Women’s work has always been essential despite being undervalued; it’s time we treat it as such.
Even before women were allowed to formally enter the workforce, there was the expectation that they would perform traditionally “feminine” work such as cooking, cleaning and caretaking. For generations, women have filled these roles both domestically and professionally, despite often receiving little recognition and compensation. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, duties classically perceived as “women’s work” rise to the top of our consciousness as essential.
When women perform labor within the household, it’s frequently due to a long-standing societal expectation—and because the work is expected, it’s unpaid. Similarly, when women perform that same work outside of the household, it can be perceived as “unskilled” or somehow less than men’s work. Nurses “work under” physicians; women struggle to be taken seriously in professional kitchens; domestic workers are “unskilled” regardless of the value their work provides. Despite these challenges, women continue to feed us, take care of us and clean up after us, even during a pandemic. Because if they don’t do it, then who will?
“There are many different thought processes of what a nurse does and who they are. I am not the physician’s right hand,” says Sharon Carter, an intensive care unit nurse at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. “Some people think the nurse just does what the physician wants…But nurses are the ones that are there with you time after time. Most of your interaction and care comes from a nurse. We’re there to advocate for you and to help you when you’re most vulnerable.”
Domestic workers are a particularly defenseless group. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, there are more than 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States, most of whom are women of color and immigrants. Because domestic work is classified as “unskilled,” there are no formal certifications or training curriculum in the United States. Despite performing essential work, an overwhelming majority of domestic workers don’t have access to a living wage, health care or workers’ protections. In 2012, the NDWA found that the median hourly wage of live-in workers is only $6.15. The NDWA also reported that only 35 percent of domestic workers have health insurance. The National Labor Relations Act prohibits domestic workers from forming unions which cripples their collective bargaining power for fair work environments. Domestic workers are also not protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The importance of basic rights like paid sick leave are exceptionally relevant right now, as domestic workers often care for the elderly and immunocompromised.
This inequality compounds when observed through the lens of race and class. When women of color work in highly specialized fields, they can face heightened prejudices, a snowball effect due to preconceived notions of race and gender.
“There have been several times when I look up and I’m the only black female on the floor or in a meeting. …I’m just numb to it now. I don’t let it get to me anymore,” says Rene’ Howard, nursing supervisor for Austin Regional Clinic. “I’m just as qualified and I work just as hard.”
As the world reacts to the spread of COVID-19, society pushes these traditionally undervalued duties and jobs to the front lines, to keep people healthy and the economy running. In this new normal, the descriptor essential should not refer just to the work, but also the people completing it. Health care professionals need personal protective equipment. Service industry and domestic workers need paid sick leave and a living wage. Employees in these roles need both structural and community support in order to do their jobs safely and effectively. Otherwise, essential really means disposable.
HOW TO START THE CONVO
Understand that work should not be gendered. Work that needs to be done is valuable regardless of who is doing it. Recognize the work of maintaining a household is equally as valid as an office job.
Have a community-oriented mentality. Keeping our communities safe is the No. 1 priority. Providing essential workers with the resources they need to stay healthy and the support they need to stay home if they are sick benefits everyone. Advocating for workers’ rights protects our community.
Stay at home if you can. Follow local regulations and social-distancing protocols to slow the spread of the virus and help prevent overwhelming hospitals and clinics.