How Expertise is Gendered

By Maria Azocar and Myra Marx Ferree

For some of us, being part of academia is our great luck. We spend years in PhD programs, we do our best to become experts in our areas, and if things go well, we might be called to participate in state-sponsored “expert commissions.” Imagine you are living in a country experiencing a political transition to democracy. Academia is now not only the incarnation of your personal aspirations, but a privileged space for imagining the future of your country.

Well, during the 1990s in Chile, this is exactly what happened. A group of lawyers working in a small university had an ambitious proposal to transform how the criminal courts worked. Their goal was to redefine the punitive power of the state after seventeen years of gross violations of human rights. But it was precisely this difficult political context that made their proposal almost impossible to implement. The Supreme Court, the right wing, and the notables of the legal profession attacked it. The government supported a different legal reform, focused on family courts, aimed to “fortify the family,” as the public realm was so precarious. Nonetheless, the criminal lawyers managed to bring the restructuring about, despite opposition. We show that their use of gendered expertise can explain this surprising result.

Expertise is a specific kind of authority, where power is gained through the ability to define realities for others. With the information gathered from interviews and archival data, we show how the promoters of the criminal reform presented their expertise as a specific kind of masculine one to gain leverage in the policy debate, while the lawyers advocating family law reform were constructed as having a less valuable feminine expertise. The criminal lawyers advocating reform were not just claiming to know more because they were men, but used specifically masculine networks and competences to make their knowledge claims more powerful.

The criminal law reformers were attacked by the notables of the profession for not having a class pedigree, but gendered the expertise of their opponents as that of “old gentlemen,” and their own as a specifically modern, technologically rational masculinity. They devalued the expertise of family lawyers working in the new democratic government as feminine, a framing that most family lawyers accepted, even though they contested the accompanying devaluation of their professionalism.

Through university forums, criminal reformers connected themselves with international penal lawyers, jurists, and human rights lawyers, enacting an expertise of masculine academic erudition with international legitimation. Furthermore, by allying with economists in an NGO with ties to the right-wing, left-leaning criminal reformers legitimized their expertise as politically neutral, based on the technology of “hard” numbers and appeals to evidence-based knowledge. In turn, family lawyers working in the government mobilized their support from psychologists and social workers, a network that was feminized as being composed of practitioners with therapeutic rather than “real” legal expertise, and drawing on “soft” social science knowledge.

Expertise is gendered

The effect of the gendering of these particular competences and networks on the Chilean Congress was to grant authority to the diagnostic and treatment claims the criminal lawyers offered. Family law was claimed to be a “special” type of law, encompassing therapeutic expertise, affective warmth, and altruism, rather than “real” law. So the family courts were reformed to rely more on informal mechanisms of conflict resolution (i.e. family mediation), allowing men in the domestic realm to avoid contact with “intractable female judges.” In contrast, criminal law was promoted by lawyers and economists and seen as offering a rational and objective solution to conflicts among men of the right and left.  The reform prioritized changing the court system itself toward more oral arguments. “Reconciliation,” an important goal in the democratic transition, took a masculinized form between right and left in the political sphere and a feminized one was between men and women in the domestic realm.

Taking a lesson from this battle of expertise in Chile, we introduce the concept of gendered expertise to capture those sets of competences and claims organized around perceived gender differences and mobilized through gendered networks. As a way of giving coherent and differently valued meanings to networks, competences and claims, gender transcended the lawyers’ own physical embodiment and their personal intentions. This case demonstrates the power of gender meanings to shape truth claims about professions, institutions, and political reforms, and lend authority to those actors making them.

Maria Azocar is a sociology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Myra Marx Ferree is the Alice H. Cook Professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their co-authored article, “Gendered Expertise,” is published in the December 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.



5 thoughts on “How Expertise is Gendered

  1. this occurs in every realm …examine rape rates in the military ( by “fellow” soldiers) & the experiences of women who become firefighters or cops …or trades “Once on the job, many women face discrimination, harassment, allegations of reverse discrimination (e.g. employment equity policies), lower salaries compared to their male co-workers and other aspects of the male oriented culture that are hostile to women. While policies are in place to protect against such behaviors, they are not always enforced, resulting in strained working relationships between males and females.
    Statistic Canada (2005). Women in Canada: a gender based statistical report (5th edition). The major issues that kept surfacing in the literature and interviews was discrimination; an issue that has a significant impact on woman’s social and physical environment. Discrimination can be a contributing factor to unfair hiring practices, poor retention rates, harassment, stereotyping, etc. All of these factors can lead to women either not entering or dropping out of the skilled trades early in their careers.
    More alarming than this is that wage gaps exist between genders in the same field. many women today who gained positions through Employment Equity have reported feeling shunned by their male coworkers. Sue, a journeyperson plumber with over 30 years of trade experience, remarked: Employment Equity is a mixed blessing; some of the guys are resentful towards women for supposedly taking jobs away from them, however, if we didn’t have Employment Equity a lot of us women wouldn’t have jobs. Men’s treatment of women in the skilled trades may be due to a perceived notion that women are barging into an area where they ‘don’t belong’ and should not be in competition with men for jobs. These notions can lead to the persecution of women to the point they develop serious health issues. Even though these types of behaviors seem unfathomable, it’s a continual problem in the trades.”

  2. Thanks so much for this research. I thank this article as a chilean woman, and as a psychologist who has worked at family court in chile in several occasions. In my practice as a court psychologist, I have also noticed another interesting phenomenon regarding “expertise” and that is how the female professionals at work (social workers, lawyers, etc.) are actively enacting a kind of expertise about women and motherhood that all too often passes judgement on women (especially poor women) and the way they should or should not perform their motherhood. Maternity and family are regarded as institutions whose values remain pinned as ideals for motherhood in Chilean society. During my PhD program I worked with professor Gwynn Thomas at SUNY Buffalo. Her research suggest that the rather conservative familial values have been part of political campaigns that appeal to left and right voters. A defined discourse about family is present at both sides of the political spectrum. Therefore, It might be that women in these fields of expertise are not only being discriminated in terms of hiring and promotion, but also, and simultaneously, behaving in such a way that they are keeping and transmitting a very specific cultural realm associated with essentialist notions of motherhood and the role of women in society as the bearers of familial values.

  3. These points are well taken an should not be accepted the problem is feminists feel it’s ok to treat trans woman in the same manner they despise for the problem to be solved we must respect each others difference an work together for if it’s OK for trans woman to be raped assaulted denied housing jobs ect then you are saying it’s ok to treat cis females the same way an the bottom like it’s all wrong no matter who u are

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