Institutions

Theories of gender, with hardly an exception, focus either on one – to-one relationships between people or on the society as a whole. Apart from discussions of the family, the intermediate level of social organization is skipped. Yet in some ways this is the most important level to understand. We live most of our daily lives in settings like the household, the workplace and the bus queue, rather than stretched out in a relation to society at large or bundled up in a one-to-one. The practice of sexual politics bears mostly on institutions: discriminatory hiring in companies, non­sexist curricula in schools and so on. Much of the research that is changing current views of gender is about institutions like workplaces, markets and media.

When the social sciences have made the connection, it has usually been by picking out a particular institution as the bearer of gender and sexuality. The family and kinship have usually been elected to this honour. Accordingly the structure of the family is the centre-piece of the sociological analysis of sex roles stemming from Parsons and Mead. The flip side of this election was that it allowed other institutions to be analysed as if gender were of no account at all. In text after text on the classic themes of social science – the state, economic policy, urbanism, migration, modernization – sex and gender fail to get a mention or are marginalized.

One of the most important effects of the new feminism on the social sciences has been a comprehensive proof that this approach is untenable. Murray Goot and Elizabeth Reid’s classic demon­

stration of the mixture of gender-blindness and patriarchal preju­dice in mainstream political science is one example of a series of critiques. They range from electoral sociology through the welfare state to class analysis, showing not just that gender relations are present in major institutions but also that they are systematically important to them.

I will not repeat the details of this research, simply taking the general conclusion now firmly established. We cannot understand the place of gender in social process by drawing a line around a set offender institutions’. Gender relations are present in all types of institutions. They may not be the most important structure in a particular case, but they are certainly a major structure of most.

The state of play in gender relations in a given institution is its ‘gender regime’. An example may help to clarify the idea. In the research project in which Delia Prince was interviewed (chapter 1), we found an active though not always articulate politics of gender in every school. Among both students and staff there are practices that construct various kinds of femininity and masculinity: sport, dancing, choice of subject, class-room discipline, adminis­tration and others. Especially clearly among the students, some gender patterns are hegemonic – an aggressively heterosexual masculinity most commonly – and others are subordinated. There is a distinct, though not absolute, sexual division of labour among the staff, and sex differences in tastes and leisure activities among the students. There is an ideology, often more than one, about sexual behaviour and sexual character. There are sometimes conflicts going on over sexism in the curriculum or over promotion among the staff, over prestige and leadership among the kids. The pattern formed by all this varies from school to school, though within limits that reflect the balances of sexual politics in Australian society generally. No school, for instance, permits open homosexual relationships.

Compact formal organizations like schools perhaps have particu­larly clear gender regimes, but others have them too. Diffuse institutions like markets, large and sprawling ones like the state, and informal milieux like street-corner peer-group life, also are structured in terms of gender and can be characterized by their gender regimes. In this chapter I will take up three cases. The discussions are very condensed, and represent no more than a start with each case. I hope they will still be enough to get some bearings on the institutionalization of gender.