We’re All Women Workers Now: How the Floor of the Economy Has Dropped for Everyone

We’re All Women Workers Now: How the Floor of the Economy Has Dropped for Everyone

We’re All Women Workers Now: How the Floor of the Economy Has Dropped for Everyone

Sexist practices once reserved for female employees have now spread throughout the whole economy.


Housekeepers at the Westin Hotel. (Flickr/Douglas Muth)

Our workforce, once dominated by men, is now pretty much equally split between the genders. But a funny thing has happened since women entered it in droves: rather than all workers enjoying the stable, unionized, blue collar jobs men typically held until the latter part of the twentieth century, the jobs held by all workers look more and more like stereotypical “women’s work.” These jobs expect workers not just to make a product, but to do it with a warm attitude. They are less likely to be full-time, but instead modeled after part-time work for “pin money.” And an increasing number of jobs are low-pay, low-benefit work in the service sector, once the purview of women workers. We’re all women workers now, and we’re all suffering for it.

A couple of weeks ago, a number of bloggers took notice of a growing trend: the increasing demand for “affective labor” or “emotional labor” in service sector jobs. This was exemplified in a London Review of Books article about how workers at Pret A Manger are not just expected to show up at work, make sandwiches and ring customers up, but to do it with a happy attitude. Enumerated “Pret Behaviours” (since deleted from the company’s website) expect that the company’s workers “create a sense of fun” and are “genuinely friendly” and warn against those who are “moody or bad-tempered,” “annoys people” or “is just here for the money.” Heaven forbid that a low-pay, unstable service sector job be about earning income to cover one’s expenses.

This sort of requirement is not unique to Pret; in fact, it seems to be an increasingly common expectation. (This is why the cashiers at Trader Joe’s always seem eager to share an off-topic personal anecdote while they bag my Joe’s Os.) Researcher Arlie Hochschild estimated that about a third of all jobs entailed emotional labor in 1983 when she first wrote about the subject in her book The Managed Heart, but today, reports Timothy Noah, Hochschild estimates it’s closer to half.

In response, Sarah Jaffe rightly pointed out that this trend isn’t exactly new for one segment of the population: female workers. Women have long been expected to put on a smile and flirt at work, from nurses to domestic workers to waitresses to sex workers. In fact, the obligation to be happy and comforting was a big part of the few career paths offered to women in the 1960s as the transition from the homemaker model began to slowly give way to working outside the home.

One of the few jobs women could get was flight attendant. As Gail Collins wrote in her book, When Everything Changed, most flights were full of male passengers and some even barred women from flying. But women, while kept from flying the planes, were sought after to be stewardesses. “[T]he airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women,” Collins writes, and even fired women who had husbands. There were limits on weight that were strictly policed to ensure that the women remained attractive. “The airline industry [argued] with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive,” she wrote. The industry took things pretty far:

In 1971 National Airlines began its “Fly Me” campaign, in which lovely young women in flight attendants’ uniforms purred, “Hi, I’m Cheryl/Donna/Diane. Fly me.” Continental announced, “We really move our tails for you,” and Southwest introduced itself as the “love” airline, where passengers would be served “love bites” and “love potions,” otherwise known as snacks and drinks. Meanwhile the women who were dispensing the love bites, moving their tails, and (later) promising to “fly you like you’ve never been flown before” were being dressed in miniskirts, vinyl, hot pants, and—in the case of TWA—paper clothes, such as togas, cocktail dresses, and “penthouse pajamas,” that were supposed to match the entrées.

One can only imagine the attitude and smiling requirements that went with such jobs. A flight attendant couldn’t just show up and serve drinks to passengers; she had to act out the part of a happy, flirty hostess.

Now these practices, once reserved for young, attractive women, have spread throughout the economy and apply to both genders. Yet we still undervalue these emotionally demanding jobs. As Andrew O’Connell writes, men get a nearly 9 percent wage boost when they move to jobs that require increased cognitive labor, yet they take a nearly 6 percent cut in pay if they move to jobs that demand higher emotional labor. Women don’t get a penalty for moving into emotional labor, but they certainly don’t see a wage boost, as their pay stays flat. Perhaps this is because we still think of this as women’s domain, even though men are increasingly expected to do it too.

Meanwhile, women were the guinea pigs in another disturbing trend: the rise of the temp worker. As Erin Hatton wrote in The New York Times recently, the temp industry has added more jobs in the United States than any other over the last three years. The recovery period has undoubtedly seen the replacement of full-time jobs with part-time and temporary ones. Part-time employment grew from just under 10 percent in 2007 to over that in 2010, even though the percentage of workers in those jobs who would rather full-time work doubled. Temp jobs look even worse: they accounted for over a quarter of all new private sector jobs created in 2010, even though they were only about 7 percent of the jobs created in the wake of the 2001 recession. Hatton notes that employers could have chosen to invest in workers and their products. Instead, they took the low road.

Hatton writes that the temp industry sprung up near the height of unions’ power with the ability to skirt labor protections by “casting temp work as ‘women’s work,’ and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs.” This strategy “exploited the era’s cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace ‘breadwinning’ union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money.” They were thus able to create an entire industry of low-pay, unstable work without running into battles with unions or having to offer the employees workplace protections like health benefits, organizing rights and anti-discrimination laws.

But the “Kelly Girl” model of women working for fun eventually became a broader argument about the nature of wage work. The industry “began to argue that all employees, not just secretaries, should be replaced by temps,” Hatton writes. “And rather than simply selling temps, they sold a bigger product: a lean and mean approach to business that considered workers to be burdensome costs that should be minimized.” Workers were depicted as a burden to be dropped in the name of being lean and agile. This new model became more attractive during the recessions of the 1970s, and temps went from 185,000 a day to over 400,000 in 1980. That last number was the total number of temps employed per year in 1963. But then this became a way to structure the workforce even when times were good: as the economy boomed in the ’90s, the number of workers grew to nearly 3 million by 2000.

Even full-time employment looks increasingly like the service sector jobs that were once thought to provide women “pin money,” not the sole source of income for a family. A report from the National Employment Law Project found that mid-wage jobs have been all but replaced by low-wage jobs in the recovery period. Retail has led the pack in creating jobs—about a third of the people who got a job in November, for example, got it in retail. The sector added over 140,000 jobs between September and November. Food service and other service sector jobs also lead the pack. These have traditionally been dominated by women, but now if you want a job, both genders have to take a look at working jobs that offer little pay, few benefits and barely any stability.

None of this is the fault of women who decided to enter the labor force. As they made their way into a booming, middle-class workforce in the 1970s, companies could have responded by offering them the same stable, well-paid jobs that men had enjoyed. Instead, they lowered the bar. And now the bar is being lowered for everyone. The economy has been feminized as the floor keeps dropping beneath all workers’ feet.

Check out The Nation’s series on how labor can respond to the changing composition of employment.

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