Sunday, March 28, 2010

Women in the workforce: the lost revolution

A Canadian child care worker. Photo CTICareer.

The massive entry of women in the workforce after 1945 has been nicknamed “the silent revolution” and hailed by feminists as a major advance in the condition of women. I beg to differ.

When our first child was born seven years ago, my wife and I implemented a rigorous shift system which has remained in place since then. Days are divided in two equal parts. During each half-day, one of us is responsible for the kids and household chores, and the other is free to do whatever takes his or her fancy – work, sleep, garden, catch a movie, etc. Every day at 2:00 PM, we perform a change of the guard. Maintaining absolute equality in our domestic responsibilities has been something of an obsession in our couple, and this shift ritual of ours has generated a mix of admiration and irony on the part of many of our friends. The very first thing they ask us whenever they see us is “whose shift is it now?”

In keeping things equal, we mean business. In some areas we went radical. For example, we have decided not to breastfeed our two children. Yes, you read that well. That was the only way, we figured, to ensure that we would fully share the burden as well as the joy of having babies. Needless to say, that choice didn't fly too well with some people around us who were, shall we say, principled on the question of breastfeeding. But overall, our shift system has served us well over the years in maintaining a level of sanity.

Corporate black hole

Meanwhile, many other couples that we know have descended into a state of chronic imbalance and unhappiness over the question of child and house care. Time and again, we have seen mom take over the kids and domestic chores in addition to her day job, pushing herself to the limit, while dad was increasingly sucked into a corporate black hole, clocking 60+ hours per week while still being paid a mere 40 by his employer. The tensions within such couples were sometimes quite palpable and painful to observe from the outside.

I was clearly detecting a pattern in those behaviors that we witnessed in so many good couples. And no, that pattern was not that women were being abused by their macho husbands. Rather, it was that both him and her were working increasingly hard and neither was getting any happier in return. Why did mom have to work double shifts, I wondered, both at work and at home? Why was dad spending such an unnatural – and plain illegal – number of hours at the office rather than being at home to do his part and watch his kids grow?

I performed some research to attempt to answer those questions, and here are some of the facts that I uncovered:

The “silent revolution” in nine figures
  • 1. Canadian women’s participation in the workforce has increased very rapidly over the past 30 years: +40% between 1976 and 2004. Today, about 60% of women are at work. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “silent revolution” and is hailed as a tremendous advance in the condition of women. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 2. Canadian women’s individual incomes stand at about 80% of men’s incomes in 2005, a marked improvement over 1980 when women made only about 65% of men’s incomes. (Source: Conference Board of Canada)
  • 3. However, the median earnings of Canadian households increased by less than 10% over the same period between 1980 and 2005 in constant dollars. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 4. As for the median earnings of Canadian individual workers (whether they are members of a household or not), they have increased by a whopping 0% – yes that’s zero percent – between 1980 and 2005 in constant dollars. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 5. Young Canadian women (25 to 29 years old) have seen their income gap with young men narrow down, from 75% in 1980 to 85% in 2005. That’s obviously an excellent result. However, the income increase of young women has remained flat at 0% (zero percent) during the same period in constant dollars. How is that even possible? Only because during that period, the earnings of young men have dropped substantially. The income gap reduction among young Canadians was thus not achieved through an improvement of the condition of young women, but through a marked deterioration of the condition of young men. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 6. Over that same period (1980-2005), young Canadian women’s educational achievement – i.e. whether they hold a university degree or not – has doubled from 20% to 40%. Yet, as noted above, young women have received no added compensation whatsoever from their employers in exchange for that academic achievement. (Source: Statistics Canada)
  • 7. The Canadian household savings rate was about 20% of disposable income in 1980. It has fallen to 0% (zero percent) in 2005. And that number is actually negative in British Columbia: -6%. (Source: Vanier Institute)
  • 8. The Canadian household debt was 86% of disposable income in 1980 and has soared to 120% of disposable income in 2005. (Source: Vanier Institute)
  • 9. Meanwhile, the average North American worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week today to produce as much as one working 40 hours in 1950. That amounts to an approximate 400% increase in the productivity of labor over the post-war period (Source: US Department of Labor
Pauperized households

Those numbers tell the sobering story of the average Canadian household’s gradual slide towards pauperism over the past 30 years. That story, in my analysis, is the primary cause of the intractable problems that many working mothers are facing today in Canada as they are increasingly divided between their career and household obligations. Sexism and gender discrimination, while undeniable, are at best a secondary factor. One only needs to consider the income gap between men and women, a traditional indicator of the condition of women: it has become fairly narrow in Canada and keeps improving over time, suggesting that men and women are receiving an increasingly equal treatment from their employers in terms of their compensation. On the other hand, over that same period the financial situation of the Canadian household has been almost completely frozen. And that has a direct, massive, and disproportionately adverse impact on the condition of working women. Here is why.

Women’s massive entry into the Canadian workforce means that in effect, the labor power of the average Canadian household has doubled from one to two workers. Yet as pointed out the household's income has stagnated. The obvious question, then, is – whatever happened to the money earned by that second worker? According to StatsCan, mom’s work has not made any significant difference in the household's finances when compared to 1980, which is tantamount to saying that mom is working today virtually for free. Add to that the increase in dad's unpaid overtime and the dramatic jump in both mom and dad's labor productivity over that period, and you are contemplating a utterly shocking discrepancy between the amount of work produced by the household and the amount of money that it receives in return.

That, in a nutshell, is the nature of the “silent revolution” which feminists hail as this great advance in the condition of women in North America. If you're not impressed by the outcome of that revolution, well – you're not alone.

Dispossession by other means

In volume 1 of Capital, Karl Marx covered in much detail the key concept of primitive accumulation. The question of how proto-capitalists have historically managed to accumulate capital in the first place has obsessed classical economists since Adam Smith. To solve this riddle, Marx presented a compelling account of England’s peasantry in the 16th and 17th  centuries. He described how large swaths of the rural population were violently divorced from their traditional means of self-sufficiency. With the active cooperation of the English state, landlords physically enclosed the commons and forced the peasants and their families off their lands, effectively transforming them into vagabonds and thieves. The English state concurrently enacted particularly repressive anti-vagabondage laws which forced expropriated peasants to become salaried workers in the newly established factories of Manchester and Birmingham, as a means to avoid both prison and starvation. Thus capitalism was born, according to Marx, out of brute repression and naked violence on the part of the English state and ruling class.

Marxist scholars (E. Mandel, D. Harvey among others) have since argued that primitive accumulation did not just occur this once at the beginning of capitalist times, but rather happens on a continual basis every time a publicly owned resource – i.e. a part of “the commons” – is appropriated, enclosed, or otherwise privatized, with the result of dispossessing people and forcing them into wage labor.

I hypothesize that the mass entry of women into the workforce after World War II is the continuation of capitalist primitive accumulation by other means. Up until 1940, most women were locked inside their households, essentially performing what amounted to slave labor. Tasks traditionally included education and health care of the children and elders, cooking, cleaning, household finance and accounting, etc. Women were kept under the tight control of men through the combined powerful forces of ignorance, financial dependence, and all too often physical violence. That life was hell. Women had to break free. And that’s what they did, as soon as men and society gave them an opportunity to do so during the two world wars.

The imprisonment and forced labor of women inside the household was also bad business for the capitalist class. Indeed, women and their domestic work were largely off-limits to the market. Capitalists needed women to break free in large numbers if they were ever going to tap into that virtual gold mine, namely the various trades traditionally performed by women for free inside the household – education, health care, food preparation, cleaning, personal accounting, etc. – as well as the labor power of the women themselves.

And so, after the war, capitalists became a progressive class, one which advocated the liberation of women. They extended to women an open invitation to take their valuable skill sets out of the domestic realm and onto the open market. They also supported women in their demands for access to higher education. And it worked: many women left the home to take on jobs in nascent industries which had traditionally been their exclusive domain inside the household (child care being a prime, but far from isolated, example) while others decided to boldly go where few woman had gone before – get a university education and take a man's job.
    The working mother's double bondage

    The rest, as they say, is history. Today, most working mothers find themselves in a double bondage. Bondage of the corporation which exploits them 40 hours per week for sub-standard wages. And bondage of the man, still, since in effect many mothers continue to work hard in the household for free as they did before the so-called “silent revolution”, but this time in addition to their day job. That second bondage of the man is more complex to comprehend and ties back to the question of household overwork and under-compensation.

    Many men today are forced by the market to accept increasing amounts of overtime against their will for fear of losing their job, while women are more easily exempted from overwork by their employers, for child care considerations. The household however, as we have seen, is no wealthier today than 30 years ago in spite of having two workers instead of one, and is therefore mostly unable to purchase the domestic services that women used to perform for free at home and are now offering for a wage on the open market. Arguably, the chores of the household are less labor intensive today as they were 30 years ago, thanks to better appliances. But, clearly, they have not disappeared and certainly someone still needs to feed, bath, educate, and entertain the kids. And that someone is out of necessity the woman, since the man is nowhere to be seen as he is increasingly stuck at work for no extra pay. The corporate culture and peer pressure applied upon dad is pretty intense, as are other subtle forms of social indenture such as household debt. Together, they conspire to ensure compliance with the unnatural and illegal work practices that men are increasingly submitted to. That is how women end up being just as overworked and underpaid as their men – through the forced offloading of the household chores onto their shoulders.

    Capitalist masterstroke

    Quite a revolution indeed! If you are a capitalist, that is. The capitalist class is the big winner of the so-called “silent revolution”, which I would rather characterize as a silent devolution for both working men and women. First, capitalists have successfully gained access to the previously unreachable realm of the household and incorporated it to the market while transforming women into wage laborers, thus reiterating the act of primitive accumulation. Second, they have managed the amazing exploit of acquiring women’s labor power without actually having to pay for it – by simply keeping the aggregate income of the household at a flat level over time. Thirdly, they have accomplished this jaw-dropping coup de maître without having to shed a drop of blood or fire a single shot, unlike their 17th century English predecessors. All they had to do was surf the historical wave of women breaking free from the household, and divert it to their own profit.

    Sexism is an ugly beast and quite alive today, even in forward-thinking Canada. There is no denying it. But fundamentally it is a distraction from the core issue of the average household’s impoverishment to the benefit of the capitalist class. Capitalists want us to have a war of the sexes at home: as long as we do, we won't be focusing on the corporation's unethical and illegal labor practices which sabotage the household. Sexism has been weaponized, it is used today to subdue the middle class by maintaining it in an endless and exhausting state of domestic civil war, just as alcohol was once used by the white man to destroy the minds and bodies of the indigenous people.

    What, then, is to be done? Well, a strictly egalitarian shift system involving bottle-feeding the kids is certainly not for everyone, and breastfeeding is no doubt one of the most beautiful gifts of a mother to her baby. Shifts worked for us, but it I can definitely see how they would not work for all. A more realistic approach may be to constitute family trade unions, whose purpose would be to take the daily struggles of Canadian households inside the walls of the corporations where they belong. Such unions would not just focus on labor relations as other unions do, but rather on labor relations in the context of their adverse impacts on households. The day that a male employee will tell his dumbfolded boss “sorry but I can't stay any longer tonight because my wife has lodged a grievance with our family union and I could get fined for that” – will be a very good day indeed!


    1 comment:

    1. First off every mom is a working mom whether it be for paid wages or not. As a mom who worked outside of the home for 66% wages I like the idea of shifts however, rather than bottle feeding dad could have taken on extra work around the home equal to mom's breast feeding time/energy. In families one always has to remember that there are more than parent's interests to consider.