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Judy Haiven: The talents of women, the skills of men

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – There’s something odd going on here.

In the more than one month of isolating ourselves, staying 6 feet apart, no school, no gatherings in homes, restaurants or bars and scant outside work, we’ve seen something we haven’t seen in hundreds of years. 

Suddenly it’s women’s work that has real value during the pandemic.  It’s women’s care work in nursing homes, homecare and in hospitals that is needed. The healthcare system is begging for more nurses and personal care workers. It’s women mainly who staff  811 and who now must field hundreds of calls every shift for medical advice and even emotional support.  

Women, especially women of colour and immigrants, who served as the backbone of cleaning and dietary staff in institutions, are in demand. 

Grocery and drug store cashiers, mostly women who once earned about $12.58 an hour have had their wages boosted by $2/hr. Clerks, grocery stockers, and people who now clean shopping carts have also had their low wages increased by $2 per hour. This is a one time 14% raise – unheard of a month ago, a year ago, or ever—even if the grocery store were unionized, as some are in Cape Breton. Unions would have given their eye-teeth to have achieved a 14% raise through collective bargaining.

Previously, many grocery stores refused to give their employees a 40 hour week so their workers resorted to working two or even three jobs to have enough money to live– well that’s also a thing of the past.  Now grocery chains are begging employees to work full-time and over-time. Of course it helps that the stores’ profits are up about 40%– a windfall thanks to Covid-19. 

Primarily it’s women at home on their sewing machines who are able to furnish cloth, reusable masks to the public, when no shops can stock them. Many of these are produced for free. I know a university professor who is making masks because a Toronto hospital has asked for them.  Social media shows photos of women sitting at their dining tables sewing together scraps of cotton to make masks. When questioned by the media, the women always say they are doing nothing special, anything to help in a crisis. Typically the people who sew give the masks to hospitals, care homes, friends and family gratis as a way to show their love and support.

It’s mainly women who still have to maintain their households, whether or not they are single parents.  Their cooking skills (whether new-found or old) have to deliver their family three meals a day and then some.  Four weeks ago, family members could skip out for fast food, or eat lunch at work or school. But now, pretty much all food has to be prepared and eaten at home. 

And childcare. Just as women did most of the work at home and took care of babies, women now get to humour, encourage and help their school age children with homework and online studies.  

In business schools we talk about “soft skills”. Soft skills include administrative skills, timeliness, saying please and thank you, interpersonal skills, and critical thinking; we know that those are the skills employers seek in today’s workforce. These are the same skills that typically women have — skills for which they are rarely acknowledged and more rarely compensated for. 

In a groundbreaking article, University of Montreal political science professor Jane Jenson writes in The Talents of Women, The Skills of Men: Flexible Specialisation and Women how, under capitalism, women’s skills are typically denigrated to being “talents” (which are presumably inborn and therefore not deserving of much reward) while men’s abilities are called “skills” (which have to be acquired and therefore deserving of much reward).  

Jenson explains that as a result, women get pushed into the “secondary labour market” which means they get the crumbs that fall from employers’ tables.  Often women have to settle for part time work to fit around family responsibilities or childcare; they have to work unsocial hours; they have to take jobs at lesser pay just to have a job. Women must take jobs in the service sector where there is generally no career ladder or long term job opportunities.  

While the “gig” economy has become a financial pressure-cooker for men and women, it’s women who tend to suffer more.  We need only look at the Jian Ghomeshi case, see for instance What Jian Ghomeshi did.  

Many young and educated women were desperate to get a full time job at the CBC or in the wider Toronto media.  They believed a date or even some attention from Ghomeshi was a way to gain a foothold.  He was a man of influence at the CBC; he boasted he could help or hinder anyone’s career.  The women – all in the secondary labour market, all on part time contracts, or selling one-off shows or scripts – saw Ghomeshi as a gatekeeper.  He could let them in, or push them out in the cold.  The real horror of Ghomeshi was that he flaunted his ability to make or break anyone in the media. So women in the media’s secondary labour market who wanted to move up the ladder had to get on his good side. 

The Covid-19 virus has changed much of this. First, layoffs abound.  Canada has bled 1.5 million jobs. The hospitality industry, the service sector and retail  have taken the biggest hits. According to Statistics Canada, the top three employers for women are these. Then there is education.  While teachers are still responsible for teaching and will be for the foreseeable future, the future for teachers’ aides (classroom assistants) is not so rosy.  Without students in the classrooms, there is no need for classroom assistants. Most of them are women.

Daycares are closed for now, but people may not get back to their old jobs after this crisis.  This is especially so for women who are often the last to be hired and the first to be laid off. If a woman cannot get her job back, she won’t need childcare. And childcare workers – typically women whose measly wage is $17-19 per hour — will remain out of work.  

Yet it’s precisely the skills of patience, fortitude, thrift, respect, organization, and active listening which have been undervalued in our society and are  now critically needed. Is it too much to think there will be a change in how women’s work is seen– and more importantly compensated?

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, a Halifax-based organization which fights bullying, racism and discrimination in the workplace. You can reach her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

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