Women’s Work : The Feminisation of Unpaid Labour

‘He is the market, the demand. She is the supply’ – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In the current state of the world, the role of women is both crucial and exploitative. Women are weighted their entire lives with an ever-expanding list of rules and expectations: how to act, how to look, how to think… It’s an age-old recipe for exhaustion and aims to commoditise women’s bodies in and out of the workplace. It is not accidental – women are the largest suppliers of unpaid labour in the world.

Domestic labour and care work are obvious requirements for the upkeep of society, but remain some of lowest paying work one can do. Women are disproportionately employed in these low paid sectors such as caring, leisure, retail and hospitality. On top of that, women are often expected not only to birth children but also assume the majority of childcare responsibilities which can stunt their earning potential by about 33%. Unsurprisingly, women are also more likely to find themselves in poverty – around 5.1 million women compared to 4.4 million men in the UK. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of labour women do that is completely unpaid, such as childcare and household chores. One study found that while men do around 6 hours of domestic labour a week, women do over 16. Even in couples where both partners are in full-time employment, women still perform majority of this work – for free.

So why is this important? In feminist economics, the concept of ‘work’ is extended to unpaid care and reproductive work. It is understood that these things are prerequisites for any economic activity to exist and therefore need to be valued effectively. The link between gender and the economy – including poverty and employment – are also analysed. Many of the problems women face within the economy are because they are excluded from research data, authoritative positions and conversations on economic policy. When men make all of these decisions, women are demonstrably left behind. Women that are further marginalised in other areas (such as race, disability and gender identity) are even further excluded and often bear the brunt of economic disenfranchisement.

Gross domestic product (GDP) is often the standard measurement used to assess a countries economic health. It considers the total monetary value created through wage labour; however, this metric completely ignores unpaid domestic and care work – of which women are the largest suppliers. Thus, GDP fails to include some of the most essential components to a healthy economy as well as including profit that is generated through perhaps not so ethical means, such as prison labour and weapons manufacturing. A country profiting directly from incarcerating it’s citizens or participating in war could be argued inhumane; metrics like the GDP lack any ethical principles and largely centre men in discussions of economics. So perhaps the solution to the disregard of women’s labour requires a complete reassessment of our current economic system.

The ‘labour gap’ between men and women doesn’t end there, as women are also expected to spend additional time and money on their appearance if they want any chance at being respected and treated fairly at all. It’s estimated that women in the UK spend £10 billion annually on cosmetic and hair products, while women in the US made up 92% of the market for cosmetic procedures in 2020 – an industry that raked in over $16.7 billion that year. Again, it’s not accidental that women are the target demographic for products relating to ‘beauty’: an abstract ideal that seems to constantly change and expand.

Because of this, women must perform the additional labour of ‘beauty’ in their day to day lives. Employers can even legally require women to wear makeup to work and wear their hair a certain way, and refuse to hire women who don’t. Naturally, these standards marginalise women of colour even more as their natural hair and features are often deemed ‘unattractive’ or ‘unprofessional’ due to white supremacy as well as misogyny. Corporations are allowed to profit off the ‘beauty’ of their female employees without any reimbursement for the costs and time spent by them in order to achieve these beauty standards. This additional unpaid labour is simply expected of women and has largely gone unquestioned.

In Naomi Wolf’s book ‘The Beauty Myth’, she discusses how impossible beauty standards are imposed onto women in order to suppress their growing political power and consciousness. A quote from the book reads: “The stronger women were becoming politically, the heavier the ideals of beauty would bear down upon them, mostly in order to distract their energy and undermine their progress.” She suggests that women are intentionally made to be insecure in order to keep them preoccupied and discouraged from pursuing education, protest or political power. Makeup, diet and cosmetic surgery industries also profit immensely from these insecurities of women that are enforced, as Wolf also argues, by marketing, television, fashion and pornography.

The psychological and physical impacts of these beauty standards on women should not be underestimated. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders and an estimated 1.25 to 3.4 million people in the UK suffer with an eating disorder, with around 75% being female. Deaths and complications from cosmetic surgeries are also on the rise, costing lives and thousands to the NHS.

Wolf names the pornography industry in particular as a big factor in rising insecurities of women’s bodies. Feminists tend to have polarising opinions on the sex trade, some demanding full abolition while others opt for reform and harm reduction. Sex work is one of the very few professions where women actually earn more on average than men, however, it’s a bittersweet reality. The demand for female sex workers can’t be separated from the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies in society. Sex work is also a notoriously unsafe profession for women as it can be difficult to leave due to severe stigma sex workers face, largely fuelled by misogyny. The laws in place criminalising sex work also put them at further risk, as it prevents them from reporting abuse or seeking emergency services for fear of punishment or losing their income.

Sex workers are often accused of ‘selling their bodies’, which is deemed morally reprehensible, but is that not the essence of capitalism? Anyone being paid for their time and labour is ‘selling their body’ in some capacity. Economic coercion is the main motivator for most work in a capitalist society. If you refuse to work, you are forced into poverty. Many women resort to sex work for this very reason – they simply need to make money. Trans women and women of colour are often overrepresented in sex work because of the intersectional discrimination they face in society. If we removed poverty from the situation, many women wouldn’t resort to sex work at all.

Looking at the evidence, it seems clear that women’s labour does not get valued in the same way that men’s does. We are also led to believe that paid and unpaid work exist completely separate to each other, but this isn’t true. The personal is political. Women are at the very centre of the economy as they provide the vast majority of care and reproductive work, so we need to assess why women are still disproportionately affected by poverty and underrepresented in economic and political discussions.

The solution doesn’t lie in simply paying women more. In fact, we should understand that profit incentive isn’t the only framework that labour happens under. People can be motivated to work through more humane means, such as genuine care, compassion and collective responsibility. We cannot effectively eliminate poverty and misogyny altogether without a deep reassessment of our current political and economic systems. Capitalism has depended on the subjugation of women and minorities for centuries; a new approach is desperately needed. We owe it to the women of the world and to all marginalised communities to continue the fight for a fairer, more compassionate economy.

2 thoughts on “Women’s Work : The Feminisation of Unpaid Labour

  1. Being from a small minority group. Thank you for the inclusive representation, you write with such consideration and kindness to others. Thoughtfull & truthfull, well done

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