By Carly Friesen, YWCA Toronto Advocacy Advisory Committee Member
For me, Labour Day is an opportunity to reflect on the labour movement and all it has done for Canadian workers. I am so grateful for all the gains we have made. However, I also think about how much work we still need to do to make the workplace accessible and safe for everyone. The value of work and labour has often – if not always – been tied to gender.
Before I transitioned into working in the non-profit sector, I worked in construction management and engineering. When working in these sectors, I was praised for doing ‘legitimate work.’ I was paid well straight out of university – even with little to no real work experience in the field. People would often comment on how great it was to see a woman in STEM but this was often done in a way that denigrated traditionally feminine work such as nursing or social services.
When I decided to make the transition from engineering to the non-profit sector, I saw this problematic dynamic play out again. It seemed that many people worried about my loss of legitimacy. They feared I would lose credibility as a ‘smart person’ if I made this type of career change. Would my labour be as valuable if it was just care work?
The devaluing of feminized labour is nothing new. Research suggests that careers considered to be “traditionally female” simply aren’t valued or paid as highly. When women and femme folks do begin to enter ‘traditionally male’ areas of work, we see that the pay for this work goes down.
For example, in the American recreation sector – including working in parks or leading children’s camps – the gender breakdown of employees from 1950 to 2000 went from mostly men to mostly women. During those same years, the median hourly wages in this field declined 57% (accounting for the change in the value of the dollar).
The solution to labour market inequities simply cannot be to encourage women to consider traditionally male jobs. We need to consider how we determine the value of labour altogether.
According to the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition, “One of the primary causes of the gender pay gap is that jobs that are associated with ‘women’s work’ are underpaid. Think of any job in the ‘caring industry’ such as nurses, midwives, and personal support workers. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that women-dominated industries become less respected and less well-paid occupations because women do the work.”
In other words, care work is undervalued because women and femme folks constitute the majority of workers engaging in this type of labour, not because this labour isn’t valuable. At no time in recent human history has this been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Areas of work that are done predominantly by immigrant or racialized women are valued and protected even less. This can be seen in the under-valuing of live-in care givers or domestic workers who are almost all newcomer racialized women. These positions have very few worker protections, along with low pay and dehumanizing workplace requirements (for example, requiring the worker to live with their employer, banning the worker from having guests, and requiring permission for the worker to leave their employers home, even during off hours).
So although there have been amazing gains made through the labour movement, we still have much room for improvement. We need to ensure that feminized work and care work are taken seriously. We need to ensure these workers are protected, and we need to ensure that they are paid fairly.
‘Women’s work’ is real work and women and femme folks would be far better off if their work was treated as such.
Carly Friesen works in Community Engagement and Fundraising in the nonprofit sector. She is also a YWCA Toronto Advocacy Committee member, and a coordinator for the Parting the Roots Book Club - which focuses on reading books by Black Canadian authors. She also writes her own blog which can be found here.
Image by Cade Martin