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Invisible work, an endless struggle for women


THE unseen work is unpaid or little paid work, undervalued in terms of the work accomplished and what it can bring to a loved one, an organization or an institution.

It is mostly done by women. It includes domestic tasks and care (physical and psychological support) provided to loved ones (children, people with special needs, loss of autonomy), but also assistance provided within a family business (farms, commercial) or for the good of a work organization (institutions or other bodies), without monetary recognition or allowing career development.

Whatever the professional profile of women, whether they are stay-at-home mothers, self-employed workers, working atypical hours, students, university professors or even elected officials, every woman is confronted, at one time or another in her life, with having to manage invisible work, as this recent research on family-work-study balance. This work can be accomplished in different ways and with various implications and consequences, but there is one point in common: it is primarily assigned to the private sphere and associated with domestic, affective and/or care work.

For 23 years, at the initiative of the Quebec feminist association for education and social action (Afeas), every first Tuesday of April has been devoted to World Invisible Work Day. THE International Labor Office (ILO) estimated, in 2011, at 8,000 billion US dollars the annual value of the invisible and unpaid work of women around the world. This question concerns me as a researcher working on gender inequalities, especially during the transition to parenthood.

Read more: University women do more care work, but they are not recognized

A new form of segregation

Invisible work is a feminist struggle, because to have it recognized is to fight what is its source, namely, gender inequalities. However, we must not forget the inequalities that can be added to it, those of race, age, ethnocultural and social.

If the old segregation of sexual roles between family, private and public space, today only concerns a minority of couples in Quebec, this principle has not lost its structuring force. We still observe, in fact, an unequal presence of women in the various fields of paid professional activities and, at the same time, the maintenance of their assignment to the family field and volunteer.

However, this assignment takes new forms since women “can” exercise a professional activity. In fact, they are mostly employed today, even with young children in Quebec. But this professional activity most often remains secondary, or at the very least framed by the demands of family workor even those of their spouse.

This priority assignment of women to the private field also reinforces gender inequalities in society, by endorsing a lesser involvement of women in the professional and public sphere. When they risk it, especially in politics, they are frequently attacked, even threatened with death, especially on social networks.

Read more: Ending harassment against women in politics

This a priori more limited professional involvement of women would also explain, according to some authorsthe persistent gaps in wage levels between women and men. Thus, because of a wage that is often lower than that of men, women are the ones who more often, and in particular when they become mothers, abandon the job market, or they adapt their working hours or their professional commitments to needs of their family. They also have to take more responsibility for domestic and family chores and the resulting mental workload. In doing so, they also compromise their level of income, their career development and, later, the level of their retirement pension.

The mental burden in the domestic universe, still and always a women’s affair.

The persistent wage gap between men and women, despite the fact that the latter are now more educated, is partly due to their training, which is still often determined by family considerations (facilitating family-work balance): they are still under-represented (less than a quarter of employees) in high-paying fields science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Impacts throughout life

Invisible, free work, carried out by women, is a major social issue, because it also serves to compensate, at a lower cost, for the lack of resources in childcare services, in schools (remedial teachers, psychoeducators) and in health and support services for dependent persons.

The more frequent taking on of unpaid, invisible work by women leads them to be more at risk of finding themselves in a situation of precariousness, poverty and economic dependence on a partner. They also find themselves more frequently confronted with physical and mental health issuesin particular because by trying to reconcile their different responsibilities, they limit the time they can devote to their well-being (sleep, sport, social and leisure activities).

Invisible work is a feminist struggle, but even more so it is a struggle to succeed in building a better and egalitarian society for all citizens of Quebec.

This is a major social issue, requiring its explicit and public recognition. More generally, we must fight against prejudices and gender stereotypeswage gaps between women and men, disqualification and harassment of women in the public space, as well as inequities in the sharing of family responsibilities.

We must remember the need to deconstruct and abolish the patriarchal mentalities still at work in productive and reproductive work, by placing equality between women and men at the center of socio-economic issues.

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