Women’s work: what’s it worth to you?

January 1, 2016

Graphic depicting women as a share of the workforce vs share of income earned by women

Women have always worked. What has changed over the past 40 years is that more and more women are being paid for their work. What hasn’t changed is that women continue to do more unpaid work in the home than men do—twice as much work, actually. Jobs that look most like unpaid work—child care, for example—continue to be among the lowest paying occupations in Canada. Consider that a home child care provider will earn just over $11,000 a year. Early childhood educators fare only slightly better with median incomes just under $18,000.

Women are paid less than men in almost every occupational category measured by Statistics Canada (469 of 500 occupations if you want to be precise). Yes, that’s even working full time, full year, even with the same experience and education as their male co-workers, even with university degrees. And it includes young, single and/or childless women who have yet to face the 8% motherhood penalty on their lifetime earnings.

But wait—the past decade has seen economists and important financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF start to wake up to the value of women’s work. “Look!” they said, “the rise of women’s participation in paid work is contributing to GDP growth in almost every country in the world!” The OECD went as far as to say that “rising female participation in the labour force has been the mainstay of per capita real income growth [for Canada] over the last decade.”

Women’s paycheques have also been essential in allowing Canadian families to keep up with the increase in the cost of living. While male wages have been largely stagnant over the past decades, family incomes have kept pace in large part because women’s wages are making up the difference.

The experience of the global financial crisis in 2008 only solidified the interest of international economic institutions in women’s work. Women returned to the workforce more quickly after the economic downturn because they were, and are, more likely to work in the kinds of jobs that were on offer in 2009: part-time, precarious, minimum-wage. Women played a distinct role in the global recovery because of this swift return to paid work. Their paid work was coupled with their contribution of additional unpaid care work—filling the gap as governments withdrew social and health services in the name of austerity.

Which is perhaps why I’m not convinced yet that the World Bank is a real sister in the struggle for gender equality. Essentially, the positive contribution women’s work made to the economic recovery, and to subsequent economic growth in Canada and around the world, was made possible by the marginalization of those women within the paid workforce and the continued expectation that women will take on the majority of unpaid care work.

From this perspective, women were good for Canada’s economic recovery because they are segregated into service- and care-related occupations, because they are twice as likely to work for minimum wage, because they are three times as likely to work part time, and because they are willing and expected to take up ever-increasing hours of unpaid care work.

Even from a purely instrumentalist perspective on women’s role in economic growth there is a fundamental problem. At some point, we are going to run out of women.

Women currently make up 48% of Canada’s labour force. What happens when they make up 50%? Women are over-represented in part-time work, but the majority of the growth in women’s employment over the past 30 years has been in full-time employment. What happens when women’s full-time employment matches that of men?

Finally, there are still only 24 hours in a day, and as women spend more and more of their time doing paid work, there will be a point at which some of that unpaid work is not going to get done. (Indeed, the number of hours we spend on housework has gone down over the past two decades.) More importantly, the unpaid care work that is not fungible (that diaper is not going to change itself) will have to be done by someone—increasingly that someone will get paid for that work.

I could get excited about that development—the financial recognition of the value of care work that women do in the home—until I remember what we pay child care workers. Which suggests there are some social shifts that need to occur in how we think about women and their work, and how we value that contribution to the quality of our daily lives as well as to our community and our economy.

As global financial institutions come crashing bear-like through the feminist china shop, I suggest they consider not what women can do for the economy but what the economy can do for women.

Consider this: we could pay women as much as we pay men. Closing the wage gap would increase women’s wages, thereby increasing consumer spending and—Voila!—contribute to GDP growth.

Oh, but the poor employers, you say. Won’t their profit margins be shattered?

Canadian corporations have come out the financial crisis with very nicely feathered nests. Corporate tax reductions and other financial concessions offered in the name of stimulating the economy have largely been banked by corporations rather than reinvested in new equipment, machinery or increases in hiring or (gasp) wages. This suggests our larger corporations and institutions public and private are well positioned—not to mention legally bound in the Charter—to close the wage gap. The resistance to doing so is not strictly financial.

First, businesses have to be convinced that the wage gap is a thing, that it exists, which means facing the fact that at some point, someone, who may otherwise be a perfectly nice person, has, perhaps unconsciously, made discriminatory decisions. Decisions to offer men higher starting salaries, higher-profile assignments and faster rates of promotion than women.

Second, they have to be convinced that discrimination is a bad thing (harmful to employee retention, for example). Third, they have to be convinced to track rates of pay and promotion. Fourth, they have to be willing to be somewhat public about those rates of pay.

Finally, corporations must be willing to close the gaps where they find them—the point at which you will hear much discussion about “merit,” usually from someone who makes 20% more than his female colleagues and is twice as likely to be promoted to senior management, even though he is less likely to have a university degree.

A further suggestion for consideration: value women’s work—paid and unpaid. Until unpaid work is more evenly distributed, women will continue to try to accommodate their double burden of unpaid work by taking jobs that are part time, or short term, or which offer shift work that can be scheduled around their care work. Hence the overrepresentation of women in low-paying sectors of the economy where shift work is typical, and jobs are largely part time.

Nearly a third of women who work part time do so because of a lack of access to child care. Public investments in the affordability and availability of child care will make it easier for women to take full-time work. Good for them, good for household incomes, good for the economy.

However, this means recognizing that child care work is a public good, that it doesn’t undermine the choices of families about how to raise their children, but rather increases them. It also means reimagining the role of women within a family—a shift of deeply held personal beliefs.

It’s worth pointing out that the shift is happening. Not only out of economic necessity, but also out of that political shibboleth: choice. Evidence of this can be found (surprisingly?) in the behavior of men.

When Quebec introduced paid paternity leave (a supplemental benefit just for fathers), the share of fathers who took leave tripled, to 76%. This signals a version of family life where unpaid work could potentially be shared more evenly. The experience of European countries echoes that of Quebec, with the further insight that men only take paternity leave if it comes with a significant level of wage replacement. That is, only if it values their time and their work at a high level.

If men and women start performing identical unpaid work in the home, there is potential for both the social value and the market value of that work to increase. That child care worker who spent two years training to get her early childhood education degree might make enough to raise her family income above the poverty line. The skills required of a woman who has stayed out of paid work in order to raise three children (multitasking, strategic planning, conflict management) might also be valued at a level that allows her to re-enter the workforce as the experienced worker that she is.

I have argued at length and often that we need policies in place to ensure women’s economic security and, yes, their independence. At the same time, a true shift in the way we value women’s work, particularly their care work, requires a recognition of our dependence upon that work. A recognition that women’s work is not merely valuable and skilled work, but necessary. A recognition that means men picking up more hours of unpaid work at home and employers giving women a pay rise.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

Kate McInturff is a senior researcher with the CCPA and director of the centre’s Making Women Count project. Follow her on Twitter @katemcinturff.

This article was published in the January/February 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.