Invisible work: women’s challenges in the service economy

Lydia Alpural-Sullivan on gendered pay disparities.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 1, 2014

In the changed economic landscape of the 21st century global economy, no welldeveloped theory or system for quantifying the value of labor outside the realm of physical goods production exists. The task of quantifying the value of labor as a good itself is complex and abstract. The result of this difficulty is that when determining the value of a worker’s skillset for the purpose of determining compensation, an employer is wont to rely on subjective benchmarks defined by tradition, and in the case of women particularly the sexual division of labor.

The type of work that is available to women (not to be confused with work women choose, as the capitalist class is fond of framing it) certainly has something to do with pay inequality. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013 shows that the great majority of the lowest paying jobs are in the service sector, particularly food service and retail occupations—industries which are largely occupied by female workers. What’s more, women aren’t only over-represented in the lowest paying jobs; they are the lowest paid amongst that section of workers, too.

Domestic labor that women have performed in the home and community has also traditionally been unpaid work. To imagine that those same skills have come to be simply expected from women by employers, essentially normalizing the idea that those particular forms of female capital should come at no additional cost, is no huge stretch. In his 1983 book, “The Managed Heart,” Arlie Hothschild coined the useful phrase “emotional labor,” defined as that which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Female workers are particularly susceptible to performing emotional labor, both because of the jobs made available to them, and because they have been mercilessly socialized to bear the burden of being pleasant and amicable. Certain sects of Mormonism have even adopted the mantra for their young women—“Keep Sweet,” as a reminder that passive agreeableness is a duty of their sex.

So, what is the precise connection between women occupying jobs that reflect the sexual division of labor and the pay gap? Cultural traditions arising from a history written by the voice of patriarchy seem to suggest that women’s work is simply more worthless. Certain tasks, having been historically assigned to the realm of women, have become in a Veblenian sense “humiliating” (as opposed to “honorific”) employments—or in other words, jobs which have never been and shall never be lionized, appreciated, or respected proportional to their use and value to a society.

To find millennia-old evidence of a gender gap in worth, one might start in Leviticus 27, verses 3-7, which contains a tariff describing the values of female and male slaves. The average worth of a female slave was approximately 63 percent of that of a male slave. Interestingly, the average wage differential for a female worker between 1950 and 1990 was 62.5 percent that of men. Until nearly the 21st century, it would appear, pay for women has lagged amazingly consistently. It is possible the inherent patriarchy of these belief systems was the vehicle across the centuries for a consistent disparateness in worth.

To see how emotional labor is ignored in the workplace, simply imagine which task sounds more exhausting—a childcare worker looking after 20 children, or a technician repairing a car. Include in your consideration that the technician will receive nearly twice what the caregiver will—and he is almost certainly male, and she, female. Alternately, some male-dominated industries (like information technology) will hire “office moms”—women brought on for their interpersonal skills to help offices run smoothly. These women are not paid for their interpersonal contributions to the business, despite the fact that they carry significant emotional and psychological weight in the workplace.

Obviously, closing the wage gap has profound implications for the working class. What we as workers can do to help address this is to first be aware of the emotional labor we do, and understand the unique challenges that female workers face in service jobs. We must also make efforts to consider our fellow workers in this regard. Perhaps most importantly, we must be willing to unify and speak up when we see this condition being taken advantage of. The favorite tool of the capitalist class is to divide workers along lines—by pay, by race, by gender—to tempt us to think some jobs, some skills, some workers are doing more and are worth more than others. To tolerate a gender pay gap is to assist the employing class to that end. The only answer is to be an advocate for any worker who you feel is not being paid for every bit of the labor they are doing, whether that labor is visible or not.