Who Works? Stick Figures, Gender and Illustrating the Workforce

On one of my Pinterest boards, I collect images that reveal that men are the "neutral" sex in contemporary Western cultures. This means that (1)  the image that pops up in our minds when we say "person" or "human" or "worker" is usually implicitly male, (2) non-sexed representations of people are usually assumed to be male (e.g., cartoon animals appear female to us unless we slap on eyelashes and lipstick), (3) items for sale often get marketed as either "item" or "women's item" (e.g., "deodorant" and "women's deodorant") and (4) men and male bodies get to stand in for humanity (e.g., in scientific research).

Instances of this phenomenon have been a fun series on my blog, Sociological Images. We featured another one just this past weekend, on how (not) to write obituaries. Then today, I came across another great example that I couldn't resist sharing. The graphic below, released by Bloomberg Business Week, is meant to help us understand who is in and out of the labor force. While 3% of Americans want to work but can't find a job, large proportions are also permanently or temporarily out of work on purpose: they're retired, in college, in the military, disabled or a stay-at-home parent.

For our purposes in this post, what's interesting is the way they illustrate the categories. See what you see:

In all cases but one, the stick figured is either non-sexed and therefore implicitly male (e.g., the newspaper reader and the disabled) or explicitly male (the business-suited full-time employees, the mustachioed retirees). The one exception, of course, is for the stay-at-home parent. Suddenly, the stick figure is a female. We see this all over. As soon as parenting or housework is involved, all those neutral/male stick figures sprout skirts.

Now, to be fair, 97% of stay-at-home parents are female, but so is 50% of the American workforce. You wouldn't guess so, however, by this graphic. Also, for what it's worth, it doesn't have to be like this.

Originally posted at Sociological Images.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer for Sociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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