[EDITORIAL] The problem of value for “women’s work”

23 February 2017

We face a problem when arguing for the economic value of women’s work through discourses of empowerment, inclusion or equality, and this problem is deeper than how it is framed in most development and access to technology discourse. It is based on the fact that only the kind of work done in spaces outside the home are considered to be real work. Most writing on class formation and labor value draws on definitions of work framed within “the capitalist criteria for what constitutes work” and the belief “that waged industrial work” forms the basis for “the battle for humanity’s emancipation.”(Federici, 2012, p. 95).

Our problem, it seems, is that capital has failed to reach into and organize our kitchens and bedrooms, with the two-fold consequence that a) we presumably live at a feudal or at any rate precapitalist stage; b) whatever we do in these kitchens and bedrooms is at best irrelevant to any real social change.: Cox and Federici, 1975 p. 2.

In the quote, Cox and Federici highlight what frames our kitchens, nurseries, bedrooms and related domestic spaces as outside of spaces of capital and productive labor. The work that is done in these spaces is gendered – and the placing of this work outside of capital perpetuates the gender ideologies of separate spaces for men and women, and separate work capacities of men and women.

Examining a range of contexts in which women labor – as part of a productive labor force – within contemporary global and local (and highly interdependent) economies raises questions regarding

  • the specificity of economic, social and cultural contexts,
  • the structural and organizational relationships that are imposed, negotiated and formed as particular contexts connect within and towards global and multi-national work spaces.

Women in hardware industries in Asia, women in corporate and technology jobs in India, and the inclusion of women in STEM projects in Africa all share a focus on the so-called inclusion of women into a contemporary global workforce in the name of social and economic empowerment of women. These are economic fixes and based in a non-complex view that empowerment of women simply means getting them a paycheck. Yet even in radical, activist digital technology formations, feminism and trans-feminism are marginalized. Global, structural and institutional forms of gender, race, caste and class oppression and marginalization are seemingly left in place. As my literature review and continuing ethnographic, textual and interview based research around women’s entry into the labor force outside the domestic space reveals, responses of women workers have in fact shaped processes of work and management of labor. The gender ideologies around work and pay-for-work in various work settings are continually negotiated at the everyday micro-level. What is interesting and also disheartening however is that these micro-level struggles and shifts in work processes and structures in response to assertions of agency on the part women and gender-fluid individuals — often get re-inscribed into a patriarchal exclusion along deeply embedded and institutionalized structures of race, caste and class.

Empowerment of women simply means getting them a paycheck.

Through the writing of history and of policy these institutionalized structures are not questioned. Rather, as Abbate (2012) notes for instance, the way women are written into history is mostly compensatory where women are merely add-ons, while also observing how “gender: is equated with “women, as if men and masculine culture were gender neutral.” She further notes how computer work environments and processes are designed with particular male-identified personality traits and “for someone with a man’s traditional freedom from childcare” (p. 5).

Greenlees (2007) likewise observes, in her study of women who worked in British and American cotton industries between 1780 and 1860, that historians generally explained women’s role in industrialization mainly by emphasizing social concerns. The impact of the women’s going out of the home to work on the family – the domestic sphere – was considered the most important way in which to narrate women’s work histories. On the other hand, when we write labor histories implicitly about men, we rarely consider the impact of their work in terms of the domestic social space. The social and the economic are thus implicitly gendered and binarized – similar to the binary of reproductive and productive work.

The impact of the women’s going out of the home to work on the family – the domestic sphere – was considered the most important way in which to narrate women’s work histories. On the other hand, when we write labor histories implicitly about men, we rarely consider the impact of their work in terms of the domestic social space. The social and the economic are thus implicitly gendered and binarized – similar to the binary of reproductive and productive work.

The gender ideologies brought into play at the time of the transition from farming centered and/or craft centered domestic economies to factory/industrial economies persist even today as we speak of inclusion of women in technology work or STEM education. In addition, in the case of the Indian context, we can trace back the ideologies of inclusion of women in the modern workforce to the formation of nationalist ideologies around the role of women in the postcolonial independent nation of India. The “woman’s problem,” during Indian independence struggles, as Chatterjee and other historians have noted, was resolved by allowing the modern woman just enough education and social autonomy so as to ensure that her responsibilities as the keeper of culture and domestic bliss in the space of “ghar” was not to be unsettled.

Thus the women became the keepers of national culture while men then could go out into the modern world and work to develop and progress the nation by adopting the models of progress still being spearheaded by the colonizers. So even as the colonizers handed the country political autonomy to the leaders of the nation – the question acquiring economic autonomy was left unresolved since economic growth was already highly enmeshed with processes of globalization instituted during the colonial period. It was easier to assert cultural autonomy through the home space – and the women of the upper castes and classes were to be responsible for this.

Women serving as human computers during World War 2, operating the ENIAC’s main control panel. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik), right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence). source

Add to this that histories of “women” workers are written without regard to the complex interplay of race and caste – making them easily accessible to political agendas of “empowerment of women” without having to take into account issues of historical labor exploitation in the name of caste systems and slavery. For instance, the fact that it was (and still is) women who manage the labor in domestic space – that it is women of upper classes/castes who define practices of subjugation and shape these management processes is often not taken into account either. In the case of the at-home care workers it is this form of management that functions. Because of the invisibility of this social space – the rights and protections for the at-home care workers are not clearly taken care of through existing organizational structures. Women of upper castes and classes have generations of acquired managerial practice and knowledge within the homespace that manifests in systems of control or allows agency to the worker. The mere fact of ownership of cell phones or even smart phones does not constitute “empowerment” or liberation.

Add to this the fact that histories of “women” workers are written without regard to the complex interplay of race and caste – making them easily accessible to political agendas of “empowerment of women” without having to take into account issues of historical labor exploitation in the name of caste systems and slavery.

Histories of women’s labor have been written through the erasure of subaltern women and their contributions to the productive workforce. It is this erasure that allows us to view the inclusion of “women” into a modern, global workforce in and of itself as empowering.

The ways in which development policy conceptualizes “women’s empowerment” relies on the offering up of a model of neoliberal individualization where the woman must implicitly leave her community support structures and acquire social skills that are situated in different hierarchies. This so-called mode of empowerment resituates the woman in another socio-cultural power structure. Media representations of empowered “modern” women, for instance, imply upward class mobility. The contradiction here is that while the lure of being released from a local or rural patriarchal oppression is offered up – the individual agent, this empowered woman – is resituated in yet another socio-cultural hierarchy. This mode of empowerment functions through the inclusion and disciplining of subaltern women into a global workforce based in a need for low paid and comparatively lower skilled workers who function as a surplus labor. Unemployment and underemployment within the informal sectors of the global south has been a concern for developing economies aspiring to “develop” within contemporary frameworks of progress and development that privilege industrialization followed by global IT ization.

Histories of women’s labor have been written through the erasure of subaltern women and their contributions to the productive workforce. It is this erasure that allows us to view the inclusion of “women” into a modern, global workforce in and of itself as empowering.

Such models of growth inevitably led to the restructuring of labor within local economies – creating frontiers for development that sometimes release women from particular social hierarchies and embed them in others and at other times contain them in double binds and dual hierarchies through pressure to juggle both homework and outside work. Gender becomes the new frontier for development as women must be dislodged and displaced and replaced into (low) paid work.

The concern with women waged workers for historians – whether the historians were feminist or women themselves or not – seems to mostly date back to the eagerness to track industrialization. The transitions from domestic manufacturing to factory manufacturing are described mostly with a focus on worker outside of home space as laborers. Interest in the domestic space was generally limited to the domestic as a social space of reproduction – of private family life – that was disrupted by the entry of women into the factory workforce. This led to explanations of women’s empowerment and of women’s employment through a normalization of a particular vision of the domestic space through a binary that views work outside the home as economically productive and work inside the home as socially reproductive. Not only does such a way of viewing women continue to raise the question of who counts as “woman” it also results in a pattern of writing about women’s labor as implicitly and explicitly disruptive of the home space, where a woman belongs.

Further, women are counted as labor only when they are part of the productive labor outside of the home. When they do very clearly productive work even in the home – their work is not valued as productive but relegated to the reproductive domain. The seamless linking of woman’s work with the domestic space and of domestic space based work as reproductive and social (non-economic) labor leads to a blind spot in the way labor movements and NGOs working towards the rights and empowerment of women workers globally articulate and frame the issues around women’s labor in contemporary modes of globalization.

The seamless linking of woman’s work with the domestic space and of domestic space based work as reproductive and social (non-economic) labor leads to a blind spot in the way labor movements and NGOs working towards the rights and empowerment of women workers globally articulate and frame the issues around women’s labor in contemporary modes of globalization.

The labor of women (and men) being recruited into emerging forms of deskilled work – in technology, carework and in various service industries world wide – thus becomes invisible. The labor of these feminized workers is underpaid and these men and women continue to be exploited and kept in place as precarious workers. If anyone has scope to shift out of this trap of precarious work it is the worker who is able to mobilize social capital and become upwardly mobile through entrepreneurial and managerial opportunities. Entreprenuerial and managerial opportunities however are afforded to those who have certain forms of privilege in the socio-cultural milieu. Thus in my research on deskilled care-workers in India for instance – mostly men would move from care-work into roles of recruitment and management of careworkers.

The ideologies of gendered work that underpin contemporary global workplace hierarchies are based in several histories of the economics of family life. These histories come from social negotiations and cultural contexts as much as from how the socio-cultural activities of everyday life are grounded in economics of sustenance, survival, growth, expansion and greed. While socio-cultural value and economic value of things we do in life are not always completely in sync – you can be sure that the socio-cultural of any activity is somehow tied to the production of economic value at some point. Going back to the binary of reproductive and productive labor for instance, we know that this division primarily comes into being in order to make an argument for the economic value of both forms of work. We see even Marx attempting to give economic value to the invisible work within domestic space. We feminists, of course are not completely in agreement with how he describes this relationship – but we must acknowledge that in the work of Marx’s ideas of value – exchange value and use value as well the generation of surplus value – rely on the barely invisible work of reproduction. However as Dalla Costa and James (1971) have observed, “Where women are concerned, their labour appears to be a personal service outside of capital” (p. 6).

Further, as Emma Dowling (2016) notes,

it is the labour that goes into making the product that gives it value. The systemic imperative of capital accumulation requires capital to access ever-more areas of social and ecological life in order to generate surplus value. However, as unpaid labour is the source of this very surplus realised through commodification and marketisation, the inherent logic is to seek ways not to value it as well as off-load the cost of its reproduction (p. 456).

My research looking at in-home care-workers (mostly of the elderly) in India began as a result of my immersion in questions about digital/mobile technology use through domestic space, about women’s labour in both the home space and as prosumers, and about the ways in which women negotiate agency in the use of time for leisure and work through the domestic space as well as in becoming public in the digital space (Gajjala, Dillon and Anarbaeva 2016).


Image source. Careworkers especially in the global south, are given mobile phones and required to remain in constant contact with their employers, who are usually the children of ageing or ailing parents

I became interested in paid care work while I was interviewing women (both in the global north and the global south) about their use of digital technologies in relation to how these gadgets and digital spaces allow women access to the “outside” – to digital publics and to paid work and entrepreneurial opportunities – while they remain central to the work in family/domestic spaces. Paid care workers and domestic workers – wage earning “servants” – in India come from the “surplus” of labor forces often referred to as the “informal sector” or from families in rural India who have been displaced from traditional occupations such as farming.

Their ownership of and use of mobile technologies is usually referred to in terms of empowerment and access. There is far less research on the nuances and complexities around how this access is based in a context where displaced bodies are absorbed into a consumer base and also made available for various deskilled (and underpaid) forms of labor, while their forced mobility is characterized as progress. The violent processes of socio-economic uprooting through urban encroachment in the name of development and globalization are hidden from sight by the glow and glitter of stories of access and micro-empowerment through digitality.

The violent processes of socio-economic uprooting through urban encroachment in the name of development and globalization are hidden from sight by the glow and glitter of stories of access and micro-empowerment through digitality.
Image on top (source): Mary Jackson sitting, adjusting a control on an instrument (her story is now dramatised in the film Hidden Figures, 2016)

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