By Mary Ellen Dowd
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta
Photo by Marian Noguera

The term “women’s work” has been spun throughout history to refer to the most undesirable of domestic duties. Today, when we hear the phrase, our minds naturally wander to things like childbearing, dishwashing and laundry. In 2021, it’s increasingly clear that the normalisation of this phrase is an example of the overall minimisation of women’s historic contributions to and presence in society. As a collective, we have not yet learned how to value women in a meaningful way.

In a 2019 article for CNN Business, Julia Carpenter explored the meaning of men’s work vs women’s work, and interviewed a researcher and professor who described her experience of “Googling” the word ‘caregiver’ which yielded disappointing results.

“Everything above the fold is all women — except for one guy feeding a panda — but the rest of it is all women taking care of either children or older people”, says Cynthia Matuszek, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, U.S. “This has an effect, and it changes how people see things, and that’s something we should be aware of.”

Historically, the capabilities of women have been regarded as different from those of men. But, according to Silvia Federici, an Italian and American scholar, teacher and activist, it was during the early development of capitalism in the 15th to 18th centuries when women suffered a great defeat; a new sexual division of labour.

Silvia Federici with members of the International Women’s Space in Berlin, Germany. Photo by HEAWON

Federici expands on the issue in her book Caliban and the Witch by claiming that the unpaid and often nonconsensual labour of women during those years provided necessary support to waged labour in order to create the caliber of capitalism that functions in our society today.

Although society has evolved dramatically since the early years of industrial development, domestic labour continues to support waged labour, and continues to be devalued. Objectively, unpaid domestic and care work is necessary to the functioning of the economy, and UN Women reports that if this work were assigned monetary value, it would constitute between 10 and 39 percent of a country’s GDP.

“Women bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work. Women tend to spend around 2.5 times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men. The amount of time devoted to unpaid care work is negatively correlated with female labour force participation”, writes UN Women on their website.

To this day, household and childcare responsibilities often fall onto women and are largely invisible. When paired with the responsibilities that come with waged labour, even more difficulties arise for women. Those women, especially mothers, are often underpaid, and are forced to split their time between waged work and household duties.

UN Women states, “Globally, women are paid less than men. The gender wage gap is estimated to be 23 percent. This means that women earn 77 percent of what men earn, though these figures understate the real extent of gender pay gaps, particularly in developing countries where informal self-employment is prevalent. Women also face the motherhood wage penalty, which increases as the number of children a woman has increases.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further complicated these already existing problems by blurring the lines between waged labour and domestic labour. The absence of in-person schooling has created a need for working mothers to balance both work and childcare. In addition to this, women have disproportionately felt overwhelmed by domestic obligations during the pandemic.

A survey conducted by Deloitte of 400 working women across nine countries found that 65 percent now have more responsibility for household chores and 53 percent of those with children reported home-schooling and education responsibilities. These domestic obligations proved so burdensome to the women surveyed that nearly 70 percent of the women who said they’ve experienced adverse changes to their daily routines during the pandemic believe these shifts have prevented – or will prevent – them from progressing professionally.

Survey respondents were also asked: “When you consider what is required to move up in your organization at this moment, what causes you to question whether you want to progress?”. Of those surveyed, 41 percent responded to a lack of work/life balance, 30 percent responded to non-inclusive behaviours experienced, and 29 percent responded to a lack of flexible working arrangements.

The responsibility of domestic work that has been historically defaulted to women has generally made it more difficult for women to progress in certain fields. Something as simple as the underrepresentation of women in the Google image results found in a 2018 Pew Study, can serve as an example of the effects of this cycle.

Nonetheless, women continue to do the jobs that contradict the traditional ideas of “women’s work”. A history full of discouragement makes it necessary to highlight the work of these women, and all women, waged or domestic. The large contributions by women should not be so easily erased.

There have been a number of visual projects dedicated to women at work, such as the Reuters Wider Image international project for 8 March in 2017 titled “Women at work around the world”, or a project by Chris Crisman, a professional photographer, entitled, “Women’s Work”. But many of these projects are photographed by men or are done around specific days. But women’s work continues all day, everyday.

We want to see photographs of women at work as photographed by women! During the next few months, we will be putting together an archive of photographs of women’s jobs from around the world. Contribute your photographs today. More details on our website!