It seems that actually only fools, horses and men work. Perhaps it’s time to recruit elsewhere. Frances Coppola looks at the “Situations Vacant”.

A woman’s work, we are told, is never done. Yet in the “olden days”, we are told, most women didn’t work. Or rather, their work was in the home – cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for children, caring for sick and elderly relatives, organising and managing the household. These are the jobs that women traditionally did. This was “women’s work.”

Producing stuff has, for a long time, been largely the preserve of men, not least because powerful, male-dominated trades unions encouraged discrimination against women to improve men’s bargaining power and hence their wages. In the 19th century, for example, mining unions actively prevented women from becoming coalface miners, a skilled job which was relatively high-paid. Many women worked down mines, but they didn’t chip out coal, they hauled coal carts. And they were paid about half what the men received. But even that was too much.

Eventually, with the full approval of the mining unions, women were completely excluded from the mines. After women were banned from the mines, the wages of male miners rose significantly. This was partly because of labour shortages, but it was also because unions lobbied for a “family wage” for their members on the grounds that they now had to keep their wives. Thus was born the myth of the non-working wife.

Women themselves reinforce the belief that caring for young children is women’s work.”

As working conditions for men improved and male wages rose, being able to keep a wife became a badge of success for a man. By the 1930s, only about 10% of married women worked outside the home. My grandmother, a gifted engineer and mechanic, was pressured by her family to give up work when she got married on the grounds that continuing to work would demean her husband. She complied, but remained bitter about it for the rest of her life. Her children, remembering their mother’s pain, insisted that their daughters should work and have careers. The post-war women’s rights movement was in part driven by its activists’ anger at the systematic exclusion of their mothers and grandmothers from paid work.

During World War II married women returned to work in droves, doing jobs previously done by men who had gone to fight. By the end of the war, married women’s labour force participation had risen to about 40%. It fell back slightly as the men returned, but social attitudes to women working were already changing rapidly. Better education and  healthcare for women and children also improved women’s ability to work outside the home. Now, most women work, whether married or not.

Legislation to enforce equal pay and outlaw sex discrimination against women was passed in the 1970s. But proving that work predominantly done by women is equal to work predominantly done by men has proved a minefield. To this day, supermarket cashiers (mainly women) earn less than warehouse operatives (mainly men). Actual equality in practice is still far off. 

Today, women’s work is concentrated in service industries and the caring professions. Childcare, for example, is almost exclusively a female job. So too is primary school teaching – but not secondary. Men, it seems, are more comfortable teaching older children – perhaps understandably, since men who choose to care for very young children are vulnerable to unfounded allegations of paedophilia. Women themselves reinforce the belief that caring for young children is women’s work.

Elderly care is also largely women’s work. Most carers are women. Men working in the care sector tend to be managers, not workers. After all, everyone knows women are better at caring.

The widespread belief that women are better at caring results in discrimination against women who don’t fit this stereotype. A man may be excused for not getting on with people, but for a woman, it is a cardinal offence. So women who have strong technical skills but weaker people skills tend to be forced out of employment into the shadowland of insecure self-employment and contract work. Their disappearance reinforces employers’ belief that women’s worth rests in their soft skills.

Employed women are also subtly discriminated against, pushed into “people” jobs such as human resources even if they have strong business skills. “Where are all the female chief executives?” asked the Wall Street Journal. “The traditional stepping stones to the chief executive position are jobs responsible for the bottom line – such as head of division – and those roles are overwhelmingly filled by men.” Though there are now female chief executives at several major banks and corporations, and a growing list of women with profit responsibility, they are a minority. Running a big business for profit is still seen as a man’s job.

There is still a perception that no man of ability would voluntarily study a female-dominated subject.”

The managerial man is a feature of female-dominated workforces, where it can have particularly pernicious effects. Men who don’t want to become managers, or don’t have the ability, can suffer serious bullying. One man of my acquaintance working in a female-dominated environment was forced to take medical retirement due to stress caused by deliberate and systematic belittling and humiliation, including by his immediate superior (a woman).  I thought he had a case for unfair dismissal, but he was so embarrassed that he just wanted to forget about it. Women themselves force men out of women’s work.

The polarisation of men’s and women’s work extends into education. Computer science and engineering studies at universities are dominated by men, while nursing and social care are dominated by women. There’s also a polarisation in ability: women who study male-dominated subjects tend to be better than their male peers, but men who study female-dominated subjects are often weaker than many of their female peers. There is still a perception that no man of ability would voluntarily study a female-dominated subject or work in a female-dominated profession. 

Men’s aversion to “pink collar jobs”, and women’s protectionism about those jobs, is not limited to the caring professions. Hospitality, too, suffers from negative perceptions. “Real men” don’t wait on tables, cook food or clean up. That’s what women do. “Real men” work on production lines or down the mines, getting their hands dirty and earning enough to keep their families. But those jobs are disappearing, swallowed up by globalisation, automation and climate change. Men and women are struggling to work out what the role of “real men” is in a world where the greatest need is for people willing to do for money the things that women have traditionally done for free.

We need people to do women’s work now more than ever. And yet we systematically discriminate against those who do it, whether men or women. The jobs that women have traditionally done unpaid are now paid, but they command much lower wages than the jobs traditionally done by men. While we continue to undervalue and underpay women’s work, men will remain unwilling to do it, and women will be unwilling to let them do it.

If we are to have prosperity in the future, the concept of women’s work needs to disappear. People must be encouraged do the work to which they are suited and which society needs them to do, regardless of their gender. And they must be paid properly for doing it. For better or worse, the days of women’s work being done for love rather than money are over.

Frances Coppola

Frances is a writer and commentator on banking, finance and economics. Her blog Coppola Comment is widely read and her writing has featured on the Financial Times, City AM, The …

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One Comment on “Someone’s got to do it”

  1. As a (male) believer that women will save the world (and beauty will save the world: Dostoevsky) I can’t wait for the time when women will be in a strong enough position to actually get on with it, rather than having to spend all their energy carping at the unfairness of it all.
    To be specific; you are more aware of the need for maintaining things (ie caring) as opposed to grand projects for new things which we men are so enamoured of. And because you are more used to unpaid work, you are not so obsessed with monetary value and measurement.
    So come on Finland, Come on Iceland, come on New Zealand – show us the way!!

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