Women’s Work and the Economy: Imagining Equality

This is going to be similar in intent to my recent couple of posts on the legal system and the media – a speculative attempt to consider possible ways that a system adapted to patriarchy could be changed to make it fit with sexual equality. This time I want to consider the economy.

One of the key ways that women have been held back is that while overt and obvious barriers to them entering high-status professions have largely been removed, they continue to bear the great majority of the burden of unpaid work – having children, raising children, cleaning homes, and emotionally supporting others. This not only means they find it harder to compete, it means that they can then be excluded from high-status jobs on the grounds that they will soon leave to look after their children.

This reflects not just sexism but several core features of our economic system.

-Firstly, it reflects the way that we push the division of labour: one person, one job. The advantage of this is, in many cases, more efficient production. The disadvantage is…well, in the words of Adam Smith, it tends to make people as stupid as is humanly possible. Don’t bother with art – the artists will do that. Don’t bother with science or philosophy – the scientists and philosophers will handle it. Don’t worry about running society – we have politicians and business leaders who’ll take care of it. Defense and order will be the special task of the police, working with plants and animals the special task of people whose job it is, and you…. you can make the bed, then tomorrow make the bed again, then once more make the bed. And if you get bored of that, you can…. pull the lever, and push the button, then pull the lever again, then tomorrow push the button, then pull the lever….

This form of division of labour isn’t just bad in general for humans, but specifically contributes to the subjection of women. This is because, short of high-technology interventions, woman cannot avoid doing a substantial share of child work, namely pregnancy, labour, and breastfeeding. This does not in principle exclude them from spending the rest of their time on all sorts of other roles, but the more forcible is the division of labour, the one person one job principle, the more likely they are to be identified with ‘raising children’ as their essential task, and thereby excluded from others tasks.

-Secondly, our economic system is based around competition and a sort of thinly-veiled hostility. Maybe some will argue that this ensures high quality and efficiency. What it certainly ensures is that ‘nice gals finish last’. You get paid because the beneficiary of your work is forced to pay you, because otherwise you will withdraw your labour. Works fine for people who can go on strike (well, maybe ‘fine’ is an exaggeration…) but what about people who simply can’t “strike” because a “strike” would mean “not looking after the person I love most in the world”? Child care work is based on love and this sets it up to not be financially rewarded in an economy based on hostility. The same applies to other sorts of ‘women’s work’ – how do you go on strike against your husband and stop cleaning ‘his’ house? And even things that are paid, are often paid less than otherwise because this basically altruistic orientation works as a handicap. For example, I’ve spoken to cleaners at university institutions who have said, essentially ‘yeah, the pay’s a bit crap, but I do like being around all the young people, they remind me of my own children’.

Defenders of capitalism often argue that without selfish material incentives, work wouldn’t be done and there would be no economy to speak of. Which sounds plausible until your realise that about half of our existing economy works largely on the basis of non-material incentives (not entirely, of course), and that the stress on material incentives actively disadvantages the people working in this sector, who usually have uteruses.

-Thirdly, our economic system does not reward effort, it rewards power. By and large, it is not the case that those who earn more money work longer hours for it, nor that they work in more unpleasant conditions or are treated worse. In fact, by and large, some people work shorter hours, in more pleasant conditions, are treated better by everyone around them, and get paid more!

This is because they have power, they have status, they have skills, they have reputation. But it’s not just their actual skills and status, it’s their perceived skills and status – do people who evaluate them get caught up in the mystique? Do they give off the right signals?

And in a society with any sort of gender bias in perceptions of status and power, this will work to reinforce that bias by giving the privileged gender more high-status jobs, and giving them higher pay in those jobs.

Moreover, the idea of status involved is essentially a self-assertive one. If one section of the population bears a greater burden of caring for others, because of biology or culture or both, that section is likely to find it more difficult to project an air of self-assertion, due to their ‘practice’ at putting the needs of others first.

So, to sum it up, an economy based on hostility, extreme division of labour, and perceived status is one that can be expected to disadvantage women. What is the alternative?

In very vague terms, the alternative to an economy of hostility is an economy of solidarity that recognises and expands the other-caring work that women currently do the bulk of. The alternative to a society of perceived status is a society of remuneration according to something as simple as length of time worked or unpleasantness of work, and the alternative to one-person-one-job is… well let me quote Marx:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he(sic) wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Of course, Marx’s examples largely rely on the idea of animals as property, but I’m sure someone as smart as him could find at least some forms of activity that didn’t involve abusing other species.

To get a little more concrete people might want to consider some or all of the ideas of ‘participatory economics‘. Of particular interest would be the idea of ‘balanced job complexes‘ – instead of a single job, comprising many similar tasks, people might have a job specifically created so as to have a mixture of tasks – some empowering, some boring, some submissive, some interesting, some self-assertive, some emotional, some theoretical, etc. etc.

So, long story short, an economy suited to sexual equality should be co-operative rather than competitive, should allow individuals to perform a variety of tasks, and should rely more on (something like) time worked than on perceived status.

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