Lesson 8: Women and Work
I find it both interesting and a bit sad that so many Canadians believe that the fight for equality has been won. Is it
because Canadians look at other countries and compare, or is it that we are just myopic? The statistics on violence
and poverty are just two markers that no matter how these statistics are manipulated; women come out as the losers.
Canadian society is not equal as long as women are the primary victims of violence, poverty and continue to face
obstacles in the kind of work open to them, the positions they can hold and the wages they make.
True enough, there have been significant advancements for women over the last century — to ignore or diminish
these would be to do a disservice to the tremendous work of very hard working and courageous women from
Canada's early labour movement.
And it is also very true, that individual and groups of men can also find themselves very poor, or the victim of
downsizing or passed over for promotion. However, we want a more systematic approach to the issue of work that
looks at gender. When we look at the issues we find:
1. Women still make only .72 cents to the dollar men make.
2. Women are rarely promoted above a middle management level.
3. Generally women have little authority to make decisions when they are managers.
4. Women are poorer in Canada than men.
5. Women hold the vast majority of part-time and contract work that tends to be paid the least and does not
include job security or benefits.
6. Women continue to experience sexual harassment on the job but fear reporting it.
7. The workplace is both sexualized and gender segregated.
8. Even in the professions (engineering, law, academics) women must struggle with sexism and racism.
9. Women of colour continue to be the least valued and the poorest treated in the work place in Canada.
As you begin this lecture, remember to incorporate all the ideas covered in previous lectures on the body, sexuality,
and race. In this section, we focus on how the masculine/feminine binary has socialized women to believe that
passivity (listen don't talk, need to be protected from a dangerous world, not to work, not to be strong emotionally,
physically or intellectually) is how they ought to behave in all circumstances and in all spaces.
Women have been encouraged to be dependent on men for their well being and that includes having men frame
their identity while looking after them emotionally and economically. For last 150 years, the dominating view has
seen women as only temporary workers who would soon return to their homes to raise their children and that their
husbands would draw the real wage for the family's economic health (the assumption that all women will and
should marry — a version of compulsory heterosexism). The wages of women have been viewed for the most part
as the "little" extra — the money used to afford vacations, music lessons, or sports activities (does this sound like a
middle class assumption to you?).
When a child is sick, who gets the call at work to go home? In most cases, that would be the mother. But having to
leave work actually compromises her position at work — the message is that women must be willing to sacrifice
their less significant work for their children. Women and children have been viewed historically in economic and
political theories as dependents on men.
Women and Labour:
The reality is that women have always worked to provide the most basic necessities for their families. When
Canada was mostly agricultural, women were often the ones who sustained the barn animals, ploughed the fields,
harvested, canned foods for the winter, slaughtered animals and much more. Everyone in the family had a role in
the maintenance of the family. Work was seen not as waged labour in these 18th and 19th century times, but as toil.
In these early pioneering times, if anyone was to have money it was likely who would take their wares to the
market to sell.
Industrialization emerged first in home-based industries like weaving, where women were given a subordinated
status to men. Men were the weavers and developed their own guilds and women were the spinners and dyers of
wool with no guild to represent their interests. This hierarchy continued as industries grew and guilds became unions.
The question we need to examine has two parts: one is the perennial practise of sexism, and the second is what
constitutes labour? Clearly labour (the work we do) is really only valued if an exchange of money takes place. This
is an important distinction because it leaves out the many varied forms of work women do that is never recognized
as work because no wage is involved.
As you probably also know, there are categories of jobs given greater value than others. Sex workers are the most
devalued and this is why they receive no protection from the law or from any form of union that could make their
working conditions safer. Nannies from Third World countries working in Canada are often exploited with longer
hours than what they were contracted to work, more tasks, and fewer dollars. Sometimes these women, if they live
in the home itself, are abused sexually and emotionally. For women whose first language is not English, low paying
factory jobs, cleaning jobs, secondary nurse’s aids tend to be the most frequent positions. The work is precarious in
that they are usually the first to be laid off when economics are stretched, and the ones who receive the least
amount of training again leaving them vulnerable to downsizing.
John Kenneth Galbraith, a famed Canadian economist who has advised several generations ofAmerican Presidents,
has commented that no justice, economically or socially, is possible as long as men continue to dominate as leaders
of all the major corporations and unions. Men, he said, are in large number the managers, the union representatives,
the executives, the politicians, the theologians. This means, in Galbraith’s assessment, that the reproduction of
social relations of power will simply be duplicated over and over again until sexism and racism are eliminated.
According to the Canadian Council on Social Development, women have too much to do. Their levels of stress and
depression are mounting. Rich families in Canada are getting richer and poor families are getting poorer. In the last
ten years, poor or working poor families have seen their “wealth” fall by 51%; while rich families have seen their
net wealth increase by 43%.
The depth of poverty for children in Ontario is greater than children in other provinces of Canada, saveAlberta.
The provinces with the greatest wealth are concurrently the provinces least effective in handling poverty. The scary
component, in this rather bleak picture, is that we see more and more families, not single people, seeking
emergency shelter. The lack of affordable housing along with the loss of jobs, or jobs that are contracted out, or the
rise of temporary placement work all contribute to the problem of not being able to house and feed one’s family.
Gender differentiation in terms of wages and types of work begins early. Young men between the ages of 15 and 24
are more likely than young women to make a higher hourly rate. They are more likely to find higher paid work, and
more confident about their abilities than young women. When young men lose their jobs, they are more likely to
find a new position faster than young women.
If we were to examine ten of the top paying jobs (judges, specialist physicians etc…) we would find that men in
each category make more than the women in the same category. When we come to the ten lowest paying jobs
(sewing machine operators, cashiers, bartenders, food service attendants, babysitters, nannies, daycare workers
etc…) the same phenomenon occurs. When men work in these fields they are paid a significantly higher wage than
the women doing the exact same type of work.
Are you not amazed that in a country as rich in resources as this one that so many people live in poverty? Of
industrialized countries in the world Canada is near the top in terms of the number of children living in poverty.
The scale of poverty in this country is not the result of women’s absence from the workforce, on the contrary,
women are working in greater numbers than ever before. But women are having a difficult time breaking the non-
traditional barrier of jobs. This difficulty is particularly true of immigrant women, aboriginal women, and women
of colour. Women are sometimes juggling as many as three part-time jobs in order to support their families.And
then we accuse them of not looking after their children?!
Using the list of jobs you made at the beginning of this lecture, examine how women function in these jobs? Are
they valued?Are they likely to receive the same wage as men?Are these jobs typical of women’s work?
We assume women have a choice when it comes to work, when in reality many women have few options. Some women can only find part-time work; others must work part- time because their care-giving responsibilities limit
their time available for waged work. Many women are self-employed to afford them more flexibility by working
from home or choosing their hours. Most of these women make less than $30,000 a year and most are working
within traditional female occupations like selling cosmetics or cleaning houses.
For many women finding a legitimate and affordable day care is a barrier to full-time work. When large
organizations open day cares on site, all too often only the more affluent employees have access to using it.
Women's Subordinate Status in the Workplace:
From the 19th century forward, women have been viewed as "temporary" workers. This status has allowed
organizations to exploit their labour and their contributions. Instead of increasing women's full time presence in the
workplace, currently it is women's part-time or contract status that is expanding. Organizations are increasing their
use of temporary workers in what is euphemistically referred to as a "restructuring process".As a company
restructures, it cuts costs mostly through labour by outsourcing (hiring another company to clean for example)
many of the jobs. When jobs are outsourced or when people are hired on a contract basis or part-time, they earn a
lower wage and are not subject to benefits. Contract, temporary and part-time workers do not have the benefits of
union protection or job security.
Women have always worked. In Waterloo Region, there are still houses standing that pioneer women built. In the
1980s, we talked about the super mom who worked full time, cared for the kids, the husband and the household —
in many ways she resembled the pioneer woman of the 19th century. Since studies indicate that women are over-
worked and stressed in Canada, clearly, women are still working double and triple time.
The labour of immigrant women or women of colour was important in the expansion of industrialization. Not only
did immigrant women work in factories but many women were essential as "domestic" workers in the households
of middle and upper class families.
The division created in the 19th century between skilled and unskilled work is one that continues today. Women
were slotted into the category of "unskilled workers" which justified their lower wages. In the early years of
industrialization, women could be beaten, locked in rooms as punishment, have their wages denied them, or fired
without recourse. Unions, for the most part, were run by men who did not favour women. They viewed women as
competition for better conditions for men in the work place.At the turn of the century, the government began to talk
about a "family wage" as a kind of standard of what a man should earn to support his family. The family wage
allocated a higher wage for men particularly if they were in skilled trades but the practise came with a corollary that
stated that women would earn a much lower rate. The reality was families could not survive on the wage a man
Managing practises were often brutal.Afamous case of women being locked inside a building until their
production quotas had been reached, is connected with The Triangle Waist Company. In 1911, this New York City
based company employed mostly immigrant women who were pressured into working long hours in extremely
unsanitary and unsafe conditions. This was a true example of a sweatshop. Many of the women who worked were
hired by subcontractors (the owners essentially hired a company to do the hiring and paying of wages). In later
court hearings, the owners would claim they had no knowledge of what the wages were or the conditions under
which women worked. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out. Women leaped to their deaths from the ninth floor in a
desperate attempt to escape because the doors had been locked. Of five hundred workers, 146 died. The owners
were acquitted of any wrong doing. In the end, through a civil suit, the owners were forced to pay 75 dollars for
every life lost.
For Your Consideration:
The clothing company The GAP contracts out the sewing of their clothing to 3,000 plants in the Third World. The
company has just announced their awareness of abuses in all 3,000 locations. What other companies do you know
with similar work place problems?
How are such abuses the result of globalization/capitalism?
Do we have sweatshops in Canada and United States today? Without a doubt. Many of these harsh workplaces are
in the textile industry. Clothes are made by immigrant women working in conditions that force them to maintain long hours at below minimum wage. Companies can do this particularly in the United States were there are large
communities of illegal immigrants. Recent studies found that 67% of LosAngeles and 63% of New York garment
factories "violate minimum wage and overtime laws. 98% of LosAngeles garment factories have workplace health
and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death." (www.ilr.cornell.edu)
Just pause here for a moment. Would the same conditions be tolerated if the workers were Canadian citizens?
Changing Social Conditions:
As education expanded in the early 20th century to include all children, more teachers were needed. Young women
were hired into these positions but only to teach at an elementary level. Men continued to teach the “important
grade levels”. Women were seen as “babysitters” and which was used to justify very poor and in some cases, non-
existent wages. The major struggle for women teachers was to attain legitimacy. They fought for certification on
par with men in the field. The same kind of battle was necessary for nurses in Canada as well, who were much
maligned by the medical profession. Both these groups fought for and eventually achieved professional status. Only
later in the 20th century did they become more concerned with unionization.
Women who worked in the civil service in Canada, in teaching or in nursing remained only until they married. In
fact, in the civil service (government jobs) women were required to resign from their jobs once they had “acquired”
As department stores or speciality shops became popular with more and more consumer items easily manufactured,
white women were expected to work in sales. But the conditions here were no better than in any other industry.
Women worked excessively long hours with no breaks and were the victims of treatment now considered abusive.
Gender Segregated Jobs:
The work place is in continual flux. Whenever new and more skilled positions are opened in any industry, men
move into them while women move to occupy the spaces that men have vacated.As an example, men were the
original bank tellers. When they held this position it came with a fair amount of status. As women moved into the
position, the wage was decreased as was the status of the job itself (it moved from being seen as skilled work to
non-skilled work). The same process occurred as women took over administrative positions as typists or as
telephone operators and moved into more “skilled” and higher paying positions.
Any job dominated by women entered into a category known as pink collar work.
Today, it is not unusual to see the kind of work done segmented according to how power is configured. For
instance, women tend to work in light industry or in clerical areas. They are less likely to be supervisors or
managers in heavy industry or in areas outside of Human Resources or Benefits/Pay Roll. When women do hold
positions of authority they often manage very few people, and have little decision-making scope.
The glass ceiling is that phenomenon of women being passed over for promotion while their male colleagues
continue to advance. The image of the glass ceiling is a poignant one in that it imagines women looking up and
seeing men in positions above them but are blocked from getting there themselves. The lack of advancement is not
due to weakness in skills or qualifications, but the result of gender biases.
The biases that block women’s promotion might include excuses like: women are too emotional to be rational
managers, men are uncomfortable reporting to a woman; women do not like reporting to a woman; women are in
their child bearing years so they will not be around that long; women have children and therefore are not available
to devote the same amount of time that a man could. There are many other reasons for women’s exclusion
including the tendency to hire people into your circle who look most like you (white middle class male in the case
of management positions). The problem for women has several dimensions. For instance, when male managers go
for lunch, play golf, or visit strip clubs together, they exclude women or neglect to make the venue accessible to
women. Unfortunately, too many business transactions occur while socializing thereby shutting women out of those
important power brokering negotiations.
The Sexualized Workplace:
Workplaces are not only gender and race segregated in terms of access or attainment of positions of authority, they
are also "sexualized." Sexualized is defined as behaviours that that mirror female/male stereotypes when it comes to sexuality. Studies demonstrate that it tends not to be women who bring sexuality into the workplace but men.
Men engage in talk about women's bodies, about dating, about their clothes.And contrary to popular beliefs,
women do not sleep their way to the top. Men however, are permitted their sexuality and its expression even in the
workplace, without having their reputations put on trial.
In recent years, sexual harassment has become increasingly difficult to confront but confirms the extent to which
work places are sexualized. Women are told that "they can't take a joke." Or, they misunderstood men's intentions.
The onus is placed on the people who are most at risk in their jobs to report offensive behaviour. This past year, a
production manager was sexually harassing two women on the production line. Both of these women were new to
Canada. Both, because of their cultural and religious backgrounds, were personally deeply shamed by his advances
(again the women pay the price for the man's indiscretions). The company responded by demanding the manager
watch a video on sexual harassment. He was not charged or investigated and the reasoning behind senior
management's decision not to press the issue, was that they considered his work too valuable to risk losing him.
Who failed to count in this story?
Could the women have taken further action? Yes, they could have hired a lawyer or filed a complaint with the
Human Rights Commission. Both of these processes take considerable time and energy.Acompany found guilty,
however would suffer consequences that include fines.
Unfortunately, this case is not unusual. Women are routinely sexually harassed in the workplace. It can be as
seemingly benign as a touch, joke, or a comment. Women have been fondled and they have been raped. Women
have had their jobs or schooling put on the line if they refused to agree to sexual favours. Women often refuse to
respond or avoid calling men to task for their behaviours. They do not report these incidents because the financial
and social risks are too great.And because the onus is on women to report and defend their version of the story
against men who often hold greater power than they do, the outcome is likely not going to end in women's favour.
Sexual harassment policies in organizations often require the accuser and the accused physically to face one
another. This face to face potential in arbitration functions to discourage women from reporting incidents. Often the
panel of arbitrators reviewing the case may be men, who lack an understanding into how sexual harassment
antagonizes women, making women feel less a respected member of the organization.
Sexual harassment has the very powerful means of silencing women in the workplace and earning their
compliance. The last reason many women want to earn some public notoriety is through an incidence of sexual
harassment. The embarrassment is too great (this is one of the reasons why so many rapes go unreported). Many
women regularly choose to call in sick rather than go to work or complaining. When there are consistently high
levels of absenteeism in a workplace dominated by women, more often than not the reason is an offending male
supervisor or manager who might be making unsolicited advances on women.
When women do gain a management position, studies tell us they feel as though they exist in what is known as the
“glass house”. They know that in order to be successful they must prove themselves by being more efficient and
putting in more time than their male colleagues. They feel as though every move they make is being analysed, or
judged. They are usually well aware that there is little or no room for error. The pressure is tremendous since so few
women are found at a senior management or an executive level. If judged a failure, they know that it is less likely
other women will be promoted into senior positions. Their failure is then noted as another confirmation that,
“Women can’t cut it.”
These pioneering women in management are “stand ins” for other women – they can either open opportunities for
other women by being “successes” or close opportunities by failing. These women are pioneers trying to find a
balance between the pressure to conform to standard management practises as they are carried out in the particular
organization, or to forge new ground with vibrant new practises. They must strike a very difficult equilibrium in
order to keep those doors open.
Often women who do make it to senior levels are victims of demeaning talk aimed at diminishing their hard work.
Gossip commonly labels them as “manhaters”, “emasculators”, “whores who slept to the top” or “dictators in their
own homes”. In these accusations, we see familiar territory in terms of how women are evaluated -- the slut or the
bitch. Women managers or executives in the workplace lament they have too much work to do (and not all of it is paid
work). They must run their personal lives seamlessly, as well as their work lives. They must play a greater diversity
of roles than men in the workplace that reasserts their “femininity” in order not to antagonize other men.
Some believe women desire to work at jobs that pay little so that they can have more flexibility in their lives. The
reality is that women who start at the same level in the same position as a man will not receive the same number of
advancements or even opportunities to advance.Awoman certainly does not choose to live in poverty any more
than a man does.
Women who must take time off work to tend to their families risk the loss of their jobs. Employers often become
frustrated by the demands to leave work early to pick up a sick child or not to come to work because of the same
reason. This is generally not a problem men face – since it is usually expected that women will make this sacrifice
since apparently their paid work is less critical than their partner’s.
Throughout history, women have worked and worked hard and much of the work they have done has not been
This devalued and unpaid status is particularly true when we examine the lives of women in the home.
The "Housewife" and Living in Poverty:
Feminists are often accused of devaluing women who remain at home but really the culprit has been a society that
has classified stay-at-home women as intellectually inferior and less competent in the world at large. This history in
our context is easily traceable to the 19th century. The word "housewife" is strange in that it connotes women's
place in the family but her work role as well. The double meaning subordinates women to the men and children in
Some feminist researchers have put a new spin on the term "housewife" by changing it to "wifework". This altered
label implies that women often do triple time as they tend to children, work in the paid labour force, and do the
emotional and physical work of tending to their partners or husbands. Wifework is accorded by society an
ideological value of being the "most important work one could do" but is simultaneously devalued in actual
practise or real life situations. Women often feel under appreciated by their families who assume they do little but
play with kids, houseclean, watch television, and of course shop. "Housewife" defines what "womanhood" is to be.
Unfortunately, it too frequently also renders women a subordinate status.At the core of a good mother, is one who
willing gives up all aspirations for service to her family. Her fulfillment is thought to derive from having met the
needs of her children and her husband.And while there are "househusbands," they are generally excused as
exceptionally good men who are temporarily taking on the care of the household and children.A"housewife" by
contrast indicates a life-long allocation without the same accolade of exceptionality.
The housewife is economically dependent and yet as a society we criticise her for supposedly having more freedom
than those of us who work for wages. We trivialize the lives of women who stay at home to raise their kids.
Wifework is distinguished from other types of work because:
---It can be very isolating, very private and is self defined.
---No trade union and no professional organization to assert basic labour standards.
---The roles of wife and mother while social roles are not distinct from the work allocation of "housewife". Women
are expected to be extraordinary at all of these. (By contrast generally a man's social role is as a father but his work
role is very distinct — this father image does not bleed into his work role.)
Women receive the message that they are "naturally" equipped to know how to accomplish the roles of mother and
wife. What does this imply? Well, that somehow genetically women know how to anticipate the needs of children
and husbands. I suppose, it must be like having a particular sixth sense. During winter months, television
commercials market a full array of cough medicine where women are poised with a spoon ready to administer to
their family! This stunningly capable and idealistic view on women's "natural" skills sets up a standard of
behaviour and "know how" that women simply can not meet.
LearningActivityA: Why not spend s