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Gendered spaces

Jemma Rimmer discusses the gendering of spaces, such as the home.
Last week explored gender roles, and how they influence the division of labour at work and at home. These roles can result in certain places being seen as masculine or feminine. For example, professions that are dominated by women lead to certain organisations, or parts thereof, being seen as feminised spaces – such as nursing. While the surgeon’s theatre might be perceived as a masculine domain, the recovery wards where ongoing care is provided are more likely to be seen as feminised spaces. The gendering of spaces can be achieved by the characteristics of a culture – that is, whether it is feminine or masculine.
Historically, a woman’s place has been considered to be ‘in the home’ – to look after the house and care for children, and many policies – as we’ll explore in more depth later – were designed to enforce that division of labour . Traditionally, particularly pre-industrialisation, women may also have combined the care for the home with paid home-working, or assistance in a family business, work which often went unreported, underestimating the work undertaken by women. More recently women, and particularly mothers- so called ‘mumpreneurs’ - have chosen to start their own businesses to work from home. This enables them to have the flexibility of managing the home and childcare alongside earning an income, although their opportunities often remain spatially and temporally restricted.
The emphasis placed on domestic work being seen as woman’s work result in women taking on most of the unpaid work undertaken in a household. Unpaid work is work that receives no financial compensation and includes childcare, cooking, cleaning and other household chores undertaken by a member of the household. Some households may reduce the quantity of unpaid work by electing to pay someone else to clean or look after their children, but the majority take on all or a significant proportion of this work. The interesting thing is that not only is the work unpaid, it is also not given an economic value.
Such a calculation would be difficult but could capture the contribution it makes to the household and the opportunity cost to the unpaid worker. The lack of a financial value attached to the work means it can become undervalued more broadly – in terms of what it contributes or saves financially, and the supportive role it plays for others. We can see how the lack of value attached to work in the home has become reflected in the world of work, where similar types of so-called women’s work (such as caring and cleaning) tend to attract quite low rates of pay since this type of work isn’t highly and is arguably under-valued.
The tendency for women to take on the majority of the domestic and care work has become known as the second shift or double burden . This refers to the tendency for working women to take on all or the majority of the domestic work even in households where both men and women are in full-time work – the double burden of work and home, or the ‘second shift’. This may be influenced by cultural assumptions that regard this as a feminised space, leading to women being more likely to take on these roles as they are socialised into identifying with this space, and perceiving it to be their responsibility, and men similarly thinking that this is not their domain.
In this regard women become defined by the domestic space that they occupy in a way that men do not. And even when men are seen in domestic spaces – such as male celebrity chefs in cookery shows – they tend not to become associated with the domesticity of the setting. Looking at this image, who do you imagine to be working on this site? . In contrast to the home, there are some places that we think of as masculine places – such as an oil rig. By repute oil rigs tend to be organisational units with macho cultures, as demonstrated in a study by David Collinson.
Even the physical infrastructure – which would be described by Heather Höpfl {“Hop-fl”} as a ‘phallic construction’ implies masculinity. The core work – such as engineering – is associated with industries dominated by men. The working hours – where there are long stretches off shore before a break – are not conducive to family life and this would disproportionately impact women as long as they continue to take on the majority of child care. Even though women are not precluded from working on these sites, they might not feel they would fit in even if they were otherwise qualified to do so. A study in 2013 estimated 4% of rig workers were women.
However, you don’t have to be offshore and less able to care for a family to consider sites as masculine. Certain sectors of the economy are dominated by men and are also seen as sites of masculinity. Working in construction for example, is a field dominated by men. Its associations with hard physical labour, masculine verbal exchanges and its reputation for the ‘wolf whistle’ – a whistle used to indicate sexual attraction or appreciation for beauty – make it unsurprising that this is also a space that is largely occupied by men. And while the ‘male builder’ stereotype exists, it makes it more intimidating for some women to want to join in.
It’s reasonable to assume that men entering female dominated occupations and being in feminine gendered spaces might face similar challenges. This dominance of women in nursing is even evident in the symbols used to denote a nurse – many indicating a female nurse. Male nurses have been known to face stigma or are assumed to be homosexual because in the eyes of some this makes them more feminine. This could easily create barriers to men entering the profession and may go some way to explaining the disproportionately low numbers of male nurses compared to women. However, when men are in female dominated professions they are also said to benefit from an advantage.
In this case being the ‘token’ sex leads to positive visibility resulting in accelerated promotion. In nursing for example, men are a minority of the occupation but disproportionately represented at more senior and managerial levels. In other words, a male nurse is more likely to be promoted than a female one. This is known as the glass escalator. The glass escalator symbolises the invisible – hence glass – advantage that men have as a minority in female-dominated occupations by often finding their progression accelerated when compared to women. This tends not to be the experience of women in male dominated professions. Some ‘spaces’ are gender-restricted, or have been until very recently.
For example, formal front-line combat roles have remained restricted for women, despite equal opportunity laws and evidence that they have acted in these roles throughout history. Restrictions on ground close combat roles were lifted as recently as 2016 in the UK. Elsewhere restrictions remain on what roles women can play, based on assumptions of their body and capabilities or cultural practices and restrictions. To shift the narrative we need to ‘normalise’ women entering into ‘male spaces’ and men into ‘female spaces’ . The more frequently these divisions are challenged, the more likely it is that the gendering of spaces will be reduced, although it is also important that there is no hierarchy in the value of these spaces.
Take the example of sport, women playing rugby – a game predominately and traditionally only played by men – challenges the gendering of the rugby pitch. However, as long as the women’s game remains less well-funded, with limited exposure and popular interest, the space will remain predominately male-dominated. In contrast, the interest in both women’s and men’s tennis suggests that the tennis court is a comparatively gender-equal space.

Jemma Rimmer discusses gendered spaces.

The materials were written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter with contributions from Jemma Rimmer

The following references were used in this video:

Collinson, D. `Surviving the Rigs: Safety and Surveillance on North Sea Oil Installations’. Organization Studies. 1999;20(4): 579-600.

Hochschild A. and Machung A. The Second Shift. New York: Avon Books: 1990. Höpfl, H. Was will der Mann? In: Kumra, S, Simpson, R and Burke, RJ. (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press:2014

Oil and gas UK (2015) UK Continental shelf offshore workforce demographics report

Williams C. The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the “Female” Professions. Social Problems. 1992;39(3): 253–267

Further sources on men in nursing can be found here:

Article published on Online Nursing site, Men in nursing

The Guardian article, Why are there so few male nurses?

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Understanding Gender Inequality

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