It is said that if you keep a pet goldfish in a small tank, it will stay small; the goldfish allows the confines of its environment to impede further growth and development. Often, these creatures even have health problems as a consequence of living in restricted space. The tensions that exist in American workplaces in regards to gender have much the same effect: they limit progress for all parties involved. As a nation, we have created for ourselves a concept of what each gender represents, resulting in inequality in both treatment and wages. Undoubtedly, progress has been made in this area, but the fact that there is even an issue to discuss indicates that there are still problems to be examined.
Perhaps mention of wage gaps, gender inequality, or mistreatment in the workplace brings to mind rallies in the 1900s and marches on Washington, but these issues are still very much relevant, even now in 2013. Research has revealed that wage differences are true, even among college graduates. Women are pursuing a post-secondary education in hopes of increasing their well-being later in life, but it does not seem to be benefitting to the same degree as their male counterparts. Statistically, women more often pursue careers that have a lower salary than men, but among those who work in high-paying fields a wage discrepancy still exists. While wages are a big issue for some women, there is also mistreatment in the workplace. K. Lucas and S. J. Steimel of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted research that revealed an unhealthy attitude toward women, specifically in the manual-labor based career of mining. When women were allowed into mining (still only a small percentage of miners are women) a few general attitudes toward them developed: women cannot do the work required in a mine, women will be sexually targeted, and “ladies” do not belong in mines. This is true in other “blue-collar” professions as well; a stigma of hyper-masculinity follows the male workers and they strive to preserve this, often at the expense of women. Quite often these differences are seen as “normal,” just a side-effect of the American way of life; but are they?
George Herbert Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism, as explained by E. Griffin in A First Look at Communication Theory, reveals the way in which we have come to accept such things as “normal.” This theory brings to light the idea that social norms, such as gender identities are completely constructed by the way we interact with one another. Symbolism is not inherent in any object or concept, but rather is created by people as they encounter and interact with them. When the issues of gender inequality in the workplace are viewed through the lens of symbolic interactionism, it is fascinating just how much of what we consider standard is merely a construction of our society. There are no actual reasons for women to receive less pay or to be treated differently at work. Ideas such as: women cannot do manual-labor jobs or men cannot be stay-at-home dads are preconceived notions we have of gender roles, and these issues are often taken as minor problems in the grand scheme of things, but they have had (and will continue to have) detrimental effects on our society. Strong expectations such as these can lead people who choose to break gender roles in career choice to question themselves and suffer ridicule from society.
Meaning is communicated to us all the time; so much has its basis in symbolic interactionism. These things mean what they mean because we allow them to. Workplace inequality and the symbols of gender roles go hand in hand. These constructions come from the people, and are perpetuated because we believe in them; thus, we have the power to change them, to create new notions, to begin new gender identities for future generations. It is up to us to break out of our too-small fish bowl and challenge societal norms.