Joan Acker recently passed away. I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.” It’s true. Her scholarship was titanic. Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since. Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable. As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.” Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense. She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways. She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is.
Acker’s theory never gained the same kind of popularity associated with West and Zimmerman’s interactional theory of gender. But we all rely on Acker. When we refer to formal and informal collections of jobs, people, and organizations as “gendered,” we’re relying on her work. Society is organized in ways that cause some people to experience a more seamless “fit” in some positions than others. Stay-at-home fathers have a unique set of struggles associated with lacking a clear “fit” in similar ways to women who occupy jobs in the upper echelons of organizations dominated by men. Society is organized in ways that cause us to experience this.
Acker labeled this and theorized a language to study it and shine some much-needed light and attention on the ways that gender difference and inequality are part of the very structure of society at a fundamental level. Acker’s most cited and celebrated publication was published in Gender & Society in 1990: “Jobs, Hierarchies, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” In it she begins:
“Most of us spend most of our days in work organizations that are almost always dominated by men. The most powerful organizational positions are almost entirely occupied my men, with the exception of the occasional biological female who acts as a social man. Power at the national and world level is located in all-male enclaves at the pinnacle of large state and economic organizations. These facts are not news, although sociologists paid no attention to them until feminism came along to point out the problematic nature of the obvious. Writers on organizations and organizational theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained.”
Building on many other feminist scholars (including Heidi Hartmann, Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Dorothy Smith, and more), Acker helped to show how gender differences in organizational behavior and outcomes were best explained by structural and organizational characteristics. Gender difference was/is embedded in organizational structure, and Acker designed a language and theory for examining just what it means to consider gender inequality as “institutionalized.”
Within the logic of organizations, jobs are technically open to anyone; and they are stratified by complexity and responsibility. This is how we create workplace hierarchies. And they feel gender neutral. Acker questioned this assumption. Abstract jobs have the appearance of gender neutrality until we try to take a concrete example which necessitates something else—an ideal worker.
“Such a hypothetical worker cannot have other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job… Too many obligations outside the boundaries of the job would make a worker unsuited for the position. The closet the disembodied worker doing the abstract job comes to a real worker is the male worker whose life centers on his full-time, life-long job, while his wife or another woman takes care of his personal needs and his children… The concept of ‘a job’ is thus implicitly a gendered concept, even though organizational logic presents it as gender neutral.”
These are, today, routine assumptions from which scholars of gender from a range of disciplines proceed to study gender and inequality. But they weren’t when Joan Acker was studying. Acker’s theorization of institutionalized forms of inequality is a dominant theoretical perspective in the sociology of gender today. At the conclusion of her article, she theorizes what it would take to dissolve the institutionalized forms of inequality in organizations.
“Such a transformation would be radical in practice because it would probably require the end of organizations as they exist today, along with a redefinition of work and work relations. The rhythm and timing of work would be adapted to the rhythms of life outside of work. Caring work would be just as important and well rewarded as any other; having a baby or taking care of a sick mother would be as valued as making an automobile or designing computer software. Hierarchy would be abolished, and workers would run things themselves. Of course, women and men would share equally in different kinds of work. Perhaps there would be some communal or collective form of organization where work and intimate relations are closely related, children learn in places close to working adults, and workmates, lovers, and friends are all part of the same group.”
Like much of the structural theory of gender—particularly that work being published in the late 80s and early 90s—Acker proceeds from an unapologetically Marxist orientation. And while we continue to study gender inequality from Acker’s vantage point, less has been done toward her vision of social transformation than she might have imagined would be when she published this a quarter century ago. It still sounds so radical listed out above. But is it really so radical a notion? She concluded that article with a simple point. We can organize society differently, in ways that continue to ensure that what needs doing gets done without all of the dominance, control, and subordination currently connected with these tasks. The battles will always be fought over what actually comprises the “what needs doing.” But Acker’s proposal for what needs doing is beautiful in its simplicity: “producing goods, caring for people, disposing of the garbage.” Why any of the three of those should be considered more important than the rest is something we should continue to question.