07/16/2010 11:17 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Looking Beyond the BP Oil Spill

Picture the Gulf spill. Now, zoom in closer. Who's in your picture? Is it women -- or mostly men?

Women may push the vacuums at home, but we're scarce as whale's teeth on the huge ship now cleaning up the nation's biggest mess. I guess we should be glad we can't be blamed for killing whole species or ruining beaches for generations. But why aren't more women in the picture?

Is it because oil's still a man's world? Women don't run oil rigs -- or oil companies. In fact, women hold fewer than x jobs on oil rigs. We are strong enough to fight wars and clean floors, so why aren't we in the Gulf in bigger numbers?

The conventional wisdom is that the American family's a gender factory, fueling traditional gender roles. So's the workplace. Back when Uncle Sam (or Aunt Pelosi) sent TARP funds for "shovel ready" (read: men's) jobs, like building roads or schools, women spoke up. What, we asked, about equal funds for more day care jobs -- equal vital for getting people back to work?

To a remarkable extent, men still work with men, and women with women. It's not due to the objective requirements of the job. Women are considered strong enough to do a lot of heavy lifting -- if they are nurses. When it comes to construction, factory work, and oil rigs -- not so much. With all the automated equipment in use, how come we aren't "man enough" to rescue Mother Nature?

Jobs create jujubies, jukeboxes -- and gender. One company decided that macho behavior in a blue-collar environment peopled solely by men was leading to a high rate of industrial accidents: the gendering of the job was, quite simply, a safety hazard. So the company began training workers to leave the macho at home.

Actually, that blue-collar environment was an oil platform. No evidence I am aware of suggests that any such problem led to the tragic accident that produced the Gulf oil spill. But the point remains. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if we left our personal anxieties about whether we are "real men" or "real women" at home? As we focus on cleaning up the Gulf, and digging our way out of the recession, let's turn lemons into lemonade by leaving gender out of the picture. Let's clean the Gulf and build the future by just doing our jobs.

(C) Joan C. Williams