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A Brief History of Men's and Women's Work

A very brief overview of the history of men's and women's work and status

Physical differences define the natural roles of men and women. Men are larger and physically stronger than women, while women bear children. In tribal societies, men did big game hunting and warfare and any other activities that took them away from the home base. Women did child bearing and rearing, and activities close to the home base such as gathering food or trapping small animals. Women stayed close to home to care for the children, sick and elderly. Men were the providers and protectors of the women and children. Anthropologists tell us that tribal societies all differentiated work according to men's work and women's work, but in different tribes different jobs were assigned.

As agriculture developed it was possible to create surplus product. People could benefit from exchange, so they traded the surpluses. Over time, market locations were developed, usually far from a family's home base. Since it was the men who did long-distance travel, it was men who went to market. In general the market institutions, rules, laws and habits were developed by men.

Over time, social institutions were created including religions, military, governing bodies, education, etc. These were all developed by men with few or no women included. Women tended to be on the bottom rungs of the hierarchies if they were allowed in at all. Women's place was seen to be at home with the children and not in the public domain. In some countries, women were allowed to be Queen or equivalent, but in others laws were passed excluding women from governing. In general, women needed to be a member of a household headed by a man. Single women or widows without family were likely to be destitute and live in poverty.

As urbanization, industrialization and commercialization arose, men became more and more active in the public world of industry and commerce while women stayed home with the children. This system became known as Separate Spheres. Single women and widowed women could work in the labour force, but never earned the same pay as men, and didn't do the same jobs. Even in the rare situation when they did do the same job, they earned roughly half of the man's pay rate. The argument was that men earned a family wage while women earned "pin money", meaning money for frivolous extras such as jewellery. Even though this was not true for the vast majority of women workers, it was the accepted perception.

The feminist movement of the late 19th century was oriented toward giving women voting rights. Who was allowed to vote in government elections had historically been determined by wealth and social status. Originally, land-owners could vote, then businessmen were added. Eventually all men were able to vote except criminals, but still not women. The argument against women having the vote was that it would give married men two votes since women would be told who to vote for by their husbands.

The twentieth century greatly changed the way men and women spent their time. The evolution of household goods and the rise of suburban living replaced farming and agriculture as the main way of life. Women filtered into the labour force in greater numbers, but the Great Depression sent all women back home since men needed to earn to support their families. During World War 2 women were invited to leave their homes to work in the war effort. After the war, these women were required to give up their jobs to returning soldiers, which was not popular. Families had grown more accustomed to women working outside the home and enjoyed the benefits of two incomes, while businesses had discovered that women made excellent employees, better than men. Women workers were more responsible, more reliable and could be paid less. Eventually married women filtered into the labour force in greater and greater numbers, although they still worked in women's work for women's pay.

The feminist movement of the 1960s thru 1980s was oriented to giving women equal status in the labour force, with equal pay for work of equal value and employment equity. While these policies were all good in theory, their application was still fraught with gender stereotyping and gendered social values.

We now have a society that seems more gender balanced. Women and men are able to work in any job, although a man wanting to be a daycare worker is still considered abnormal and is frowned upon, and a women driving express truck may still have to bear a lot of sexually-based taunting. We have a few more women at the top of the institutional hierarchies, but not many. The boardrooms and governing bodies are still heavily male-dominant. It is still true that most families list the male as the major income-earner; he still has higher pay, more likely unionized, more likely secure and with benefits. When they decide to have children, she will most likely take time off to stay home with the children since the family will lose less income that way, and it is her natural role in the family. He has the ability to take paternity leave, but few men make this choice as it will affect their future ability to be promoted. There is still a sub-text in the workplace that expects people to put their job before their family. So gendered culture is still with us in most ways, just subtler and less dramatic than it used to be.



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