February 07, 2007


When we speak of women’s work we initially think of the work that women do at home, their unpaid domestic labour. The old catchcry ‘women’s work is never done’ refers to the hundreds of household chores for which women are assumed to take total responsibility. However there is also another sort of ‘women’s work’ – the work done by women in the paid workforce, which is characterised by the fact that it tends to be done only by women. Although the work women perform at home is itself invisible because it is always done away from the public eye, women are seen by society as housewives and mothers and not as paid workers. Women’s unpaid domestic work is seen as primary and paramount, and their workforce participation is therefore reduced to apparent insignificance and social ‘invisibility’.

The social invisibility of women’s paid labour is used to justify paying women lower wages than men. Underlying the conception that housewifery and motherhood constitute women’s primary role is the assumption that they are dependent on fathers and husbands. Thus when women enter the workforce they are not seen as needing the same remuneration as men because they are already ‘sharing’ a man’s wage. Women as individuals are also rendered vulnerable to accepting low wages because they themselves see their paid labour as less significant than their primary task of home-making. As Juliet Mitchell says in Woman’s Estate, ‘Their exploitation is invisible behind an ideology that masks the fact that they work at all – their work appears inessential.'

Thus as long as women are seen primarily as unpaid domestic workers their suppression and exploitation in the paid workforce continues unhindered, since their work has no ideological existence. This ‘invisibility’, in fact, ensures its continuation. Hence it is vital that the real significance of women’s paid labour to society is fully understood, for without this understanding it will remain invisible, and women will remain vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labour.


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