Work and Women Research Paper

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The term work, generally implying some sort of activity or achievements, acquired specific connotations due to the development of capitalist productive relations, particularly since the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain. Under capitalism it is the payment of wages that makes clear the distinction between work and nonwork. The notion of work came to be associated with some sort of paid employment, so that time spent outside waged employment is not considered “work” but leisure time. For example, taking care of one’s own household and children—a job typically done by women—is usually considered nonwork because it is a non-wage-generating activity. In fact, the dichotomy of work versus nonwork can be best understood if we look at how women’s work has evolved through centuries in our society.

Though a single basis of comparison cannot be regarded as absolute in comparing historically what constitutes women’s work across different cultures, studies have demonstrated that historically women in many so-called developed and developing countries have actively taken part in forms of work that are generally regarded as non-productive or non-income-generating. For example, women in Asia, Africa, and Latin and North America engaged in a wide variety of jobs (e.g., raising livestock, processing food, fetching water and fuel, sewing, selling homemade pottery, child rearing and housekeeping) that may not have always conformed to the clear-cut distinction of work and nonwork produced by the discourses of capitalism (Kessler-Harris 2003). Although in the gendered division of labor women generally had the bulk of domestic work, this was considered vital to the survival of the family and the society. In the wake of capitalist economy, while women continued to engage in various subsistence crafts or family labor systems, the emergence of a male-dominated waged workforce diminished women’s visible role as productive workers. Women’s housework gained a pejorative connotation and was seen as segregated from the public (i.e., male) capitalist economy. As many of women’s traditional tasks (e.g., cloth manufacturing and spinning) became mechanized and production sites moved to factories, women’s work increasingly became coterminous with nonproduction that cannot be evaluated in monetary terms. Women who did enter the wage labor market because of family responsibilities were either assembling goods at home for subcontractors or working in factory jobs that were considered low status and attributed less value in relation to work done by men.

Thus according to Deborah Simonton (1998), the advent of capitalism and industrialization resulted in creating a distinction between the public (men’s) world and the private (women’s) world. Household work came to be exclusively a women’s activity, and the private world of home the ideal place for women. Women came to be identified more as mothers or caregivers and not as economic contributors to the family. As Elisabeth Prugl and Eileen Boris (1996) note, women, being identified with nurturing and caring, were separated from waged workers, and men were considered the ideal waged workers and main breadwinners of their families. This role of women in society gained wider life even outside Europe, in many countries of Asia and Africa because of British colonization. However, this social role had different implications for middle-class and working-class women, and was gendered and racialized. For example, for women of the rising bourgeoisie in Victorian and Edwardian England, working outside the home was not considered “respectable,” and home was considered a woman’s proper place. However, working-class women were forced to work for financial reasons, although mainly as seamstresses, spinners, weavers, or domestic servants—jobs that are traditionally considered women’s work. These jobs were perceived as less skilled and inferior to men’s work and were paid less as well. Vis-a-vis class, the public/private divide had a racial dimension as well. For example, in the late nineteenth century, many African American women migrants who settled in the United States had no other option but to work as domestic servants in burgeoning urban middle-class families. Being racially excluded from most occupations, these women had to go out of their homes to earn a living for their families.

A major change in women’s role in society in the United States, Britain, and continental Europe came with the two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945). At the outset of each war, as men left their jobs to enlist, the supply of workers declined, resulting in labor shortages. The crisis of war unsettled the prescribed and dominant gender and class codes, and this, compounded by economic pressures, made possible the entry of women into the public workplace.

Women started entering into jobs that were previously considered men’s domain, not only in manufacturing and agriculture, but also in banks and offices. Professions and careers also opened up in academia, medicine, law, and engineering. As women demonstrated their abilities to do skilled and highly mechanized work, they cast doubt on the dominant assumptions about women’s physical abilities and social role. New work opportunities instilled in women a sense of confidence and individualism so that domestic work was no more the ultimate goal in their lives. For a significant number of women, paid work outside the home came to represent economic and social mobility, and they were ready to balance work and home without giving up one or the other.

Deborah Simonton (1998) notes that in spite of the significant achievements made in the workplace in the post-World War II era, attitudes toward women’s roles at work and home have continued to be patriarchal and gendered. Household work and child rearing are still considered to be women’s major role, and women’s paid work is mostly seen as neglect of home and family. Marriage and the arrival of children thus mark an end to many women’s prospering careers in countries around the world. At the same time, certain jobs such as nursing and teaching are stereotyped as “women’s jobs” because they are assumed to be closely related to women’s “natural” caring and mothering roles; predictably, these jobs do not enjoy the same high social status as other official or clerical jobs belonging to the domain of men. Coupled with this, women in the workplace are expected to be polite, docile, apolitical, hardworking, and contented with a lower wage. Women are seen as casual or temporary workers, a reserve army of labor to be drawn on when needed and sent back when not required.

Economic restructuring and globalization since the 1980s have made women’s positions at home and in the labor market more gendered and unequal. As pointed out by Prugl and Boris (1996), women’s unpaid work at home has increased, as they need to compensate for care that was previously provided by the state. At work, because of the limited options in the formal sectors that consist of regulated, organized economies and protected workers, more and more women are forced to take up jobs in the informal sectors, where jobs are unregulated, part-time, low-paid, with no benefits or social protection and highly contingent in nature. Women’s share of informal sector employment thus remains high in many countries, through their involvement in self-employment, subcontracting production, family enterprises, and home-based labor. While these jobs contribute not only to families’ survival but to national income as well, they often go unrecognized or are considered peripheral and a mere extension of household work. For instance, women carpet weavers in Turkey or home-based garment sewers in Bangladesh who sew sweatshirts at home for multinationals are hardly recognized as “workers,” although their work provides important bases for national economic development.

The rise of sweatshops and home-based industrial labor in developing as well as industrialized countries has further disadvantaged women’s role in the labor market, as they force women into particular niches, with low pay, low skills, and poor working conditions. Often this involves doing repetitive, highly routinized, and regulated jobs on assembly lines; some believe that women are well-suited to these jobs because of their supposed inherent docility and dexterity and ability to do monotonous and labor-intensive jobs. Many labor-intensive, light manufacturing industries such as the garment, footwear, and electronics industries employ women rather than men because they make higher profits with a female workforce.

A further impact of globalization can be felt through the process of racialization of women’s work as well: Caribbean or Filipino women as domestic workers, Chinese or South Asian women as garment workers.

Indeed, studies indicate that a large number of women of color are clustered in low-income sectors in countries such as Canada or Britain (Sassen 1998; Jackson 2002). These women, especially immigrant women in developed countries, are low paid, receive no benefits, and are left with little in the way of social security, labor standards, or other state guarantees. Thus women of color are systemically excluded from the better paid, secure, and the more desirable jobs in the labor markets. Despite a major increase in women’s labor-force participation, the intersectionalities of gender, class, and race continue to stereotype the women’s labor force and affect the employment trajectories of women in the capitalist world economy.


  1. Jackson, Andrew. 2002. Is Work Working for Workers of Colour? Ottawa: Canadian Labour Congress.
  2. Kessler-Harris, Alice. 2003. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Prugl, Elisabeth, and Eileen Boris. 1996. Introduction. In Homeworkers in Global Perspective: Invisible No More, eds. Eileen Boris and Elisabeth Prugl, 3–17. New York and London: Routledge.
  4. Sassen, Saskia. 1998. Globalization and its Discontents. New York: New Press.
  5. Simonton, Deborah. 1998. A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to the Present. London and New York: Routledge.
  6. Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 2nd ed. London: Fontana.

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