women in the workplace: we’ve come a long way, maybe

March 8th was International Women’s Day, which celebrates women’s participation in the workforce and their contributions to the world as a whole. The day is an opportunity to educate a new generation of young people – both men and women – eager to stake their claim in the workplace. 

This year’s International Women’s Day made more news than usual thanks to added visibility in the form of widespread protests to American president Donald Trump and his administration, as well as high-profile recognition from companies around the globe, including State Street Global Advisors, which was behind the ‘fearless girl’ statue facing down the famous Wall Street bull.

Though women have made great strides in the workplace, there’s still work to be done and progress to be made. International Women’s Day is also an excellent chance to remember and honour groundbreaking women and their journey through history and recognize we still have a long way to go.

Working women have come a long way from being seen as “better than two men in many cases and not half the expense” as they were in the Labrador fishing industry. In fact, for at least the earlier part of their working history, women’s labour was considered cheap and expendable. Is it any wonder that old notions about ‘women’s work’ still operate in many circles as an innate bias and remain firmly embedded in our work DNA?

women in the workplace history

early history: “women’s work” is in the domestic realm

Of the top ten occupations for women listed by the Department of Labour in the 19th and early 20th century, almost half of paid work available to women was in domestic services, logical (for the times) because of their work in the home. It was hard, nasty work with little time off in poor conditions and worse treatment; women often lived in the attics or basements of their employers. It’s understandable that women found the rising availability of new jobs in factories, shops and offices more attractive, even though they were earning less than half the pay of men in similar roles.

Movement into professions like nursing and teaching was an extension of female domestic, caregiving service, even though the work was still considered low status and women were forced to give up their careers in those fields once they married in order to maintain the social status quo of the breadwinning man and housekeeping woman.

the shift to industrial work in the 1800s

Towards the end of the 1800’s, textile and clothing industries were the second largest employers of women who, again, faced long hours, meagre pay, and terrible working conditions. Where they were able to organize, women asserted themselves, as they did in the first recorded strike for a 55-hour workweek at Toronto Carpet Factory in 1902.

With their numbers increasing, working women drove strikes and work actions, forcing city councils across Canada to develop legislation for better working conditions and fairer treatment and compensation. In fact, Workmen’s Compensation, while it referred only to ‘workmen’, came about as a result of the dangerous work and subsequent job actions of female telephone operators.

WWI alters the way women workers are viewed

Many consider the turning point in women’s employment history to be the First World War when women entered the workforce to replace enlisted men. This wasn’t the same wave of employment experienced in WW2 but it was enough to alter the working dynamic going forward even if women were encouraged – and in some cases legislated - to return to their place in the kitchen at the end of the war.

The times were definitely changing in the first half of the 20th century with the suffragette movement seeking the vote for women, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. That same year, Canadian women were finally recognized as ‘persons’ under the law. The impending war in Europe made great demands on the workforce as multitudes of men enlisted and demand for products in support of the war effort increased. This time, when the war ended, many women declined the invitation to step back into the home and stayed employed, even if their presence triggered significant cultural and social change and forced governments and unions to rethink their mandates.

slow strides made from 1950s to present

The 1950s saw rapid economic expansion and increased production and availability of goods, health and education services. New products and services and the need to advertise and deliver them created new opportunities for women. The desire to contribute to their families’ standard of living sent many women into the workforce. Their numbers continue to increase; as of 2014, Statistics Canada estimated over 47% of the workforce was comprised of women. While women need to be income earners, their incomes are still embarrassingly well below their male colleagues’. And while things have changed for the better, women still do the lion’s share of domestic chores and care, even if they share some responsibilities with a partner.

Change is slow in coming. It starts with a shift in monolithic thinking around gender roles and what constitutes men’s and women’s work. Along with a change in attitudes, new legislation is required to create social, economic and political structures that are more reflective of the world of work as it is. The nature of work itself is shifting to a non-traditional model, consisting of part-time, contract, virtual, contingent, consultant, and freelance workers. Whether these new models are gender neutral or gender specific remains to be seen.

With the cost of living so high in Canada, few families can house, clothe, feed and educate their families on one income.  Where the standard of gender roles was closely adhered to and monitored in the early part of the last century in spite of the odd historical blip, there’s a new paradigm for this century. Women may never return to the kitchen unless it’s their choice to do so.

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