Thursday Thinkpiece: Fudge on Gender and Labour

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Women Workers: Is Equality Enough?
Judy Fudge
feminists@law, Vol 2, No 2 (2013)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

(Footnotes omitted; they are available in the original, via the hyperlink above.)

. . . After the crisis of World War II, in most democratic capitalist countries a stable and enduring gender order composed of a male breadwinner and female housewife was constructed on top of the Keynesian welfare state. It depended upon providing high wages and secure employment to men. Tax, labour, family and social welfare law supported this arrangement, and trade barriers created protected enclaves for developed industrial economies. Equality in employment for men and women was simply not part of the political discourse. Married women were treated as the most marginal of workers, and they were excluded from the labour force. It was not until the mid-1960s that the Canadian and UK governments lifted their bans on employing married women in the civil service.

During the 1960s, the expansion in publicly provided services created employment opportunities for women and as men’s wage increases started to stall, married women took on part-time jobs in order to maintain household consumption standards. Married women provided a reserve army of workers for the expanding welfare state and growing corporate bureaucracies.

The only equality law available to women was equal pay for equal work legislation, which was not enacted in the UK until 1970 (14 years after it was introduced by the Canadian federal government). However, equal pay was perfectly compatible with the development of a different, and subordinate, employment norm for women. Women were much more likely to work in non-unionized jobs in the service sector on a part-time or temporary basis, and they were crowded into a small band of occupations at the bottom of the job hierarchy. Sex segregation became a viable alternative to excluding married women from the labour market.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the second wave of the women’s movement pushed to dismantle the last remnants of discriminatory laws, practices and policies. Women demanded equal rights, and won greater legal and political independence from men. Improved access to the labour market and social welfare programs, especially for lone mothers, provided a material base for women’s independence. So, too, did effective and reliable mechanisms for reproductive control. Divorce laws were liberalized and marriage breakdown increased. But formal legal equality did not address the underlying gender division of labour. Women’s employment was shaped by the gendered division of labour that continued to give them primary responsibility for caring for human beings.

The increase in women’s paid employment resulted in a recalibration of the gender order. Although the primary breadwinner was still male and unpaid domestic work continued to be performed by women, the male breadwinner was supplemented by a subordinated women worker. By the late 1970s, women no longer constituted a reserve army; their employment was necessary, but the employment arrangements that enabled them to balance their domestic responsibilities did not provide them with economic independence.

Second-wave feminism caught fire as the proportion of women in the labour force grew and the state recognized the importance of women’s employment. For a brief moment in the early 1980s in Canada, substantive equality became dominant in Canadian political discourse. Pay and employment equity, a national and universal publicly funded child care system, and labour standards to improve the conditions of part-time workers were recommended by a series of federally appointed task forces and royal commissions. 

However, feminism’s equality momentum was difficult to sustain when the economy went into decline. The deep recession at the beginning of the 1980s hit especially hard in Canada’s manufacturing sector, where employment shrank dramatically. Economic restructuring and neoliberal policies designed to promote flexible employment led to a deterioration in employment standards, dropping unionization rates, declining real wages and the spread of precarious work. The feminization of labour was matched by a feminization of employment norms: employment terms, conditions and arrangements, such as low pay, poor benefits, part-time and temporary work, which historically have been associated with women, proliferated. Increasingly, men began to take these jobs too.

Equality began to be seen as a leveling down discourse in labour law and equality claims by women had less political resonance in a climate in which employment conditions and prospects for men were deteriorating. These changes fuelled the backlash against substantive equality that deepened during the 1990s. By the end of the 1980s, the dilemmas facing women in the new gender order could not be resolved through expanding the definition of sex discrimination.

In some ways, the visibility and relevance of gender differences in the labour market began to disappear, as the employment experiences of men and women converged.

During the 1990s, the pattern of women’s labour market participation more closely resembled men’s and the gap between men and women’s wages had narrowed.

However, this convergence is not necessarily a cause for celebration. In Canada, between 1980 and 2000, men’s median weekly earnings dropped by 7 per cent while women’s grew by 13 per cent. From 2000 to 2005, median earnings remained constant for men but rose by 4 per cent for women. The most dramatic improvement was among women aged 45 to 49 (17.8 per cent) and those at the higher end of the wage distribution (16.0 per cent). The women’s labour market also began to polarize, which was a marked departure from the 1950s and 1960s, when women’s employment was much more homogenous. Age, race, migrant status and household composition are increasingly important for predicting women’s labour market outcomes.

Yet, in other ways the relevance of gender has intensified.

In 2007, the wage gap between men and women in Canada was 21 per cent. Although gendered occupational segregation is declining, it is still very persistent. In 2009, 67 per cent of all employed women worked in teaching, nursing and related health occupations, clerical or other administrative positions, or sales and service occupations, compared with 31 per cent of employed men. The labour force participation rate of women is still below that of men, mostly due to women’s childrearing responsibilities. Women with children under the age of three are less likely than other women to have a job. Married women with children continue to be disproportionately concentrated in part-time employment. In the UK, the percentage of married women employed part-time is one of the highest in the developed world. 

Women’s increased employment rate and working hours have not been matched by a concomitant shift in unpaid domestic work to men, although men have increased their contribution to domestic labour. An increase in long hours of work, especially amongst men, and an increase in the length of the standard work week during the 1980s and 1990s contributed to a rise in work-life conflict. 

The contradictory pressures of gender erosion and intensification are driving the reconfiguration of the gender order. There have been two general responses in developed countries such as Canada and the UK to the challenge of sustaining social reproduction: work-life balance policies and the commodification of a central component of social reproduction – care work.

Work-life balance policies are designed to achieve a new accommodation between the processes of production and requirements of social reproduction in light of the breakdown of the post-war gender order. Their goal is to institutionalize a form of family-friendly flexibility that makes it easier for individuals and households to combine family life and working life. Key components of policies for work/life balance are leave for family responsibilities and flexible working-time arrangements that enable workers to adjust their working time more easily.

However, a problem is that these policies can, depending upon their design, either alleviate or reinforce the gendered division of social reproduction labour. In the UK, the long hours of work culture for men runs counter to their invoking the right to request shorter hours. Thus, women are much more likely to resort to the flexible working time provisions. Although reduced-hour jobs constructed round individual requests are generally of higher quality than jobs constructed as part time, ‘even better would be a fundamental rethinking of the construction of jobs at all levels so they could be offered on a range of different hours packages, abandoning the concepts of part-time and full-time.’

Moreover, despite the hoopla surrounding the recent reforms in the UK which provide greater flexibility for fathers to use parental leave, the low replacement rate for wages during parental leave virtually ensures that the lower-waged worker, typically the woman, in a two-earner family will take it. These policies cultivate an ideal worker/marginalized caregiver gender order.

In order to promote gender equality proponents of family-friendly policies need to consider the politics of choice. Women’s responsibility for childcare is typically seen as an individual choice and women are responsible for its costs. However, policies that enhance individual choice need to attend to the broader structures of employment and social reproduction. Policy discourse in Canada and the UK has only just begun to register ideas about men’s greater involvement in domestic life. The problem is that so long as men can choose not to care women will have no choice but to do so. The choices of individual women are shaped by the opportunities open to them and the cultural norms that prevail. Thus, it is important to increase the incentives for men to take on a greater share of unpaid labour and to challenge cultural norms that associate women with certain kinds of domestic labour if women are to be given a real choice about how they spend their time. What we need are forms of affirmative action polices when it comes to men and domestic work. . . .

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