.  

The Women and Gender Forum has emerged through “a very organic process,” as Sallai explained, and has evolved as a truly “team effort.” It has been successful in part because SASE is so supportive of grassroots initiatives. But its success is also due to the appetite for this kind of initiative among members, for whom gender always colors the world around them. 

Article by Laura Adler

This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.