Valuing Domestic Work: The Patriarchal Hierarchy of Women’s Labour

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Little Brown Feminist

Little brown feminist with a big voice.

The ‘traditional’ idea of men working outside the home, while women remain in the domestic sphere has only existed since the 1950’s. This was to ensure patriarchal ideology became cemented; to facilitate the re-entry of American men into the workforce after World War 2, while legitimating the return of women to the home. With the rise of Western feminism changing and shaping the work sector, many Western women (including American women) have been able to work outside of the home. This has led to an increase in wealth for many communities, especially for dual-earning couples. It can also be argued that it is no longer economically feasible to expect only one partner to work, due to how expensive the quality of living has become.

Reports by describes how women are nearly half the labour force in America. However, despite the influx of women entering the workforce since the early twentieth century, gender divides persist in the way we view work. Many women are single, child-less and more educated than men within the U.S workforce; however, there is the group of working American women who are also mothers, who require assistance with childcare. The ‘traditional’ role of childcare fell onto mothers, who would remain at home to be full time housewives and raise their children. Now, if women are lucky, this position of care may be passed onto their own mothers, sisters or other female relatives. If they can afford to, many families may employ domestic workers to help them with aspects of childcare and housework. The preference of domestic workers is ideally women, preferably with children of their own.

This preference is influenced by ‘sex segregation’. This is the idea that certain occupations are seen as more ‘appropriate’ for one particular gender; guaranteeing that women and men can be guided (or shoved) into specific career paths. ‘Sex segregation’ means that certain work is seen as a natural disposition; i.e. physical labour, management, or ‘masculine’ positions are inclined towards men; while care work, whether domestic or public, is seen as “women’s work”. Though Western feminism has worked hard to ensure women are able to work outside of the home and earn their own living, persistent gender ‘tradition’ continues to exist; cementing the idea that only women can care ‘naturally’ for children, ensuring that domestic work remains gendered.

This means that when Western couples are able to work outside of the home, the care work is passed onto the ‘global chain of women’. Statistically, domestic labour in the USA is primarily performed by poor, working class, minority or immigrant women. This need for sex segregation and the divide in socio-economic backgrounds between a domestic worker and their employer becomes problematic.

In 2012, National Domestic Workers Alliance issued a report that described “the invisible and unregulated world of domestic work”; it painted an ugly and heart breaking picture of fiscal and emotional abuse. Many domestic workers such as nannies, housecleaners and caregivers were isolated, with little pay or compensation:

“It found that low pay was a systemic problem in the domestic work industry – 23% of domestic workers are paid below the state minimum wage – and few receive any benefits such as health insurance or paid sick days. For live-in workers who are closest to their employers, the situation is worse – 67 % of them are paid below minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wage, overtime and sick and vacation pay, does not apply to domestic workers.”

This issue can stem from the idea that there is little to no value in women’s work; since it is ‘natural’ to look after a home and children, it is an ‘unskilled’ position that is not regarded as work. Nik Theodore, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois explained: “It’s not far-fetched to liken some situations to modern-day slavery where workers are isolated in people’s homes, coerced into back-breaking labor.” While working for other families, many of these domestic workers are still ‘micromanaging’ their own family back home. The report discovered that “60% of domestic workers in America spend more than half their income on rent or mortgage payments; 20% said there were times in the month before they were interviewed that there was no food to eat in their homes”. The majority of the income earned will be sent back to the worker’s family, leaving her little to no money of her own.

The abuse and inhumane treatment that domestic workers in the USA receive can be understood through our treatment of race, class and gender. The impact of ‘sex segregation’ is how these components become highlighted and emphasised, and also helps to maintain the gender pay gap. One way we can see how much gender matters in regards to work and pay, is when an occupation that has typically been performed by women then becomes operated by a man. ‘Tokenism’ for men results in the ‘glass escalator’: higher appreciation of work done, with a greater chance of promotion for the same work done by a woman. If domestic work was seen as a skilled, important occupation that was dominated by men, would there be the same attitude and behaviour?

Patriarchal views are abusing working women whose voices are being silenced by our ignorance and lack of care. Working Western women who ignore or initiate this abuse must re-think and change their treatment of domestic workers. It is proof that feminism still has a long way to go, and the only way we can move forward is through full use of intersectionality and truly valuing women’s work.