Against ‘greedy work’

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The state of women in the labor force has come a long way in a relatively short span of time. As recently as the 1930s it was acceptable for women to be prohibited from certain types of work for no reason other than their biological sex. Now, except in the most specialized of cases, no such explicit prohibitions purely on the basis of sex are allowed, and what persists are the unspoken rules, the internalized biases and the prejudices baked into institutions and procedures.

On the one hand, that is a vast improvement over barely a century, the result of much struggle and bravery from those who fought for women’s equality. But on the other hand, it makes it easy to see why there is still so much work left to be done – one century of change can hardly be expected to completely undo millennia of generalized suppression, especially not when the structures of labor and markets are products of that period when women were largely deemed to belong solely in the home.

This is one of the reasons why, even as we celebrate the progress that we have made and those that made it possible, it’s important to understand how far we still have to go and to acknowledge that women can still rightly feel unfairly treated. One of the easiest metrics to use in order to see this is what is referred to as the gender pay gap, or simply put, the difference in the average earnings of similarly situated men and women. According to recent analytics, on a global scale women on average earn 77 percent of what men earn. This pay gap has remained more or less static in many areas of the world, in spite of a greater acceptance of women in the work force and harsher attitudes towards discrimination – in the United States, the gender pay gap has not changed much in 20 years, and at the current pace of “improvement,” estimated that it will take 257 years to close the global gender pay gap.

To get an even broader picture, a recent study points to a gender employment gap to show the cost of motherhood – or even the prospect of motherhood – on women’s careers. The study found that while 95 percent of men aged between 25 and 54 were in the labor force, the figure for women of the same age was merely 52 percent. In richer countries, 80 percent of the gap between male and female labor force participation was due to women leaving their jobs after the birth of their first child. For poorer nations, this happens even earlier – upon the mere occurrence of marriage – but it’s clear this is done to prospectively prepare for childbirth and the ensuing need to care for the child in places where childcare options outside the immediate family are slim to none.

This study was based on the work of Claudia Goldin, an economist who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her research into gender inequality in the labor market. In her book, “Career & Family – Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity,” Goldin explored what she believes to be the central problem causing gender inequality in the labor market. She believes that the reason that otherwise positive measures – such as laws against discrimination in the workplace – aimed at addressing the gender pay or employment gaps have been unable to make much headway, is because they are aimed at symptoms rather than root causes.

One such root cause is the phenomena she named “Greedy Work.” Women as a whole have more labor opportunities than ever before and have also been disabused of the notion that they must make an absolute choice between having children or having a career. But the modern reality is that while women are not faced with a single absolute choice, there are a slew of regular, smaller-scale choices they must navigate in order to achieve their dual goals: to work late or tend to a sick child, to attend a meeting with a client or a child’s presentation, to take on additional tasks to impress the boss or to file for a vacation leave to spend time with the family?

On one hand, these choices are inevitable when pursuing two goals. But the point Goldin makes is that modern workplaces have made the consequences of choosing family over career exorbitantly high, and that modern work has become increasingly greedy of the time it demands from workers in order to advance their careers. Moreover, women are still frequently expected to choose family over career, and even when they do so, there are no structures or safety nets to mitigate the effect these forced and inequitable decisions have for their careers.

So, women are left holding the bag. When they are forced to take a leave to give birth, their careers suffer. When they are expected to be available to attend to the emergency needs of a child, they are steered towards more “flexible” positions with less potential for career advancement. Not going the extra mile for a client is taken against them, not burning the midnight oil is a negative mark. Modern jobs are set up in a way that demands and expects so much of us, that reduces one’s status to an employee rather than a person with needs outside of the job.

If we want there to be equality between men and women at work, we first have to rid society of its unreasonable expectation of women to carry the bulk, if not all, of the housework, house management and childcare. But let us also take took a long, hard look at what we allow work to demand from us. The way work is now, is not the way it needs to be. When the COVID outbreak was at its peak, myths about what work could and could not be done remotely, and at a more flexible pace, were shattered. Yet as soon as COVID restrictions slackened, that flexibility was quickly wiped away. But we’ve already seen that the nature of work can be changed.

And change it must, for the good not only of women but of men. If we can make work less greedy, less all-consuming, we can reclaim the time we need to allow us – both men and women – to have the best of both worlds. As persons, as parents… we deserve nothing less.

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