Women in blue: why does segregation persist in low-status occupations?

By Margarita Torre

Over the past several decades, women have been increasingly successful at integrating into male-dominated professional occupations. However, women’s presence in blue-collar male-dominated jobs continues to be stubbornly low. Why has occupational desegregation been confined to high-level, more lucrative professions? Where are all the female blue-collar workers?

While much attention has been paid to women’s experience in high-status occupations (lawyers, managers), few studies have concentrated on women crossing the gender boundaries of blue-collar trades such as carpentry or mechanics. In 2010, however, an interesting debate on this topic emerged in Gender and Society. In her article “The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled,” Paula England argues that whenever possible, women avoid working in traditionally male blue-collar jobs. She writes that because breaking gender boundaries carries a high social cost, women are willing to enter male-dominated jobs—even if they pay well—only when doing so is the one available path to upward mobility. At the higher levels of the occupational hierarchy, there are fewer, if any, female-dominated professional career paths to pursue. Therefore, women have no choice but to cross gender barriers. This discrepancy explains the desegregation gap between professional and blue-collar fields.

Scholars have already begun contesting England’s theory and proposing alternative explanations for occupational segregation. Barbara Bergman, for example, argues that segregation stems from an employer’s personnel practices rather than from a woman’s personal career choices. Bergman attributes the persistent segregation in blue-collar occupations to a lack of formal education and training opportunities for women entering male-dominated blue-collar trades. This lack of progress contrasts sharply with the expansion of opportunities over the last several decades for women in fields such as law and medicine. Thus, while well-educated women have used their credentials to enter into traditionally male professional occupations, they haven’t been as successful entering blue-collar occupations, where on-the-job training—rather than educational attainment—counts most. Rather than following merit-based rules or objective qualifications, hiring practices in blue-collar male-dominated trades are often entirely at the discretion of an employer or manager. Such practices further exacerbate segregation. Bergman has a solution to combat these discriminatory hiring practices: instituting a formal training system for blue-collar occupations that removes some degree of arbitrariness from the selection process.

In my recent research I look deeper into how individual and structural factors have been impeding women’s entry into low-status male-dominated occupations. Using data from the European Social Survey data (2008-2016), I examine how women’s employment in blue-collar occupations varies in 28 countries that offer different levels of vocational training (VET) to its citizens. I also consider the relevance of parental background (paternal and maternal education level and working status) on the type and sex composition of the occupation in which women and men end up working. There are two main takeaways from my findings.

Fist, VET systems have not been successful integrating male-dominated occupations. Countries with a higher proportion of students enrolled in vocational programs relative to general academic programs do show a greater presence of women in blue-collar trades. However, contrary to Bergman’s expectation, VET does not affect the probability of a woman being employed in traditionally male blue-collar jobs. These findings are most clearly displayed in Figure 1. The graph on the left shows the probability of both men (blue) and women (pink) of being employed in any blue-collar occupation, and the graph on the right shows results for male-dominated blue-collar occupations only. The figure reveals a flat participation rate for women, with variations of less than 1 percent between countries with the lowest and the highest rates of VET enrollment (after controlling for relevant socio-demographic and career-related factors).

Figure 1. Probability of being employed in blue-collar occupations by level of VET enrollment


Second, results indicate a high degree of what is known as intergenerational class reproduction within the blue-collar sector. In other words, people whose parents were unemployed, not well educated, or held a blue-collar job are significantly more likely to work in the blue-collar sector than in higher-status occupations. However, women largely remain in gendered careers regardless of their family background, the only exception being if they have a mother in a high-status occupation. As observed in the bottom plot in Figure 2, daughters of high-status women have moved into male occupations with greater frequency. England offers an explanation as to why: traditionally female professions (i.e., teaching, nursing, social work) have been unable to absorb the increasing number of new female college graduates. These women were in effect pushed into male-dominated professions—not to achieve upward mobility but rather to avoid downward class mobility.

Figure 2: Probability of being employed in blue-collar occupations by parental background


Overall, the results are in line with recent evidence from various countries showing that VET programs actually segregate women and men even more than the general education system does. Higher education in general, and access to law school, medical school, and other credentialing opportunities, were essential to the considerable progress that women have made in these professional fields. Women seeking access to typically male blue-collar occupations, however, neither benefited from a similar degree of political pressure nor received as much cultural support. Indeed, the findings point to the existence of a societal gendering expectations that contribute to segregation in the blue-collar sector more so than in professional occupations. In part, this could be because traditional gender norms—both at home and the school—tend to be more persistent among the working classes. This upbringing drives men and women to choose gendered career paths.

So what does this all mean for the future of blue-collar segregation? While training programs are important, we should think of them within a broader context of political and cultural changes that promote women’s access to male-dominated blue-collar jobs.

Margarita Torre is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the University Carlos II of Madrid. Her current research examines the career dynamics of occupational minorities, workplace inequalities, and the role of gender on social network websites



Does Sociology Silence Black Women?

By Adia Harvey Wingfield

If there’s one thing sociologists enjoy doing, its debating our relevance in academia and in society writ large. This focus isn’t completely surprising; after all, we study social institutions and think in terms of group outcomes. And like most academics, we want our work to matter. But as sociologists continue to wrestle with how we can make the significance of our work evident in an increasingly complex world, it’s worth thinking about which groups we include and who gets left out of our discussions.

Aldon Morris’s landmark study of the historical contributions W.E.B. DuBois made to sociology has changed the field. No longer can we uncritically assume that the University of Chicago housed the first American school of sociology. Rather, Morris’s painstaking research goes to show that “the first school of scientific sociology in the United States was founded by a black professor located in a historically black university in the south.” This is undoubtedly an important and critical contribution to understanding how our discipline emerged, its foundational roots, and perhaps more significantly, the sort of structural processes that served to marginalize black sociologists from the field’s origins. But it should also raise questions about whether those processes still persist, and which other sociologists might be missing from our dialogues and conversations.

While Morris’s work has been essential for changing our conversations about sociology’s roots, we have yet to produce the same type of rigorous, systematic study of black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Zora Neale Hurston, and Anna Julia Cooper. Like DuBois, these women wrote during a time period where black scholarship, writing, and research was incredibly difficult to produce. Yet they developed sociological analyses that emphasized intersections of race, gender, and class; examined structural constraints within black communities that marginalized black women, rural blacks, and poor blacks; and assessed how violent tools of social control like lynching perpetuated gendered racism.  These black women were also early originators of sociological arguments and knowledge. Yet systemic racism and patriarchal norms limited the extent to which their analyses were widely disseminated and/or taken seriously.

Where are black women sociologists today? The ASA reports that between 2007-2010, only 6% of doctorates awarded in sociology went to African Americans. In 2016, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, only 31 black women received theirs in sociology. A look at the representation of black women in tenure track and tenured academic positions reveals an ongoing trend of underrepresentation. Only 2% of full professors, 2% of associates, and 4% of assistant professors are black women. And these numbers represent academia overall. In sociology specifically, of the top 100 sociology departments, as of 2012 women (of all races) were 60% of assistant professors, 54% of associates, and 34% of fulls. I was unable to find data that took an intersectional approach to examine race and gender (which is itself a problem), but my sense is that black women are likely underrepresented among the top ranks of academic jobs in various universities, where they would have the most influence, reach, and impact.

Where we do see black women gaining traction in academia is, unfortunately, among contingent and adjunct faculty. As universities have increasingly conformed to a more neoliberal model of shifting academic work to low-paying workers who lack the benefits and security of tenure-track jobs, black women are becoming increasingly present among the ranks of the least secure academic positions.

What does this mean for the development of sociological thought? For one thing, it means that we are likely still missing out on important insights and knowledge. The reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty perpetuates economic insecurity and certainly does not establish conditions conducive to research and writing. When black women are primarily making inroads into the least secure positions in the university hierarchy, they are not in a safe or comfortable position to conduct research, much less inform sociological paradigms. They are not necessarily even in a position to do the most effective teaching, as at least some contingent faculty have argued that this work arrangement leaves them uncertain if their positions will be renewed, overburdened with too-heavy teaching loads, and without the (relative) security and academic freedom that tenure provides.

What about black women who do land tenure or at least tenure-track positions? The kinds of challenges that are omnipresent for black women workers in predominantly white environments are present for them too—marginalization, micro (or macro) aggressions, difficulties finding mentors and sponsors who can facilitate their career advancement. As academics, black women professors also must confront colleagues’ tendencies to denigrate or dismiss their research (this is particularly present in the inclination to label work that focuses on race and/or gender as “me”search). There are also the heavy service burdens that come with being underrepresented, ranging from mentoring students of color to helping universities resolve their issues with diversity and inclusion. And there is the particular irony of working in a profession where many colleagues study systemic patterns of inequality, but still rely on racial stereotypes and assumptions to justify their reluctance about hiring black faculty. What all of this means is that the barriers that sidelined sociological thinkers like Wells-Barnett, Hurston, and Cooper during their lives still persist today. While the barriers black women face in academia today are less overt than in the past, these hurdles still prevent sociology from being a discipline that encourages black women to vocalize their insights and to operate as fully active participants in shaping this field.

As President of Sociologists for Women in Society, I wrote my Presidential Address about the ways that black women are changing work, politics, and media in ways that other groups would do well to learn from and emulate. Sociology, as a discipline, is growing more diverse and is in a period of reexamining its historical roots and origins. We would do well to consider how and where black women sociologists fall in this process.

Adia Harvey Wingfield is Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines how and why racial and gender inequality persists in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield has lectured internationally on her research in this area, and her work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including Social Problems, Gender & Society, and American Behavioral Scientist. She recently completed a term as President of Sociologists for Women in Society, a national organization that encourages feminist research and social change, and is a regular contributor to Slate, The Atlantic, and Harvard Business Review. Professor Wingfield is the author of several books, most recently Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, and is the recipient of the 2018 Public Understanding of Sociology award from the American Sociological Association.

From Manly Silence to Projects of Peace

By Michael A. Messner

Daniel Craig returned home from combat in the 1991 Gulf War “disillusioned, disenchanted and pissed off” that he had “killed people for these damned lies.”  Two decades earlier, Gregory Ross had come home from the American War in Vietnam feeling “numb…completely unmoored.”  And Wilson “Woody” Powell said he’d felt “out of sorts, that I didn’t fit anywhere,” following his 1953 deployment in the Korean War.

These three veterans fought in different wars, but there are stark similarities in their stories, and with others I interviewed for my book Guys Like Me.  After returning from war, each kept his experiences to himself.  And each turned to alcohol, and sometimes other substances, to deal with their emotional trauma.  But, after many years of work, each sobered up, found his voice, and committed himself to personal healing, service to others, reconciliation with former enemies, and public activism with the multigenerational organization Veterans for Peace.



Like Craig, Ross and Powell, veterans of wars are often plagued by what I call “manly silence.” The foundation for this emotional fortification rests on narrow definitions of masculinity, internalized at an early age and enforced and celebrated in masculinist institutions like the military. Such rigid masculinity is not confined to the military. Research shows that men routinely respond to stressful life experiences by avoiding emotional disclosure for fear of appearing vulnerable. Silence is a logical outcome of internalized rules of masculinity: a “real man” is admired and rewarded for staying strong and stoic during times of adversity.


Korean War veteran Wilson “Woody” Powell


Who benefits from this manly silence? Certainly, institutions like the military rely on men’s private endurance of pain, fear, and trauma. But individual men (and women) rarely benefit from such taciturnity. Rather, attempting to embody this narrow ideal comes with severe costs for men’s physical health, emotional well-being, and relationships. Researchers and medical practitioners have compiled lists of the costs men pay for adhering to narrow definitions of masculinity: undiagnosed depression; alcoholism, heart disease, and risk-taking that translate into shorter lifespans; fear of emotional self-disclosure and suppressed access to empathy, resulting in barriers to intimacy. Veterans of wars—especially those who were multiply-deployed—amplify these costs of masculinity, adding elevated rates of suicide, sexual assault, domestic violence, and homicide.


Vietnam War veteran Gregory Ross


During the American War in Vietnam, the cluster of trauma-induced physical and psychological symptoms commonly suffered by war veterans was given a formal diagnosis:  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  What causes war veterans’ PTSD? A common view is that the sustained levels of fear create lasting psychological fears. Others point to physical wounds as causing PTSD.  In my interviews, as I listened to narratives of shame and anger, I sensed something more.  I got some hints from Dave Grossman’s, On Killing, in which he argues that the most powerful cause of PTSD is the shame and denial that follow the “burden of killing” other people in war.

This focus on the internalized shame one carries from having killed others led professionals who work with veterans to focus their interventions on what they began to call “moral injury.” Clinical psychologist Brett Litz and his colleagues argue that while PTSD results from internalized fear reaction to threat, moral injury results from negative emotions about oneself, one’s own character, grounded in shame, remorse, and self-condemnation over what one has done to others. It is characterized by having severely and irredeemably transgressed one’s own moral compass.


Gulf War veteran Daniel Craig

Several of the men I interviewed for Guys Like Me expressed this kind of shame and remorse—both for individual acts they committed and for the shared collective responsibility for killing enemy soldiers and civilians in what they came to believe were unjust wars.  Some, like Woody Powell, strove to “become more honorable” through reconciliation with former enemies.  Others, like Gregory Ross, sought to pay back his “karmic debt” by providing service to other vets and to people addicted to drugs. Similarly, Daniel Craig cares for homeless people in his community.  All three also engage in collective projects, working for peace and social justice.

The emotional foundations of the work these men take on to heal themselves and their communities began with efforts to overcome crippling states of manly silence.  None of them experienced what I would call a feminist transformation, though Gregory Ross did join a pro-feminist men’s antiviolence group in the late 1970s. But their stories reveal how in joining the military and deploying to war, each had been sold a narrowly destructive “manhood package” that was intended to make nonreflexive warriors of them.  Each of the men profiled in my book eventually rejected this manhood package, and this meant accepting, talking about, and sharing their emotional vulnerability with others. It meant, in many cases, learning to respect women as colleagues and allies in collective efforts for justice. And it meant rejecting pop culture military heroes and finding flesh-and-blood heroes—women and men in their own lives, who have inspired their commitments to working for a more peaceful and just world.


Michael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.  His latest book is Guys Like Me:  Five Wars, Five Veterans for Peace (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

When pregnancy is a job: Surrogacy in policy and practice

By April Hovav

Is pregnancy work? What if you’re a surrogate and carrying a pregnancy for someone else? Is it degrading or exploitative to pay women to carry and birth a child for someone else? These are some of the questions that policymakers around the world are grappling with as they decide how to legislate surrogacy.

Surrogacy is either illegal or unrecognized in most of the world[i] with only a few countries actually allowing surrogates to be paid.[ii] While some laws allow for limited forms of compensation (e.g. for lost wages, time, and maternity clothes), they ban direct payment for surrogacy. The overall message is that surrogacy is not a job.

India, once an international hotspot for paid surrogacy, recently joined the list of countries that only allows “altruistic” surrogacy whereby women cannot be paid for being a surrogate.[iii] At the same time, legislators in Canada are considering moving in the opposite direction. They are debating whether or not to amend the Assisted Human Reproduction Act to allow intended parents to pay surrogate mothers, which is prohibited under the current law.[iv]

But is the line between altruistic and commercial (paid) surrogacy really that clear-cut? Restrictions against paying surrogates are often premised on the idea that paying a woman to carry and birth a child is degrading, exploitative, or otherwise immoral. These allegations are especially strong when the women hired to be surrogate mothers live in countries that are more impoverished than the countries from which the intended parents come to hire them.

As a social scientist, I wanted to know how people involved in transnational commercial surrogacy arrangements deal with accusations that surrogacy is exploitative and how this narrative shapes the way they handle the financial aspects of surrogacy. I interviewed and observed more than 100 different participants in the Mexican surrogacy industry, including local surrogate mothers, the mostly foreign intended parents who hire them, and the staff at the surrogacy agencies that match surrogates with intended parents.

I found that people involved in the surrogacy industry were also reluctant to call surrogacy a job. For example, Katrina, a woman working at the Mexican branch of an international surrogacy agency, told me that surrogates should view surrogacy as “a voluntary contribution to help a couple create a family, not as a job.” Similarly, Hugo, the manager of the Mexico branch of another surrogacy agency, explained, “In the end what we want to do is to create families, we’re not encouraging people to make themselves rich by renting their wombs.”


These statements are examples of what I call an altruism/commercialism dichotomy, a framing of altruism as contradictory to and in tension with profit, market logics, and commodification.  In my article, I show how this dichotomous thinking makes the surrogacy process seem morally acceptable while simultaneously leading surrogate mothers to earn less. I found that intended parents preferred to hire surrogates that they perceived as financially stable in order to avoid being accused of exploiting a poor woman. In turn, surrogacy agency staff either rejected or re-oriented potential surrogate mothers who indicated that they were interested in becoming surrogates for monetary reasons. For example, Carla told me that she was first interested in being a surrogate for the money but after talking to a surrogacy agency, she learned to see it as an altruistic act. I also found that surrogate mothers were discouraged from negotiating their wages because doing so was seen as a sign that a woman had chosen to be a surrogate for the “wrong reasons.”

Why does this matter? On a practical level, the assertion that surrogacy is not a job may lead surrogate mothers to be paid less than they would be paid if they were able to negotiate their wages. In a broader sense, this is an issue of gender inequality.

Fertility doctors, surrogacy agencies, and family law attorneys are also in the business of creating families but no one is saying that they shouldn’t get paid. No one would argue that being a doctor isn’t a job; even if the doctor’s entire practice is based on helping infertile couples have children. But carrying a fetus to term and giving birth (which we call labor!) isn’t seen as a job.

Researchers have argued that traditionally female occupations, like caretaker, teacher, and nurse, are relatively low-paid because they are seen an extension of women’s “natural role” as mothers and caregivers.[v] [vi] While there are many reasons to be concerned about the welfare of surrogate mothers and to regulate the surrogacy industry, we should be weary of couching critiques of surrogacy in terms of an altruism/ commercialism dichotomy. The narrative that surrogacy isn’t or shouldn’t be a job reinforces the idea women’s reproductive labor isn’t “real work.”

[i] http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/HRC/37/60


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://www.businessinsider.in/india-moves-to-ban-commercial-surrogacy/articleshow/67171236.cms

[iv] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44243920; https://globalnews.ca/news/4599925/surrogate-regulations-canada-compensation/

[v] Heyes, Anthony. 2005. The economics of vocation or “why is a badly paid nurse

a good nurse?” Journal of Health Economics 24 (3): 561-69.

Nelson, Julia. 1999. Of markets and martyrs: Is it OK to pay well for care? Feminist Economics 5 (3): 43-59.

Nelson, Julie, and Paula England. 2002. Feminist philosophies of love and work. Hypatia 17 (2): 1-18.

England, Paula. 2005. “Emerging theories of care work.” Annual Review of Sociolology 31: 381-399.

Folbre Nancy. 2001. The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. New York: New Press.


April Hovav is a doctoral candidate in sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. Her research examines the social impact of reproductive and genetic technologies.

On the Limits of “Trans Enough”: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives  A Response to Risman et al.

By Spencer Garrison

*SAGE has agreed to open Garrison’s original article on the website so that anyone who wants to be able to read the original piece can do so now through April 13th.

Last summer, I published a piece about the narrative work that trans-identified teens and young adults take on in their efforts to account for (and to legitimate) their claims to trans identity.  In this article, I examine the identity narratives produced by two cohorts of trans-identified respondents — respondents that identified within the context of the existing gender binary, and respondents that did not — and assess the narrative strategies that these respondents employed in order to establish themselves as “authentically” trans.

Since the article’s release, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive commentary on it from peers around the country — some celebratory, and some critical.  Most recently, this commentary has come in the form of a critique that Barbara Risman and her colleagues have posted over at Psychology Today.  I appreciate that Dr. Risman and her colleagues have found the work’s contribution significant enough to merit this direct engagement, and am grateful for their feedback.  However, I believe that the core principle anchoring this critique — namely, the claim that this research defines and asserts ALL non-binary persons as transgender — rests upon a fundamental mischaracterization of the article’s argument and purpose.

This paper is, first and foremost, a paper about trans people — it is not a paper about gender non-conformity writ large.  As stated in the text:

This work [examines] how trans-identified respondents approach the process of composing (and revising) accounts of their gender experience.  I find that in order to claim public identities as trans, non-binary respondents are often motivated to present accounts that closely reflect prevailing understandings of trans experience…even when these accounts fail to capture the nuance of their experiences. (Garrison 2018, p. 615; emphasis in original)

Non-binary people that did not also identify themselves as trans were excluded from this study — and quite intentionally so, for this is a project about the social construction of trans identity, and it does not seek to make claims about the behavior or the accounts of non-binary people that do not identify as trans.  In no way does this methodological decision serve to refute or deny the existence of non-binary people that do not identify as trans; it simply acknowledges that the experiences of such respondents fall beyond the scope of this inquiry.  I made a similarly intentional decision to recruit only participants who had disclosed their identities to at least one other person, as those who have had to “convince” others of the change in their gender status are held accountable to prevailing cultural narratives about gender — both those about masculinity/femininity, and those about trans experience — in ways that those who have not disclosed their identities are not.  While expanding my recruitment criteria would surely have yielded a more diverse participant population, it would also have generated a sample whose experiences did not reflect or engage with my primary research question.  (Moreover, it wouldn’t have made effective use of the limited research funding available to me as a then-first-year grad student!)

Sample size:  Concerns regarding sample size are perennial in qualitative sociology, as many who conduct research on marginalized populations are uncomfortably aware.  One of the most enduring concerns spotlights the (legitimate) hazards inherent in constructing grandiose, generalizing claims about samples that are unable to support this kind of generalization.

This is a worthy concern, and one that has been attended to at length by other scholars (see Small 2009 for an excellent overview).  However, to suggest that this study purports to generalize about the experiences of all non-binary people once again conveys a fundamental mischaracterization of the study’s aims and conclusions.  Although I do identify some notable differences between the two cohorts of respondents under study (and suggest that these differences mark out generative avenues for future research), at no point do I contend that the differences identified are universal, or that they can be generalized to larger populations.

Moreover, to suggest that the absence of this generalizability undermines the potential utility of the research findings is also in error.  While small samples can’t always make big claims, they can and do generate important insights and highlight avenues for future research.  Many of the most influential pieces of scholarship on trans and gender non-conforming people to come out of G&S in recent years have featured similarly modest sample sizes:  for example, Elizabeth Rahilly’s excellent piece on parental framing of children’s gender variance (2015), which speaks to the cases of 16 gender-variant children, or Cati Connell’s germinal piece on the workplace experiences of trans people (2010), which features 19 cases.  Casting a broader lens to encompass cases that make inter-group comparisons between multiple populations of respondents, Baker Rogers’ exceptional recent piece on drag-kinging in the American Southeast incorporates the experiences of 10 non-binary respondents (some of whom identify as trans, and some of whom do not), fourteen respondents identifying as transmasculine, and eight men that have pursued social or medical transition, but for whom “trans” is not a relevant or personally fulfilling identity label.  While the claims made in each of these papers are unavoidably limited in scope by the size of their samples, it would be just as egregious to trivialize the significance of their findings as it would be to overstate them:  each of these studies makes an important contribution to our understanding of trans and/or non-binary lives, and each helps to illuminate the agenda for future research.

You can read the full text of my response to Risman et al on SocArXiv.

Spencer Garrison is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and LGBTQ Studies at the University of Michigan.  He studies the (re)production and management of gender and sexual identity narratives within (and across) digital worlds.  Learn more about Spencer’s work at http://spenceragarrison.com/.


Connell, Catherine. 2010. Doing, undoing, or redoing gender? Learning from the workplace experiences of transpeople. Gender & Society 24(1): 31-55.

Rahilly, Elizabeth P.  2015. The gender binary meets the gender-variant child: parents’ negotiations with childhood gender variance. Gender & Society 29(3): 338-361.

Rogers, Baker A. 2018. Drag as a resource: trans* and nonbinary individuals in the southeastern United States. Gender & Society 32(6): 889-910.

Small, Mario L. 2009.  ‘How many cases do I need?’: on science and the logic of case selection in field-based research. Ethnography 10(1): 5-38.

Shattering the Glass Runway in Fashion

By Allyson Stokes

On Tuesday, February 20th, Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85, after a career spanning six decades in the fashion industry. Lagerfeld was one of the most prolific, influential, and celebrated fashion designers of all time. Most famous for his work as creative director of Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld also ran his own eponymous line, and has been credited with several industry innovations, including ushering in an era of high-end designer collaborations with fast-fashion retailers, such as H&M. Although close friends often referred to him as kind and funny, Lagerfeld was a controversial figure to say the least. He was known for public statements that many found offensive, even misogynistic. For instance, critics derided his statement that Adele was “a little too fat” and that Pippa Middleton shouldn’t show her face but “only her back.” Most recently, he came under fire for his comments regarding sexual harassment. In an interview with Numero magazine, Lagerfeld stated a lack of support for Me Too and argued that “If you don’t want your pants pulled down, don’t become a model.”


As a white man sitting atop an industry populated primarily by women workers, Lagerfeld in many ways was the quintessential example of the glass runway phenomenon, which I wrote about in my 2015 Gender & Society article entitled “The Glass Runway: How Gender and Sexuality Shape the Spotlight in Fashion Design.”  In this article, I examined the following puzzle: In an occupation where women far outnumber men, why is it that men fashion designers tend to receive more symbolic rewards in the form of prestigious industry awards, media attention, and critical acclaim? Using descriptive statistics and a content analysis of 253 fashion media texts, I found that: (1) men receive more awards and are more likely to be canonized than women; and that (2) because the evaluation of culture is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, gender essentialism seeps into discourses of art and culture used to represent men and women designers in fashion media, helping construct a masculine image of the ideal fashion designer. These processes push men designers outward into the spotlight as though walking a glass runway.


It is, therefore, no small news, that Lagerfeld’s named successor at Chanel is to be a woman – Virginie Viard. Thought certainly not underprivileged or a vulnerable worker herself (she worked closely with Lagerfeld at Chanel for years), Viard’s appointment is an important one for an industry that has only recently begun to deal with its gender inequality problem.

Since The Glass Runway, I have been thrilled to see that my findings have garnered attention within the fashion industry itself. I have been interviewed about gender inequality in fashion for blogs, newsletters, and magazines with both national and international readership, sometime in the millions. In some ways, I was surprised by this uptake, having worried that the industry would instead take a defensive stance to academic critique. On the other hand, since 2015, the topic of gender inequality has “gone mainstream,” largely due to a renewed women’s movement spurred by the current political climate and Me Too.

Artist: Matt Maitland

Perhaps the best example of fashion’s emerging concern with inequality is that, last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnered with Glamour Magazine on their own study about gender inequality in fashion, which they also called “The Glass Runway.”  Working with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the CFDA and Glamour conducted a survey of 535 fashion industry professionals about gender and fashion (no details on their sampling, recruitment, or other methodological strategies were reported). They found that while 100% of women surveyed claim gender inequality is a problem in fashion, only half of the men said the same. This is despite the fact that only half of womenswear brands are headed by women designers, and only 14% of major brands have a female executive. And while women are 17% more likely to aspire to top executive positions at the start of their career, by mid-career, men are 20% more likely than women to have these aspirations, suggesting a disillusionment over time on the part of women who face substantial barriers to career advancement. In fact, they found that 25% fewer women get promoted without asking than men, and 72% fewer get promoted without asking at the management level. Their survey respondents cite a lack of clarity in what it takes to be promoted, a lack of mentorship and support for women, and work-family barriers, as key reasons for this inequality.

Based on these results, the CFDA and Glamour recommended a series of “action items” for moving forward. These action items are all worthy and vital components of addressing gender inequality in fashion. However, there are certain concerns that remain unaddressed, which are critical in moving forward.

First, they recommend cultivating greater awareness how of gender diversity offers business advantages. This recommendation is supported by a great deal of empirical research showing that diverse teams and organizations are more productive, creative, innovative, and perform better financially. Yet, there is no concrete strategy outlined for how this recommendation can be rolled out. The industry must now ask itself how to build this understanding and increase buy-in for gender equity strategies. For example, will moving forward entail affirmative action practices? If so, what is the best to gain the support of those who perceive of these initiatives as quota systems not based on merit? There would need to be significant cultural / attitudinal change within and outside the industry to make this happen effectively.

Second, they recommend improved transparency and clarity in evaluations, promotions, and compensation. This recommendation closely aligns with my own findings – that ambitious evaluation criteria make it easier for gender and other biases to creep into evaluation processes. However, as I argue in my article, the key is not merely to better communicate evaluation criteria, but also to unpack how these criteria are themselves built upon gender stereotypes and assumptions. In addition, the rise of precarious and short-term employment may render this recommendation difficult to implement. In fashion, as across the labor market, jobs are becoming more short-term and project-based. Within-organization transparency is vital to achieving better equality, but we must also consider how to achieve this transparency and clarity when people are going from job to job, project to project, team to team.

The third action item is to provide skill-based training and mentorship programs for empowering women. As a key mechanism in the glass escalator, and a key component of the glass runway reported by women in fashion, mentorship and the support of leaders is key. Some important ways to implement this would be to host mentorship matching events at conferences, fashion weeks, and other industry events, and to include both women and men in these initiatives. Research shows that women’s only networks and mentorship programs have benefits but can sometimes further segregate women from powerful networks and are sometimes disregarded as opportunities for women to “bitch” and “complain.” To avoid this, leaders in the industry must: promote the work and accomplishments of women; build diverse and inclusive networks; and facilitate relationships based on support rather than competition.

Fourth, the CFDA and Glamour suggest offering unconscious bias training for those occupying leadership positions. They argue that one likely reason why all women surveyed, but only half the men, felt gender inequality was a problem in fashion, was due to the numerical over-representation of women in the field, making it seem like fashion is dominated by women. Unconscious bias training can go a long way toward improving day to day interactions and practices within organizations, and to improving hiring and review practices. It may also help with the buy-in issue noted above.

Finally, they recommend establishing work-flexibility policies and programs that will help workers balance work and family responsibilities. Again, this is a vitally important component of equitable working conditions. To implement these effectively, at least three things must be considered: 1) work-flexibility policies without cultural organizational change will not be effective; 2) policies must not become “women’s policies” either in name or practice, and must be inclusive; and 3) attention must be focused on how to achieve work-life integration for those workers without long-term stable jobs, since, as noted above, standard work forms are becoming less normative.

I am heartened by the emerging commitment to equality within the fashion industry. Moving forward, there are five main ingredients that I would recommend as vital in developing a recipe for effective and sustainable change.

1.) There should be more collaboration between scholars and industry members when it comes to developing knowledge and strategies for action.

2.) We must pay more attention to deconstructing the gender binary in relation to these issues so as not to leave trans and gender fluid fashion workers out of research, policy, and discourse.

3.) Attention must paid to the important relationship between policy and culture in order to ensure support for any recommended changes.

4.) Consideration of diverse work forms, including short-term and precarious jobs, is necessary in order to fully understand and address the processes through which inequality manifests in fashion.

5.) Finally, and perhaps most important, the report made no mention of how women’s experiences are not homogenous, or how an intersectional approach may be of benefit. My article engaged the intersection of gender and sexuality, but unfortunately did not considered race, class, disability, or age. I am now in the process of planning a new collaborative study about Indigenous fashion designers, which will examine the intersections of gender and race in shaping the glass runway. This research will be conducted with two other scholars and an Indigenous fashion designer. My hope is that this research will receive as much uptake from the fashion industry as my earlier research, and will promote a more intersectional approach to within-industry efforts toward change.

Allyson Stokes is an assistant professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research interests include gender, inequality, work, and culture, with a particular focus on intersecting inequalities in creative industries and cultural production. Her work has appeared in publications such as Gender & Society, Social Currents, Canadian Review of Sociology, and the Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu. 

Roma: Domestic Work Researchers Respond to Highly Acclaimed Film, Part II

Winner of a Golden Globe and recipient of several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, follows a year in the life of a domestic worker and the Mexico City family that employs her. Although the film has spawned many conversations among critics and audiences, and even domestic worker advocates, the voices of expert researchers of domestic work in Latin America have often been absent.  Spoilers abound!

Here is the second part of the blog that will offer critiques of film by members of RITHAL (a network of researchers who study domestic work in Latin America). If you are interested in learning more about RITHAL, please contact Erynn Masi de Casanova. Casanova also provided the translations from Spanish to English for some of these essays.

Silence and Oppression in Roma

By: Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra

Cuarón’s contribution is aesthetically beautiful, and I think that is part of the work’s strength. This film approaches the topic of domestic work and labor exploitation of poor women’s bodies in a naïve way, but it does put this topic on the agenda in Mexico and the rest of the world. Domestic workers throughout Latin America are not treated in accordance with norms of human rights and labor law,[1] and for this reason the mere existence of this film is positive.

Roma—albeit timidly—reflects the hypocrisy of employers (particularly women employers) who think that they treat their domestic workers as “part of the family.” One scene that illustrates this is when Cleo gets taken to the beach after losing her baby, and without being able to fight her pain—or her obligation to work—she has to devote herself to caring for her employer’s children. The act of caring for them, while taking a break from her cleaning tasks, is not something her employer sees as work. This caring requires Cleo to risk her own life, as she goes into the sea without knowing how to swim. The message (to borrow Judith Butler’s language): there are bodies that don’t matter.[2]

Unlike Cutuli, I do think that in Roma the voice of the subaltern can be heard—through silences, through gestures, through solitude. The scarce use of oral language reminds us of the value of silence among the indigenous communities of Latin America, who have a distinct but powerful oral tradition. That not-voice, that prolonged, seemingly futile silence on the part of Cleo, ends up revealing the precise position of indigenous women and domestic workers in Latin American societies. These workers are often neither seen nor heard by the families they work for, by the state, or in the making of laws and justice. As I show in my research, it has been a long road from “servant” to “worker,” and changing labor laws is just the first step.[3] This devaluation of domestic work and its minimal social recognition are lightly touched on in the film.

The film also evidences the mistreatment and long work days that are combined with bursts of intimacy and kindness on the part of the family. But it shows how workers are confined to the worst space in the house, aren’t allowed to turn on the lights at night, and have to eat separately. Pay is never mentioned—the woman employer is bankrupt because the husband does not provide money, and yet somehow they keep the household “help”—which hints at a slave-like work arrangement. Oppression is presented as so natural that the workers’ own concerns about their lives and futures are difficult to imagine, as when Cleo finds out that her mother lost her land and does not respond. Cuarón delicately downplays these signs of oppression while exposing the sins of the privileged classes. He implicitly shows the operation of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy and the clash of values that these systems cause in our societies by allowing these labor arrangements to continue.

Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra, Investigator, Center of Justice and Human Rights, Universidad Nacional de Lanús (Argentina). Verónica’s research focuses on domestic work legislation in Argentina.

[1] Valenzuela, María Elena and Claudia Mora (eds.). 2009. Trabajo doméstico: un largo camino hacia el trabajo decente. Santiago: Organización Internacional del Trabajo (International Labor Organization).

[2] Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’. New York: Routledge.

[3] Jaramillo, Verónica. 2014. “En los papeles: De servidoras domésticas a trabajadoras. El caso argentino.” Estudios de Derecho 71(158): 197-217.


Roma’s Cleo as Third World Woman


By: Tallulah Lines

Cutuli perfectly expresses one of the principal reasons that I found Roma such a perplexing film when she observes that “Even in the act of recognition, the worker’s words are absent.” Roma is billed as a film inspired by the life of a domestic worker, but despite Cleo being the film’s protagonist, we really learn nothing about her personhood, her sense of self, or her individual identity. While we watch other key characters develop and change, including Sofía and even Fermín (the father of Cleo’s baby), Cleo occupies the consistent and unique identity of domestic worker throughout her interactions with all of the other characters.

This one-dimensional portrayal of a domestic worker is not unusual, but it is certainly problematic, and it is worth unpacking why we can so readily accept the claim that this film is about Cleo’s life when we really learn nothing about her. The historic invisibilization of domestic workers, devaluation of housework in general and paid domestic work in particular (largely because of prejudices regarding gender, race, and class) and domestic workers’ association with the ‘private’ sphere have all contributed to a fixed portrayal of domestic workers which denies them recognition as self-reflexive and complex individuals. To follow an argument first conceptualized by Mohanty in 1989, and still relevant today, domestic workers are the epitome of the “third world woman,” the intentionally racialized descriptor Mohanty argues encapsulates a Western conception of women typically from the Global South. Discussing academia, but relevant to popular culture too, Mohanty (2003) observed “that much of present-day scholarship tends to reproduce particular ‘globalized’ representations,” of women such as domestic workers, and that this is problematic because “although these representations of women correspond to real people, they also often stand in for the contradictions and complexities of women’s lives” (Mohanty, 2003: 247).

It is important to concern ourselves with questions about Cleo’s sense of self and her own perception of her identity because of the decolonizing value in doing so. Obscuring the contradictions and complexities of her personhood contributes to the dehumanization that makes it easier to deny fundamental rights to domestic workers and perpetuates the same race, class, and gender discrimination that has persisted in paid domestic work throughout centuries. For domestic workers themselves, “self-reflexive collective practice in the transformation of the self, reconceptualizations of identity, and political mobilization [are] necessary elements of the practice of decolonization” (Mohanty, 2003: 14). The reactions to Roma, both critical and popular, are testament to the fact that now is the right social and political juncture to deepen the discussion around paid domestic work. Reconceptualizing the identity of domestic workers must be a core part of this conversation.

 Tallulah Lines ,Research Assistant, Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York (UK). Tallulah’s research focuses on identity among domestic workers in Mexico.

[1] MOHANTY, C.T. (1991). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In C.T. MOHANTY, A. RUSSO and L. TORRES (Eds.). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 51 – 81. Mohanty’s essay was first published in 1989 and has been republished several times since then.

[2] MOHANTY, C.T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders; Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.