The Term “Pink Collar” Is Silly And Outdated — Let’s Retire It

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You can’t throw a stone around the internet today (if that’s even possible?) without running into the New York Times’ new study on so-called “pink-collar jobs.” The report found that over the last decade more and more men have flocked to traditionally female-dominated career fields like nursing and teaching. Fascinatingly, the study disproves the commonly held belief that this transition is the result of the recession, proving that men’s migration into the pink isn’t out of some alleged desperation. Men want those jobs.

“Women’s work”: It’s not just for pariahs anymore.

Beyond the facts and figures, however, the Times story brings up a fascinating cultural question: Is it time to retire the term “pink collar?” Answer: Yes.

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“Pink-collar” refers to any field that’s been dominated by women historically. There’s some debate over when the term was coined; some claim it wasn’t in wide use until the 1980s, while others claim it was the result of women’s WWII-era entry into the workforce. Louise Kapp Howe perhaps played the biggest role in defining what the term “pink collar” meant anyway, in her 1977 book “Pink Collar Workers.”And her version of pink wasn’t so pretty. She described pink-collar jobs as the lowest-rung occupations of last resort, in which women were relegated to jobs that offered little opportunity for advancement and very closely resembled their household chores.

A 1984 New York Times obituary for Howe described her landmark book thusly:

”Pink Collar Workers,” which was nominated for a National Book Award, claimed that the majority of American women, despite the women’s movement, remain as segregated occupationally as they were at the turn of the century. It argued that women are still trapped in traditional jobs as waitresses and secretaries, in which pay is consistently inferior to men’s.

Pink-collar = “trapped.” Yikes.

It’s true that a lot of the “collar” classifications are problematic. And using the term “blue-collar” is patently offensive in many instances, saving the absolute most literal application of the term. And I’d say the same is true for “pink-collar.”

Sure, Howe’s book showed women were hemmed into pink-collar jobs in the 1970s. But it also underscored how little respect the jobs themselves got. “Pink collar” is a way of classifying what work a woman “should” have — and it retains an uncomfortable origin, one that belittles those careers and the men who buck tradition and choose to pursue them. And unlike “white collar” and “blue collar,” “pink collar” isn’t about education or training or even income — it’s a way of telling us who “should” and who “shouldn’t” have a job, with an ass-backward logic rooted in nothing other than prejudice. That’s bad for men and women.

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Beyond this, the term doesn’t even make sense anymore. As the Times data show, nearly a third of men’s job growth between 2000 and 2010 was in careers in which women accounted for the vast majority. And it’s not as though they’re pushing women into other fields, pinkifying other jobs. It turns out traditionally female-dominated careers are just growing.

“Pink collar” is silly and outdated — and keeping it around is to the determent of everyone.

Amy Tennery is the managing editor of The Jane Dough, where this post originally appeared. Tennery previously edited business news site Mogulite and was a reporter for the Real Deal, a New York City real estate trade publication. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Slate and other publications.
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