Has increased participation in the paid workforce emancipated women and challenged gender stereotypes?

Women’s increased participation in the global labour market from the mid 19th century has brought about great social, political and economic changes. However, ingrained gender stereotypes and cultural norms mean that labour is still highly gendered, and women still face large-scale institutionalised discrimination in the workplace and beyond. The Oxford English Dictionary describes emancipation as “the fact or process of being set free from legal, social or political restrictions” ("Emancipation," 2015). In the majority of the world, it is not necessarily legal or political restrictions that are the greatest barrier to women’s liberation; it is instead globalised social institutions and norms. Due to ingrained, socially constructed gender roles women, even those in full time paid-work, still bear the brunt of domestic duties and care for children and elderly parents. Similarly, women are more likely to be in precarious casual, part time, or contract work with limited job security and lower wages then their male counterparts. Finally, the individualistic, neoliberal ideology of the globalised world ignores the systemic barriers that women face, meaning that women are underrepresented in high-level positions and overrepresented in poverty.

The increase in women’s participation in the paid workforce over the course of the 20th century saw a shift in the political and legal landscape as women moved from the private into the public sphere. Globally, the beginning of the 20th century marked a huge event for women’s emancipation as women’s suffrage came to the fore in many Western countries and some women began to be recognised as equal citizens before the law (Markkola, Nevala-Nurmi, & Sulkunen, 2009). Today, there is only one state that does not allow women the right to vote, with Saudi Arabia passing an equal voting act in 2015, which shows that women’s emancipation has grown alongside workforce participation (Zarya, 2015). As more women have entered the global workforce through the process of globalisation they have been able to mobilise in order to further challenge existing “social and gender arrangements”(Moghadam, 2015, p. 386). Despite an often-disparaging lack of political representation in formal institutions, women have been able to challenge existing legal and political frameworks in order to improve their standing in the workforce in many countries. This can be seen through the introduction of policies and laws such as the Equal Pay Act in Australia, maternity leave schemes, and improved childcare subsidies in many nations (Henderson & Bartlett, 2013; Markkola et al., 2009). However in the developing world women’s participation in the labour market is often in the informal sector, with little legal protection from exploitation, and thus this legal and political emancipation is limited. Ultimately, however, the greatest barriers to women’s emancipation are not legal or political but rather are caused by societal constructions of gender and gender roles.

The ideology of ‘separate spheres’ that emerged out of 19th century Britain was one that promoted an idea of women destined only for motherhood and marriage and saw their place as inside the home, rather than in the workforce (Bythell, 1993). This meant that while it may be acceptable for young spinsters to join the workforce before marriage as a way of supporting themselves, it was unacceptable for married or widowed women to do the same. This norm of a ‘male-breadwinner’, with a wage that must support a family, is one that still permeates society with women still seen as secondary earners (King & Sweetman, 2010). This has resulted in large wage gaps between both women and men as individuals, and between industries designated as “either men’s or women’s work”(Bythell, 1993, p. 36). Moghadam (2015) cites “social relations of gender” as the cause of the pervasive income gap between male and female workers with women earning, on average, 75 per cent of men’s wages (p. 375). While differing levels of education and access to employment can account for some of that gap, gender bias especially in the private sector accounts for a large proportion of it (ibid. 2015). The traditional, socially constructed, gender roles that place women in the home and men in the workforce have created large disparities in the conditions, opportunities and pay between male and female workers. While it must be recognised that these issues can have a political or legal element, with equal pay legislation aiding somewhat at reducing the wage gap, they are largely caused by societal expectations and norms that have been slow to adapt despite women’s increased participation in the workforce.

Globally there has been a ‘feminisation of labour’, with women making up a larger percentage of the workforce then ever before and with flexible jobs that are more often taken by women becoming a norm (Standing, 2011). However, with women much more likely to be in part-time, casual or insecure work with poor conditions and reliance upon a female breadwinner is seen as a large indicator of household poverty (King & Sweetman, 2010; Moghadam, 2015). With the neoliberal economic policies of limited state-intervention and significant cuts to welfare that were popularised in the 1980’s, as labour has become feminised, so has poverty (Kingfisher, 2013). Without a significant decrease in the wage gap, and a lack of welfare, many female breadwinners disproportionately bore the burden of structural readjustment. The rapid tide of globalisation that offered new opportunities to women in the developing world in the form of paid work, often limited those opportunities to poorly paid, highly female-dominated industries (Moghadam, 2015). These industries are predominantly focused around reproductive labour (aged care, childcare, domestic work etc), manufacturing, and services, and are often poorly waged with negligible protection from exploitation (Kingfisher, 2013). The type of labour desired by many corporations, i.e. expendable and cheap, is readily found in women whose employment is seen as simply a precursor to marriage and children, an idea stemming from Victorian times (Bythell, 1993). Women and girls make up the majority of the worlds poor, and socially accepted gender discrimination is a major cause of this poverty, something that has been exacerbated by economic globalisation and despite increased female participation in the workforce (Moghadam, 2015).

Women who participate in the paid labour force are subject to a phenomenon known as the double or triple burden. This burden is their expected contribution to domestic work, childcare and aged care all while performing paid work as well. This burden, which according to Sullivan and Gershuny (2013) has only seen a minute decrease since the 1970’s, is due to the fact that domestic and care work, otherwise known as ‘reproductive labour’, is highly feminised. There are marked gender differences in socio-cultural beliefs regarding work and family roles with women who have children, for example, performing twice the amount of housework then their partners (Bratberg, Dahl, & Risa, 2002). Similarly, according to sociological research, men’s contribution to domestic work increased by only one minute per year between 1972 and 1992 despite a rapid increase in female workforce participation (Sullivan & Gershuny, 2013, p. 452). Therefore it can be assumed that while women have taken on more in the workplace they still retain their domestic responsibilities, especially in terms of childcare and care for elderly relatives. This double or triple burden places huge time constraints on women; constraints that their male counterparts are not required to bear. This exposes the huge gender role differentiations and expectations still present in society, despite increased participation in the workforce that are severely limiting to women’s emancipation.

The largest barrier to women’s emancipation is the societal gender norms and expectations that have remained, despite certain legal and political protections. Ideologies that promote women as mother and wife above all, left over from the Victorian era, have become embedded in global society. This has meant that women are paid less, often work in casualised, feminised labour, and are still expected to perform the role of dutiful wife through domestic and care work. While a majority of nations have reduced the political and legal restrictions placed on women over the last century, the social institutions and norms that prevent emancipation are still firmly in place.