13 Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies: A Degree and Perspective for ‘Essential Workers’ in the 21st Century

By Cheryl Radeloff, College of Southern Nevada and Michele Tracy Berger, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Illustration of co-authors Cheryl Radeloff (L) and Michele Tracy Berger (R) leaning forward on a table, as if about to present at a conference
Cheryl Radeloff (L) and Michele Tracy Berger (R) by Nicole Carter

The Never-ending Question

The question, “So what can you do with a degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” has been one that Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) majors have been facing long before we penned the first edition of Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students are Changing Themselves and the World, published in 2011. For the book, we surveyed over 900 WGS graduates (1995-2010) from around the globe about their experiences as a student and their career paths. As we write this essay, this question is pressing for many WGS majors/minors/graduates and working professionals as we have been thrust into uncertain times. Globally, most of us are being encouraged to self-isolate in order to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, and are subsequently encountering economic uncertainty the likes that has not been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We are experiencing personal and societal loss on many levels. During times of great societal upheaval, opportunities emerge that challenge the status quo and what we perceive as “normal.” WGS graduates will need to ask different kinds of questions as they navigate a changing employment landscape.

Rather than ask what type of job or career I might get with a WGS degree, you might reframe the question and ask the following: What jobs fit into my worldview that I’m not even aware exists? What might my degree help me to do? How can I make a difference in the world? How can my degree help me find a career that makes me feel good about myself? How can my WGS knowledge and perspective be utilized by my community to promote social justice and equity?

In this essay we will discuss practices you can do to prepare for entering the job market. We will review employment sectors and discuss where WGS graduates have experienced employment and satisfying careers. We conclude by exploring the changing landscape of what now constitutes “essential work” in the United States and the possibilities and challenges it provides for WGS graduates.

Preparatory Work: Know Yourself and Do Your Research

Exploring career fields and thinking outside the proverbial “box” has always been a reality for WGS students. While some WGS majors and minors take coursework that translates into immediate job placement, WGS students have often had to educate others about the critical thinking skills they honed through their WGS coursework. Therefore, it is important to do some brainstorming about yourself and your abilities before, during, and after visiting your campus’s Career Services office. For example, you might want to do some research about careers on your own WGS website, university’s Career Services webpage, and/or other WGS webpages such as Rutgers University’s “Job Market Resources”.[1]

Challenges to entering the job market is a concern for most college graduates. Kathryn Dill and Patrick Thomas capture concerns for those entering the current job market in their March 29, 2020 Wall Street Journal article “The Class of 2020 was Headed into a Hot Job Market. Then Coronavirus Hit,” While discussing the disenchantment of 2020 graduates, sage advice is given by Stacey Moynahan, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Business Career Services at Chapman University who recommends not holding out for the “ideal job,” rather, “there are going to be opportunities that surface. They may not look like you thought they were going to look. This is not the time to stop your search or stop networking.” This sentiment is echoed by Alexa Shoen (2020) in her article for Business Insider “I’m a Career Coach Who Found Her First Job at the End of the 2008 Recession. Here’s My 5-Step Guide for College Grads Looking for Their First Careers Now.” Some of her recommendations include 1) Start on-line networking now, as 70 to 80% of jobs never get posted online. Use the time to introduce yourself to someone you admire or want to work with and arrange a virtual coffee meeting, and 2) Create your own internship. Given that organizations are having to adapt due to local ‘shelter in place’ ordinances, you might find opportunities to work with organizations that are serving the community in new ways. While many employees are working off site, you might propose a project to support a “spring cleaning” of an organization’s physical space. Interested in politics? Can you help local campaigns adapt to hosting political events through Google Hangouts or Facebook live? Brainstorm how your skills and interests might help solve immediate challenges facing nonprofits and businesses.

Employment and Career Pathways: Historical, Contemporary, and Trending Careers

Your journey in finding employment and a career may be radically different from others, not only in different degree specializations but other WGS students as well. We found in our survey that there are several professional areas that graduates clustered in over the past decade and half: higher education administration, entrepreneurship, law, the health professions, and nonprofit work. From these responses and seven interviews, we identified three career pathways to illustrate the types of employment fields WGS students tended to gravitate toward and the type of change agents they embodied. We labeled the categories sustainers, evolvers, and synthesizers. Sustainers tend to pursue careers in fields that are directly involved in sex/gender/sexuality issues and the knowledge and skills associated with WGS are considered not only complimentary, but innately required. Activism is also an expected part of their positions. Sustainers may be employed with local or national domestic/sexual violence organizations, coordinators of Women’s or LGBTQ Centers, and/or trainers for social justice organizations. They may also be in traditional “feminine” dominated fields such as nursing, teaching, and other “helping professions” such as social work. Evolvers take their WGS knowledge into careers and professions that have not specifically employed WGS graduates, create positions within more traditional fields that help the organization thrive and ‘evolve’, or take risks and propose new career opportunities for themselves and others. For example, evolvers may take their knowledge of gender and sexuality and develop different types of products for reproductive and sexual health, such as underwear specifically designed for folx on their menses, a sexual lubricant that is designed to address pH-balance of different mucous membranes, or challenge traditional business models with “pop ups” or inclusive community work spaces. Synthesizers move back and forth between these two categories.

Employment Worlds

In Transforming Scholarship, we described several “worlds” of employment.[2] Our research has demonstrated to us that WGS students are best served by thinking broadly about their interests and to investigate many career sectors. We highlight two worlds below.

The Health and Medical World

The Health Care and Social Assistance sector comprises establishments providing health care and social assistance for individuals. (U.S. Census. “North American Industry Classification System.” 2017).

Like the corporate world, WGS students may have some concerns about having a position in the medical-industrial complex, an arena that many feminist science scholars and feminist health advocates have critiqued as being discriminatory and exclusionary (on early critiques see Baxandall and Gordon 2011; on using feminist theory to reform medical education see Sharma 2019). Yet historically, healing, health, and medicine have been areas where disenfranchised groups have been able to hold some positions of power and authority (e.g. midwives, herbalists, nurses, etc.). It is also a field that has seen a lot of radical change in terms of the diversity of personnel who occupy positions within the field. For example, pharmacy, dentistry, and veterinary medicine have become female-dominated fields within the past several decades. While this does not necessarily equate into gender parity at all levels of the field, it does translate into increasing diversity in the ranks. The health field is constantly evolving, so if this is an area of interest, it would be good for you to read about current micro and macro-level trends. For example, an exciting and emerging area within this industry is tele-medicine/tele-health. Opportunities are emerging that are expanding access for providers and the patients and clients, such as birth and death doulas (for what a death doula does see Fischer 2018). Also, the labor movement and unions like SEIU have been quite active within this industry in organizing its labor.

Many Women’s and Gender Studies graduates who responded to our survey worked in the health and medical world; some examples include:

  • Health Center Assistant at Planned Parenthood
  • HIV Counselor/Educator/Phlebotomist
  • Editor and Project Coordinator at a breast cancer nonprofit

The Information World: Broadcasting/Journalism/News Media/New Media Online

Activities of this sector [Information] are distributing information and cultural products, providing the means to transmit or distribute these products as data or communications, and processing data. (U.S. Census “North American Industry Classification System.” 2017).

Positions in this world can include managing the public information for a company, working as a radio producer, or working as a proofreader for a book publishing company. The blogosphere is booming and WGS graduates are making an impact on the subjects that are studied and the way they are presented. (See essay by Carmen Rios in this collection.) Podcasts have a visible feminist presence and represent both well-established brands like Feminist Frequency Radio and emerging voices. WGS graduates are also represented in the film and media industry. As long standing visual media companies continue to produce resources for the WGS classroom and beyond, such as “Women Make Movies,” WGS grads will also continue to work in the documentary/feature, and independent film industry, the music industry, comics and graphic novels, the television and film industry, satellite/radio, and the gaming industry.

Another area of the Information World that WGS students can impact are the development of apps. For example, food delivery apps are playing a vital role in supplying food to vulnerable people who cannot easily leave their homes, while supporting businesses who employ fair labor practices and hire a diverse workforce. Liao (2019) discusses a food delivery app “Cavier” for The Verge that was developed to showcase restaurants owned by women.

WGS graduates who responded to our survey worked in the information world. Some of the positions held included:

  • Internet Entrepreneur
  • Marketing Associate/Graphic Designer and Editor for a garden store
  • Research Analyst for an HIV/AIDS policy and economics research group

Essential Services and WGS

In the context of COVID-19, many jobs and occupations in the United States are being separated into “essential” and “non-essential” services.[3] You may want to consider how your WGS training and existing skills and interests fit into these categories. Also, as we are at the precipice of a global cultural shift, it is important to consider how jobs are rated in terms of importance, and which careers will be needed as our societal needs change and adapt. According to the website mass.gov COVID-19: Essential Services, jobs that have been deemed “essential” include broad categories of employment sectors that range from health care to transportation services.[4] The magnitude of different jobs in each category is immense and may give you new ideas about occupations that you might not have ever considered or even knew existed.

All Jobs are Essential Jobs

This shift over the next few years about what is “essential work” raises many feminist questions and concerns. COVID-19 has reminded us what WGS scholars and feminist activists have known all along: jobs that are often undervalued, lower paid, and low status are proving to be the bedrock of families, communities, and the country, and these jobs are typically performed by women and/or minoritized communities. These are today’s “essential jobs.”

This moment calls for immense creativity and adaptability in your search for meaningful work. Given the history of Women’s and Gender Studies and our research, we believe that WGS students are well-suited to meet these current challenges given the self-reflexivity, activist orientation, and leadership skills that are developed during one’s academic career.

Works cited:

Baxandall, Rosalyn and Linda Gordon, eds. 2001. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Berger, Michele Tracy and Cheryl Radeloff. 2015 [2011]. Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and The World, Second Edition.  New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Fischer, Kristen. 2018. “How Death Doulas Can Help People at the End of Their Life,” in Healthline. www.healthline.com/health-news/how-death-doulas-can-help-people-at-the-end-of- their-life#1 [Accessed: 4/27/2020]

Liao, Shannon. 2019. “Food delivery app Caviar spotlights who’s making your food by labeling restaurants as women-owned,” in Verge. www.theverge.com/2019/2/26/18241917/caviar-food- delivery-app- women-owned-restaurants-section-spotlight. [Accessed: 4/20/2020]

Mass.gov. 2020. “COVID-19 Essential Services.” Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-essential-services. [Accessed: 4/20/2020]

Sharma, Mailka. 2019. “Applying Feminist Theory to Medical Education,” in Lancet. 393: 570-578.

Shoen, Alexa. 2020. “I’m a Career Coach Who Found Her First Job at the End of the 2008 Recession. Here’s My 5-Step Guide for College Grads Looking for Their First Careers Now,” in Business Insider. www.businessinsider.com/5-ways-for-recent-graduates-job-search-in- coronavirus-economy-2020-3. [Accessed: 4/20/2020]

U.S. Census North American Classification System. 2017. “North American Classification System.” www.census.gov/eos/www/naics/2017NAICS/2017_NAICS_Manual.pdf. [Accessed: 4/20/2020]

Wening, Seth. 2020. “The Class of 2020 Was Headed Into a Hot Job Market. Then Coronavirus Hit,” in The Wall Street Journal. www.wsj.com/articles/the-class-of-2020- was- headed- into- a- hot-job-market- then-coronavirus-hit-11585486800. [Accessed: 4/20/2020]

  1. For a more extensive list of resources and exercises, please Chapter 5 “So, What Can You Do with Your Degree? Exploring Various Employment and Career Pathways,” in the 2nd edition of Transforming Scholarship.
  2. The career ‘worlds’ include ‘corporate’, ‘health and medical’, ‘social and human services, criminal justice, and legal, science and technology, government and politics, nonprofit, information: broadcasting/journalism/new media, nonprofit, small business/entrepreneurial, and education/academic.
  3. In the United States, each state gets to define essential work differently. We would imagine that a version of this phenomenon is happening in many countries.
  4. The full list is: Health Care/Public Health/Human Services, Law Enforcement/Public Safety/First Responders, Food and Agriculture, Energy, Water and Wastewater, Transportation and Logistics, Public Works and Infrastructure Support Services, Communications and Information Technology, Other Community, Education, or Government Based Operations and Essential Functions, Critical Manufacturing, Financial Services,  Chemical, Defense Industrial Base, Commercial Facilities, Residential/Shelter Facilities and Services, Hygiene Products and Services, and Construction Related Activities.

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