Allison Daminger. 'What we do' or 'Who we are'? Personal Essentialism and the Persistence of Gender Inequality

hybrid: 402 Social Sciences Bldg & Zoom
In this talk, I examine the micro-level processes that lead so many different-sex couples to reproduce rather than challenge gendered patterns in family life, despite their endorsement of egalitarian ideals. I use the case of cognitive labor, which is akin to project management for the household, to argue that one key process involves the selective erasure of gender from individuals’ self-understanding. I draw on 136 interviews with members of 76 different-sex couples to show how this “personal essentialist” logic allows respondents to acknowledge inequalities in partners’ household contributions but deny that these inequalities reflect their gender ideology. Instead, respondents understand their cognitive labor patterns to be a function of who they are—not as men and women but as individuals. While this perspective helps keep the peace, it also reduces the likelihood that respondents will seek change. These findings help explain how egalitarian intentions can fail to translate into egalitarian behaviors: cultural scripts related to individualism and self-expression enable couples to recast inequality as personal rather than gendered. Paradoxically, further progress toward equality may require us to pay more rather than less attention to gender’s role in household life. 
Allison Daminger is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University and a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her research focuses on how and why gender continues to shape individuals’ experiences at home and at work, even as support for gender-egalitarianism grows.