We look at economic prosperity in terms of GDP and other means of measuring material production and consumption but this economic production is reliant on a form of work that is invisible to the standards metrics of economic production: reproductive labor.
In “Our Mother’s Grief” by Bonnie Dill, she defines reproductive labor as labor done in the house associated with care-giving and domestic roles including cleaning, cooking, child care and other forms of domestic unpaid labor. On the other hand, there is productive labor that consists of work that one would do in return for a wage.
After WWII, it was found that women performed on average a month’s worth (~730 hours) of unpaid labor each year in addition to their professional careers. At the same time, real wages were falling (meaning inflation was increasing faster than wages), making it harder for single-earner households to make ends meet. Around this time, women increasingly worked outside the home to compensate for the budget shortfall.
Today, over 75% of women are in the workforce. Needless to say, women’s roles have changed significantly since the days of the housewife acting as the nucleus to her family. However, men’s roles largely stayed the same. Women are expected to work a “second shift” at home after her day at work while the men can expect their after-work hours to be dedicated to leisure.
You know the scenario: both the mother and father come home from work, one having taken a detour to pick up their children from school and then the father kicks off his shoes, his loosens his tie and relaxes in front of the TV with a beer while the mom makes sure the kid(s) don’t bother their father and reminds them to do their homework and then starts on dinner.
During holidays, the same trend is seen across the extended family where the men and the boys sit and enjoy football while the women and girls gather in the kitchen and make sure the food is ready and everyone is fed. And we don’t need to ask why this is happening because we know: gender roles.
The term “second shift” is used to describe the unpaid labor that women perform in the form of household chores, child-rearing, etc., while also maintaining professional careers. In recent years, this disparity seems to be shrinking within younger couples. However, differences in expectations of what constitutes chores and childcare have kept this rift. For example,
“A father might feel that by taking his son to the baseball diamond three nights a week he is sharing in childcare. His wife, who spends much more time with their son than her husband, would probably not look at this so much as sharing as she would see it as a special outing and a time for father and son bonding.”page 34
When women take care of children over a weekend while the husband is away on a business trip is unremarkable– it’s expected of her as a parent –but a father taking care of children while his wife is away on a business trip then becomes babysitting.
A husband might go buy groceries once a week, therefore thinking that he’s contributed his fair share to the household but he shops using a grocery list– a list his wife has compiled over the week, of her being aware of what’s left in the fridge and pantry, knowing what foods the kids like/dislike/are allergic to, what meals she wants to cook based on time and effort needed, the nutritional value to make a balanced diet, etc. Sure, he goes out and buys the food, but the thought behind it and the know-how of how to run the household is still entirely the wife’s job. She might as well have the groceries delivered by Instacart and ended up with the same result.
All of these examples demonstrate how purely quantitative measures are insufficient to see the full picture when it comes to the difference of responsibility put onto each parent. It is apparent when children are far more affectionate and closer to their mothers even though their fathers feel like they share the caretaking of their children equally.
For men whose wives are frustrated with them for not being more proactive in family life, the issue isn’t that the men aren’t helping out at home, it’s that the women have to explicitly tell them to help out. Having to treat your adult partner like a child who can’t think for themselves is extremely frustrating, especially if you’re also working. Because then, it’s a lose-lose situation; if the wife keeps asking for the husband to do something, she’s a nag and he feels restricted but if she doesn’t, then she has to silently do all the work and either, the house is magically clean and dinner is miraculously ready by 6 pm every day or if she can’t keep up, then she’s burning herself out while feeling like she’s failing as the housemaker. In these cases, traditional gender roles work against women either way, hysterical for being upset and a bitch otherwise.
Fall from Grace: Feminization
Throughout history, women’s labor is seen as less valuable; you can see in the difference of compensation women receive for their work in comparison to men. Female-dominated professions (teachers, nurses, etc.) being seen as less “serious” or necessary than male-dominated fields(college professors, doctors, etc.).
There are two examples of this that I would like to talk about next: programmers and other CS-related jobs and teachers.
Working with computers on a large scale outside of experimental programs first started during WWII when they were used to compute things like ballistics trajectory in a much more rapidly and accurately fashion than human computers could. At that time, this job that involved working with these clunky machines and writing software and debugging them were conflated with women’s work and was thrown in with clerical work. This ensured that the job was low-prestige and low-paying.
Working in programming remained a women’s job for decades. Since the field was new and the men who came back from the war weren’t familiar with computers, women dominated the field until the 1980s. This shift was marked by the mass commercialization of personal computers. Now, everyone can have a computer at home! The marketing of these new computers favored boys and was seen as a boy’s toy, as many millennials and older Gen-Zers can relate to. They were marketed as a head start to a career as an astronaut or a scientist or a computer programmer. As more and more boys grew up pushed into this direction, the field slowly began to be more and more male-dominated. The narrative changed from programming being clerical work to something requiring intense logical and analytical skills which men are purported to naturally possess. As prestige went up due to this shift in perspective, so did the pay and here we are.
Teachers are vital to a functioning society. After all, knowledge is power. At the beginning of this country’s history, getting a formal education was a privilege reserved for the well-to-do. Back in colonial times, teaching in America was seen as a temporary job until the teachers could find something better. Teachers were originally male-only and schools were reserved for boys to teach them arithmetics and other academic subjects while the girls were expected to receive their education at home with their mothers, learning domestic tasks.
After public education became widespread in the mid-20th century, however, women started working as primary educators. Like with secretarial work, it was considered one of the only acceptable professions for a woman of the time. Since working with young children was and is still considered a woman’s job in this society, women now account for nearly all primary school educators. In fact, despite being the one occupation where all of the country’s children has to come into extensive contact with, a blogger recalls that when offered a job as a primary school teacher, his response was, “Is that a real job? Am I just going to be a glorified babysitter?” For a job so important, the fact that it’s seen as an “easy” job and associated with women has kept their salary and prestige low.
However, there is a huge shift once you get to college and beyond. Even in the minds of students, female instructors are seen as “teacher” while male instructors are seen as “professor”. In one study of a sample of sociology students, it was found that the
“…students misattribute in an upward direction the level of education actually attained by male graduate student instructors, while they misattribute in a downward direction the level of formal education attained by women, even when the female faculty member is a full professor.”
Studies find that although the percentage of female faculty on campuses has increased in recent years, they are concentrated in the lower rungs of the ladder to tenure. This means that either the women are either leaving before they’re able to get tenure or they just aren’t promoted. Both of these point more to a hostile environment rather than the actual deficits in the merit of the women in academia because in the past couple of decades, the gender gap in educational attainment has narrowed significantly and most recently, surpassed male educational attainment in all levels of education.
Find more statistics at Statista
Master’s degrees earned in the United States by gender 1950-2019 (Cropped)
Counted in 1,000s. Females indicated by navy blue bars, males by light blue bars.
Published by Erin Duffin, Apr 23, 2020. In the academic year of 2019, it is expected that 489,000 female and 328,000 male students will earn a Master’s degree in the United States. These figures are a significant increase from the academic year of 1950 when 16,980 female students and 41,220 male students earned a Master’s degree.
Number of doctoral degrees earned in the United States from 1950 to 2019, by gender (Cropped)
Counted in 1,000s. Females indicated by navy blue bars, males by light blue bars.
In the academic year of 2016/17, about 84,650 male and 96,710 female students earned a doctoral degree in the United States.
Even those of us who aren’t in academia have at least some inkling of what women who aspire to high academics face; we may be guilty of some of these behaviors, too. For example, when we see the title Dr. in front of a person’s name, the assumption is more often than not, male but there’s no reason why to think that way; the data demonstrate that women are just as if not more capable of completing doctoral degrees than men. This brings us back to the thought that women are thought to inherently to be inferior and the work she does also suffer the same prejudice. As we’ll talk about in the next section, this is partially why there is still a gender wage gap despite women having caught up in qualifications.
Employment & Promotion
Today, increased access to education & expanding civil rights means that this gap is lessening. However, the old patterns still persists; employers are less likely to hire/promote women because they perceive women as not being as competent & dedicated to their jobs. This creates a cycle unto perpetuity where this preconception makes it less likely for women to be hired and promoted, therefore leading to the lack of women of prominence in the field which, in our pseudo-meritocratic society, is interpreted as women either not working hard enough or were just not suited for high-powered careers and then they don’t get hired and so, the cycle continues.
The persistence of gender roles of women being the primary homemaker means that women who want to start a family will often have to choose b/t career & family. After all, she doesn’t have much choice. If her partner doesn’t bother to be responsible for their half of the household, then her choices are to either let everything go to shit or to step up and shoulder it all herself.
The recent idea of a supermom who embodies the careerwoman/mother balance is not sustainable. It’s not healthy to expect someone to work during the day and then be the primary housemaker once she gets home. It’s doubly unfair that she has to shoulder this burden when there should be an equally responsible adult in the house. This disparity and subsequent choice of having to choose between family and career further perpetuate the chain of events that lead to women not being as likely to make it as far in their careers as men of equal qualifications. You can also see this historically where once working women got married, they were often let go because it is assumed that the woman would have to dedicate herself to the domestic sphere and would no longer serve as a good employee because of this split dedication. This sentiment has continued until today when women are face questions like, “Are you married?”, or “Do you have/plan to have children?”
Further exasperating this disparity, paid or even unpaid parental leave is seldom offered in the US. However, just the institution of mandatory maternity leave won’t be enough because it still suggests that women should be the primary caretakers of children. It will also incentivise employers to avoid hiring women. What countries like Iceland have done is to implement both a paid maternity and paternity leave, establishing that a father’s time at home and with his family should be just as normal and essential as the mother’s.
Another factor that we have yet to talk about is the threat of female encroachment into a traditionally male space. Fields like those in STEM are notoriously known for being “boys’ clubs” that are actively hostile to women. Studies have also shown that high-achieving women are penalised for their achievements because their ambition/accolades are seen as being negatively correlated with her “likeability”. Even if affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws even out the rate at which women get hired, the level of harassment she has to endure to stay in her job means that women rarely last long enough to be seen in the upper levels of these industries.
While there is no single easy answer to address all the manifestations of the lack of respect and importance placed on women’s labor, we are aware of the root causes. Of course, it’s not easy to change an entire country’s mind especially if there are powerful people who benefit from the status quo, but we are slowly making progress. Just by being aware of and able to educate others, this cycle can be pointed out and stopped.
I hope you guys learned something interesting today.
Leave a comment, like and follow for more! Let me know if you like these long-form papers and if you have any thoughts or burning questions. I’ll be back next month! See you then!
As a disclaimer because there’s bound to be people who take it personally: not all men are guilty of leaving their partners hanging and I certainly didn’t mention anything about any other types of relationships besides one of a married/living together heterosexual couple so it’s safe to assume that the contents of this article do not apply necessarily to those other relationships.
 Miller, J., & Chamberlin, M. (2000). Women Are Teachers, Men Are Professors: A Study of Student Perceptions. Teaching Sociology, 28(4), 283-298. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/1318580