Class has always been of major interest to sociologists, but understandings and classifications of class have been based on men’s life experiences. If we want to understand some of the key differences between the life of women lawyers and of women cleaners class is a useful concept because it can help us to think about how the different occupations they do affects the way they live, not only because one pays much better, but also because being a lawyer is considered more prestigious and involves having more control over your work. Class, for sociologists, can mean different things but, as my example suggests, it usually refers to someone’s position within a social hierarchy (or stratification system) based around the job you do, the money that it earns, the access it provides to
other resources, the amount of control you have over your work, and how much respect is attached to that position within the hierarchy. However, women’s class positions have not been accurately measured by traditional methods (Acker, 1998/1973; Delphy, 1984; Reay, 1998). As Joan Acker (1998/1973: 22) argues, classic class analysis has made several invalid assumptions when categorizing women.
Classic class analysis used the family as the unit for classifying people’s class, which ignored class differences between women and men that might occur within families. For example, a builder may marry a business executive. How then can the class of the resulting family be accurately determined? In most cases the husband’s class was thought to determine the class of the unit (Acker, 1998/1973).This was related to a second problematic assumption made when analysing class.
A second assumption early analyses of class made was that the woman’s status is equal to her man’s (Acker, 1998/1973). In other words, the idea is that the father’s or husband’s social status determines the status of the wives and/or daughters under his care. This assumption is based on a male breadwinner/female housewife model of the family that has always been largely restricted to middle class families able to survive on a single wage. That model does not apply to working class families where women have always engaged in paid work, or to more financially comfortable families where women have wished to work. In some cases where women work, their status may be higher than their husband’s or partner’s (McRae, 1986).This assumption also neglects evidence that the paid work women do is profoundly affected by gender inequalities.
Acker’s third criticism of traditional class analysis (1998/1973) challenges the assumption that gender inequalities are irrelevant to how stratification systems are organized. Most models of class failed to note that the occupational opportunities open to women are delimited and devalued by those gender inequalities. Jobs defined as women’s work continue to be of lower status and the average amount of pay they receive less than the average for men (see Armstrong et al., 2003; Charles and Grusky, 2004).Take the example of nursing (traditionally ‘women’s work’) and policing (traditionally ‘men’s work’).Although there are male nurses and women police officers, the majority of nurses are women and the majority of police are men. Arguably the two jobs are in many respects very similar. They require of those who do them similar levels of education, specialized training and skills in dealing with people in crisis situations. The work involves unsociable hours and similar levels of stress and danger — nurses are exposed to disease and frequently subject to violent attacks from patients or their families and friends (Waters, 2005: 10).Yet even after the Equal Pay Acts passed in the 1970s, the predominantly male police force were paid more than the largely female nursing profession (see for example, American Journal of Nursing, 1984),
prompting calls for equal pay for work of equal value (see for example, Armstrong et al., 2003; Gunderson, 1994).
Occupationally based class categorization originally ignored such differences between what was labelled ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’. It also ignored evidence showing that when women and men did work in the same jobs, gender discrimination often prevented women from reaching the highest levels (see Catalyst, 2006; Hymowitz and Schellhardt, 1986). Assessments of class that failed to appreciate such gender factors were liable to misrepresent women’s social position. So if the assumptions behind the categorization of class were invalid when applied to women, then feminists needed to rethink how to explain women’s class position.