Feminization of labor

One of the quiet revolutions since 1950 has been the steady movement of women into the paid workforce across the world. The good news, from San Francisco State and many other American universities, is that there are more women than men enrolled in four-year universities across the country. Women still have not achieved equal pay for equal work, but the long-term prognosis seems to be good. Taking a cue from Judith Butler, I’m pretty skeptical about absolute, essential biological differences translating into differences in behavior. But the expectative traits associated with femininity are also lining up to be the preferred traits in the professional workforce: communicative, cooperative, collaborative, and quietly but determinedly competitive. While the alignment between biological difference and behavioral may still rely on a lot of mythology, in practice it still may play out as an ongoing sea change in the profile of professional work.

On the other hand, as Robert Reich argues, American women entered the paid workforce in large numbers in the 1970s because costs of living kept rising, but men’s wages did not. Households had to become two-income in order to remain solvent. Or, another way to look at it is that the portrayal of ‘proper ladies’ before 1970 was as a non-wage-earner, but that was an upper-class portrayal. Meanwhile in the working-class world that did not appear in the fashion pages of media from 1830-1950, unrecognized women were always present in large numbers in the workforce. Only beginning in the 1950s did this lower class of family even begin to get media representation.

In any case, paid labor has extended planet-wide, and women comprise an increasing proportion of the global workforce. I don’t think there is any way to summarize such a massive, dispersed, and complex process. Rather, it is worth considering as a series of questions. How is this changing gender-role expectations? How is it changing feminist theory? Which sorts of disparities seem to be persisting despite a fundamental demographic shift in the roles of women and men?