Women’s Work

I tend to be kind of an observant person, a good character trait for an ethnographer. But I don’t always know how to turn it off, and my wife occasionally says that I’m sounding like Andy Rooney, which is a gentle way of saying that I should be quiet for a while. (Andy Rooney, children, was a curmudgeonly commentator on the CBS “60 Minutes” TV show, whose common opening line was “Didja ever notice…?”)

But you get to suffer my occupational traits. Sorry.

Didja ever notice… that once women enter a profession, the profession suddenly doesn’t get paid as well, and has more bureaucracy and more regulation? It’s no accident, I think, that as we’re getting more and more women physicians, the medical industry isn’t as highly respected; that it’s losing room for judgement and becoming more “systematized?” That it’s gaining a whole new group of professional categories like “physician assistant” and “nurse practitioner?” I think our culture simply defaults to the idea that men are important and women aren’t, and so any job that a woman can do isn’t all that important, either. (You can read a great, brief, discussion of this at the blog Crates and Ribbons—click the italicized words for a link.)

So it’s no accident, either, that as more and more women succeed in higher education, the terms of engagement in higher ed shift beneath us. The American Association of University Women reports that in fall 2011, 52.5 percent of part- time faculty members were women, while women composed 44.2 percent of full- time faculty members. The shift from the tenure-track to temp work occurred at roughly the same time as women began to enter faculty eligibility in larger numbers (and also at roughly the same time as undergraduate populations started to become less male-dominated as well). Coincidence? Is it a coincidence that we now talk about “K-16” or “K-20” education, so that we can pay college faculty as badly as we pay high school and grade school teachers?

Now I know that in a social ecosystem, no single variable carries full explanatory power. But golly, maybe we should think about what we see when we see it.