Women’s contemporary work

In the United States the labor market is strongly segregated according to sex: there are distinctive men’s and women’s occupations, jobs, and work tasks. Examples of women’s gender-non-traditional occupations are: engineer, manager of a private business, technician, police officer, auto mechanic. This work reveals some of these hidden aspects of women’s work. In different ways, the studies reported here point to the pervasiveness of gender as an organizing principle in the world of employment.
The first goal of this paper is to identify the systematic and institutionally created and reinforced dimensions of women’s work experience. The paper shows how gender affects the ways in which women are included in the labor force, the impact of work technologies, the threat of sexual harassment, government policy toward workers, the accessibility of labor organizations, the ability to protest collectively, and employed mothers’ attitudes toward their work lives as related to the division of labor at home.
Today the majority of working-age women (18-64) are in the labor force. Single and divorced women tend to have higher labor force participation rates than married or older widowed women, but marital status is having a decreasing effect on women’s chances of working for pay. Although giving birth has traditionally been a reason for women to drop out of paid work and begin full-time homemaking, as the labor force participation rate for women has increased, the rate for mothers of young children has increased even faster.

By 1983, half of all mothers of two-year-olds were in the labor force, and the proportion of women working increased with the age of the youngest child (Waldman 1983). Over their lifetimes, virtually all women will spend more years in the labor force than as child rearers. Most women, like most men, work as individuals for large or small companies and agencies; the family enterprise has virtually disappeared. The last holdout, the family farm, has largely gone under in the 1980s farm crisis.
In 1983, 93 percent of employed women were wage and salary workers, working neither for themselves nor in family businesses, but for companies and businesses. Women workers are important to all industrial sectors. Women are more than 50 percent of the workers in retail trade; finance, insurance, and real estate; and services, particularly entertainment, health, hospitals, elementary and secondary education, welfare, and religion. Only in agriculture, mining, and construction are women less than 20 percent of the workers.
Fox and Hess-Biber (1984) have summarized the extensive body of research on women workers: The occupations held by women are concentrated in the secondary labor market – jobs characterized by low wages, poor working conditions, little chance for advancement, lack of stability, and personalized employer/employee relations conducive to arbitrary and capricious work discipline. Although there has been some limited decline in sex segregation since 1970, the work world remains basically segregated into men’s jobs and women’s jobs.
Even the slight decline appears less positive when examined closely: women tend to be able to enter previously male work when those occupations are declining in power and status and males are able to find better jobs elsewhere. On the whole, women have been able to increase their numbers in the labor force because the occupations and industries into which they are segregated have been expanding their need for labor.
The barriers to occupational change are extensive, and involve both public and private patriarchy: childhood socialization of boys and girls to want different work, discriminatory practices of career counselors and employment firms, corporate personnel practices, harassment by male coworkers, failure of government to require affirmative action, reluctance of women to face the battles and hostilities that would result from their entering nontraditional work, child care responsibilities, and the refusal or inability of husbands to share housework and child care equally.
Women’s wages tend to be lower than men’s even within the same occupational groupings, whether these are professional subspecialties or blue-collar work. On the whole, women and men do not work in the same occupations. The expansion of women’s paid work since World War II has been less in professional or highly paid technical work, and more in service occupations characterized by low pay and lack of promotion opportunities. In some cases the hierarchical relationship of men and women is built directly into the work structure of individuals. The relation of an executive secretary to an executive is that of an “office wife”.
In other cases the hierarchy is occupational. Staff doctors, predominantly male, leave orders for hospital nurses (predominantly female) to carry out. Management of the labor force is a white male prerogative. Although low-level management positions may be filled by women, 96. 5 percent of persons making $50,000 or more in executive, administrative, or managerial positions in the 1980 census were males; 94. 9 percent were white males. Among members of professional specialties making $50,000 or more, 96 percent were male and 90 percent were white males (U. S. Census Bureau 1980).
The higher-level managers not only manage the labor force, they also set and carry out the policies and programs of business, public administration, education, medicine, and other fields. Nor does government offer an antidote to disproportionate male power. In 1982, women were only 12 percent of state legislators and 6 percent of mayors; in 1983 they were only 4 percent of the U. S. Congress (U. S. Census Bureau 1985). Promotion tracks tend to require a flow of family work mothers generally lack. Promotion in skilled and semiskilled blue-collar jobs typically depends not on outside schooling but on on-the-job training.
Skilled workers such as electricians and plumbers are trained through apprenticeships, many of which require nighttime classes for several years. This may contribute to the fact that women were only 7 percent of registered apprentices in 1991. Semiskilled workers learn their jobs often in training programs that take place in overtime. This means that women are excluded from such training because they are less likely to have a family member available to care for their children (Kemp 247). An increasing amount of control over women’s daily labor is held by employers, not husbands.
Husbands may willingly accept, even urge, wives to engage in less homemaking and child care in recognition that what women can buy with the money they earn working may be more valuable than what they can produce through their unpaid labor at home. What they can buy depends on what goods and services companies offer; in other words, what employees are paid to do. The goods and services that are produced, the conditions of the work that produces them, and the market relations under which they are offered to clients and customers are all hierarchically ordered. American society is capitalist.
The increase of public patriarchy is an increase in the power of corporate managers and the upper class. It is an increase in the power of higher-level men at the expense of the erstwhile privileges of lower-level men. Upper-level men continue to have stay-at-home wives and in addition have women employees, whereas lower-level men have either no wives or working wives and are themselves employees. They obtain goods and services to the extent that the decision-making elite considers the provision of such goods and services to be in the interest of the elite, and to the extent that the men’s wage levels or other statuses permit.
Although the benefit is largely to the upper-level men, it is not only to them. The jobs of many working women are oriented to giving “service with a smile,” making life nicer for men at all levels (Hochschild 1983). Examples range from television entertainers, provided free by advertisers to everyone with access to a television set, to airline flight attendants, provided by airlines to those who can afford to fly. It could be said that under public patriarchy, women are provided as a public good for all men.
Poorer men who could never afford homemaker wives may now receive the services of working women, albeit at a much lower level. For example, men in some public chronic care hospitals have their beds made and rooms cleaned by women workers. Women’s benefit from public patriarchy depends on their economic class and their family status. Although women’s wages are well below men’s, professional women’s wages are higher than unskilled women’s wages. Clearly, what can be bought can be bought better by those with more income.
The career woman combines freedom and income to a greater extent than other women except those with clear title to inherited wealth. Those who perceive themselves as powerless and fit mainly for motherhood will reject policies and practices connected with public patriarchy. These particulars may be less matters of income and more matters of education and class background. Low-income women may be better off under the programs of the welfare state than under the power of lowincome husbands. Women may get both jobs in the public sector and services from the public sector.
Services to low-income people are provided to women as well as men (such as free television or Medicaid hospital beds). Married women at most levels of the class system may enter the welfare system when they become divorced. Compared with husbands, public agencies may be more reliable, more amenable to negotiation, and less likely to become violent while drunk. The increase in working women and the increasing importance of public patriarchy have various implications for men and women. Lower wages and job segregation for women assure the continuation of male domination.
Speaking of the relation between women’s low wages in public and their subordination in the family, Heidi Hartmann ( 1981b) says, “The lower pay women receive in the labor market both perpetuates men’s material advantage over women and encourages women to choose wifery as a career. Second, then, women do housework, childcare, and perform other services at home which benefit men directly. Women’s home responsibilities in turn reinforce their inferior labor market position” (p. 22). Thus public patriarchy continues to uphold private patriarchy even as it undercuts and changes it.
Just as women differ from each other, so they share a number of common features almost irrespective of their race, class, and family responsibilities. All women’s wages are lower than those of equivalently skilled and qualified men; all women are vulnerable to stereotypical assumptions about their aptitudes and their commitment to work, in particular, about the potential impact of their current or future children upon their work; all women are vulnerable to sexual harassment. Despite the factors which distinguish women from each other, it is still possible to discuss the disadvantages that women suffer as a group.
Minority women are differentially affected by the change. Black men and women have always been subject to a patriarchy originating outside of, and destructive to, their family structure. In the early stages of the women’s movement some feminists seemed to envy black women their freedom from the private patriarchy of black husbands, without recognizing the oppression they suffered from the public patriarchy of white, male-dominated society. For black women and for other minorities, the family can be both a source of oppression and a protection against the worst excesses of capitalism.
It has been suggested that there are very likely to be increased opportunities – in terms of both recruitment and promotion – for women in the field of computing as a consequence of its internal organisational shifts. Commentators are divided as to whether the kinds of social and communication skills which are now seen as critical for such work are attributable to nature or nurture, but are united in thinking that we are more likely to find them in women than in men. Women, typically, are seen as more empathetic, creators of harmony as opposed to hostility, of co-operation.
The new technologies associated with computers are being hailed or decried as the basis of a new revolution for women. Women’s labor force participation remains high for all ages and marital statuses. But past experience has made it clear that employment in occupations may expand or contract with economic change. There is evidence that the high-tech economy will automate some of the services and clerical work that have been the mainstay of women’s employment. One possibility is that decreased employment will send women back into the home. Housewife” has often been a euphemism for “unemployed,” and may become so to a greater extent. It is not clear, however, that unemployed women will in fact become housewives supported entirely by their husbands (Bose 90). Private patriarchy declined in part because many men did not see a benefit to themselves in supporting a wife. Perhaps unemployed women will become divorced unemployed women. Perhaps they will become welfare mothers subject to a particularly important part of the public patriarchy.
Perhaps they will find jobs in newly developing industries. All of these changes have taken place within a relatively short space of time. There is no denying that women’s employment rights have radically increased in that time. But for all of this, women still earn a great deal less than men (if full-time and part-time women workers are considered together, about 70 per cent of men’s hourly wages). Occupational segregation has remained almost constant to date and women are still concentrated, for the most part, at the bottom of the wage hierarchy.
A few women have broken through one or more layers of glass ceiling, but the majority remains in jobs which, however demanding and skilled, pay less than those jobs in which men work. The social division of labor is maintained. Women do women’s work and men do men’s work, both in the home and in the paid work place. Women’s work is low paid or unpaid; men’s work is higher-paid, enabling men on the whole to buy women’s work both at home and in the market. Control over social policies remains in the hands of men.

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