When the financial crisis erupted in 2009, the labor force participation rate of women declined, dipping all the way to pre-1990 levels.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2013, the rate of prime-aged women (25 to 54 years as defined by the bureau) participating in the workforce was 73.8 percent, a figure that was last seen in 1989.
However, the rate appears to be recovering since 2013, with the participation rate for prime-aged women surpassing 76.2 percent as of September.
As more women head back into the workforce or enter it for the first time, questions about home and work arise in society. How is work defined? What is valued work and what isn’t? What happens when a job is part-time, temporary or low-paid?
Eileen Boris, a UCSB professor of feminist studies, has been pondering these questions for decades. Her newest book, “Making the Woman Worker,” analyzes a century of discussions about the female worker and her workplaces, which could take place both outside and inside the home. For Dr. Boris, studying and understanding the female worker sheds light on society in a critical way.
“The making of people is central to the making of society. The question of the woman worker is at the heart of how we organize social and economic life,” said Dr. Boris. “Who cares for children, how do we reproduce ourselves daily as well as generationally is central to the organization of society. Without cooking and cleaning, loving, and teaching and socializing, there wouldn’t be anyone to go out to work.”
But what happens when those who traditionally do the cooking and cleaning in the home leave it to go out and work? A care deficit occurs.
According to Dr. Boris, the care deficit refers to the gap between households’ demand for care — whether that be to care for the elderly, children, those with disabilities — and the supply of caretakers within a household. Some jobs’ structures may discourage taking time off to care for household members, or workers may feel the pressure to remain in the labor force to avoid having a gap-filled resumé.
In the U.S., where more and more women are going out of the home to work, this care deficit takes place. Dr. Boris told the News-Press about a strategy that households facing care deficit utilize to meet the demand: import a caretaker.
As women in the U.S. leave their homes for work, women from parts of what is often considered the third word come into their homes for work. Thus, the home becomes a workplace.
Over the years, however, organizations dedicated to increase workers’ rights in the workplace have often overlooked home workers. In addition to bringing questions about the female worker to the forefront of discussion, Dr. Boris’ book concludes that societies with care deficit ought to figure out how to deal with the commodification of care.
A few state initiatives have helped address the issues with the commodification of care. States such as New York, California and Hawaii, for example, all have domestic workers’ bill of rights, which grant labor protections to those who go into a home to work. Most of these positions are filled by women, who, under the bill, have the right to overtime pay, a day of rest every seven days, and cause of action for sexual or racial harassment.
Dr. Boris’ book also talks about the structural mechanisms set up to assist women in the workforce, whether or not their work takes place inside or outside the home. These mechanisms, however, can make female workers a bit more costly than their male counterparts in the eyes of an employer.
“Treating women differently than men can lead to employers not hiring women,” said Dr. Boris. “They become more expensive. Having equal pay sounds wonderful and becomes the rate for the job, but if employers don’t think women are worth it, they don’t get hired.”
Dr. Boris added that equality for those who are in different circumstances can lead to inequality.
“There are feminists who are trying to get special conditions for women workers so they can compete with male workers and recognize the double day of the woman worker,” said Dr. Boris, referring to how after the average married woman goes home from work, she takes on the household responsibilities of cooking and cleaning. “Then you have legal equality feminists who say anything other than strict equality is going to lead to discrimination, which would be true if men and women were in the same jobs, but they’re not.”
As a historian, Dr. Boris teaches and discusses the conversations that have taken place over time about the woman worker.
“In the ’60s, there’s a discussion about women workers with family responsibilities. By the ’80s, it’s workers with family responsibilities. Today, there’s a discussion in terms of the future of work on the care work economy,” said Dr. Boris. “Over the course of the last 60, 70 years or so, the prototypical worker shifted from the auto worker, the steel maker, from the man, to the service worker, to the home health care worker, to the woman.”
As the conversations and the labor dynamics progress, a better understanding of the unpaid and paid work of care is needed, according to Dr. Boris.
“And both need to be better accommodated,” she said. “Care is at the center of the future of work.”
Dr. Boris’ latest book “Making the Woman Worker” is available on Google Play Books, Apple Books and Barnes & Noble.