Thinking Nordwit research with Joan Acker

Gender, Work and Organization dedicates its last issue of 2019 to Professor and feminist sociologist Joan Acker (1924-2016) celebrating her work, life and legacy. Joan has had an enormous impact on feminist sociology and organization studies through introducing  well-known conceptualizations such as gendered organizations and gendering organizational theory, gendered processes of organizations, the abstract bodiless worker and inequality regimes. Joan’s theoretical views are based on a careful and rich empirical work and analysis. She binds the empirical observations and theoretical thinking together so that they form thought-provoking insights.

I, and many others in Finland, had the privilege to meet Joan and receive her fruitful and constructive comments several times. She was an extremely friendly and culturally curious person. She did not hesitate to go to the Finnish smoke sauna, or to swim in a lake, for example. Particularly tremendous value was her contribution to the research project on gendered practices in working life during the first half of the 1990s in Finland. The first time she visited Tampere was in relation to her book Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity (1989), and later she participated in a couple of workshops where she commented our manuscripts for the book Gendered Practices in Working Life (eds. Liisa Rantalaiho and Tuula Heiskanen, 1997).

Joan’s impact on my thought has been immeasurable. I have hardly published anything without referring to her writings. For me, there are two impressive lessons learned from Joan’s work. Firstly, her ways of thinking the relationships between social structures and people’s or women’s everyday life. In her foreword to our book, Joan writes that ”…intersections of the structural processes can be found in concrete, everyday experiences of the women, in the gendered, racialised, class-influenced practices that constitute the material of their daily lives” (ibid., x). For me, this stresses how looking for gendered hierarchies or inequalities calls for looking for local activities, which are often shaped extra-locally. In the context of our interviews in Finland this lesson has guided me to look, for example, for the ways in which many highly educated women experience having received gender equal treatment in their work organizations. However, at the same time, and in spite of their personal feelings of fair treatment, they recognize that the society is not free from gender inequalities. Following Joan, this contradiction urges an analysis which links the individual experiences and the social structures together.

Secondly, in spite of new theoretical views and empirical studies , Joan’s conceptualization of gendered processes (1990; 1992) are still relevant. She distinguishes four or five processes in which gendered organizations are shaped. This means, as she writes, that ”….advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine. Gender (and race, class, sexuality, age, ability) is an integral part of those processes, which cannot be properly understood without an analysis of gender” (1990, p. 146). Our interviews with women in research and innovation describe in multitude ways how women and men in organizations are divided into different groups, both horizontally and hierarchically, by assuming and using various bodily, sexual and other images in the interaction and in individual thinking. I believe that in today’s neoliberal economy the multilayered images and symbols as well as the assumed individual ways of thinking are becoming more and more significant processes, in which the distinctions between female and male are continuously produced, reproduced and maintained. These processes include often gendered inequalities, however, simultaneously they may include also seeds for trans-formative gender politics. Kathrin Zippel as well as Yvonne Benschop and Marieke van den Brink in the same issue show, among other things, how to apply Joan’s work in research on international collaboration among STEM faculty in US, academic organizations and networking, or teaching in the academy. Further, the issue consists of several articles, which include ”thinking present with Joan Acker” – as Lisa Adkins formulates her subtitle.

All in all, the special issue of Gender, Work & Organization 12/2019 provides a wonderful collection for all who are interested in Joan Acker and her strong theoretical work on gendered intersections in  organizations and in society at large. Thinking with Joan Acker is an invaluable and pleasurable journey.

References

Acker, Joan (1989) Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class, and Pay Equity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Acker, Joan (1990) ‘Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A theory of gendered organization’. Gender & Society 4(4), 139-158.

Acker, Joan (1992) ‘Gendering Organizational Theory’. In: Mills, Albert J. & Tancred, Peta (eds) Gendering Organizational Analysis. Newbury Park: Sage, 248-260.

Rantalaiho, Liisa and Tuula Heiskanen (eds.) (1997) Gendered Practices in Working Life. Palgrave Macmillan

Päivi Korvajärvi

 

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