Women, Work and the Second Shift

A wide gulf remains between working mothers and their male peers despite formal equality, writes Mari P-A

Pressures of work and family

Women today remain disadvantaged in the work environment and socially compared to men even though women are now legally equal to men in most aspects in most countries, glaring inequality still remains in a key area, parenting. Traditionally, a woman’s role in society was to raise her children, care for her husband and look after the household. This cultural expectation broadly remains intact today despite large steps toward gender equality taken in other areas of life. It is reflected both in our culture and in law. Women are allowed and usually expected to work, but if they also have a family which in itself is another strong social expectation they have to also take on this second job at home.

Feminist academic Arlie Hochschild popularized this concept with her 1989 book The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. She describes what she calls the “second shift”, referring to this unpaid domestic labor.  Hochschild and her team interviewed fifty couples for the book throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, to find the different loads of child care and housework shared by the couples and measure the “leisure gap” between them (the difference in the amount of free time left over each week after work, child, household and personal care duties.)

What she found, unsurprisingly, was that wives disproportionately undertook the domestic labor that makes up the second shift, but because of the large scale entry of women into the workplace throughout the 20th century this wasn’t a clear cut or universal practice. Hochschild placed each family she studied into one of three categories: traditional, egalitarian and transitional. Since the problem is a structural one and can’t just be wished away, these married couples had to have some kind of way to manage their home lives. Who does what tasks? Do they share them, and if so how much? Is the gendered division of labor satisfactory for both parties, or are there tensions and conflicts in the relationship because of them?

In “traditional” families, the wife and mother took on all of the cooking, cleaning and nurturing the children, basically living up to the idealized picture of proper womanhood, being a hausfrau. Men at work, women at home. These families were a minority, surprisingly given how widespread the image is. It was more popular with the working class families she studied than with more affluent ones.

In “egalitarian” households, both partners felt that they should share domestic responsibilities as much as possible. Husbands should be fathers just as much as they’re providers, and wives should be career-oriented as much as they’re family-oriented. Egalitarian arrangements were also a minority. “Transitional” households had blending between the two poles, to different degrees. The wife shouldn’t be homebound but should still do the majority of the domestic work, though the husband has a role in it too. This arrangement was the most popular.

The three approaches weren’t necessarily decided by explicit consent; more often the spouses just “fell into” these roles as an unconscious or unspoken act. Couples also didn’t necessarily agree on which ideological position to take, and disagreements on fulfilling or subverting gender norms were sources of serious marital conflict.

Hochschild wrote that our situation was a “stalled revolution.” Even though women had broken into the work force and were advancing upward from the lowest-paid professions steadily suggested a combination of both government policies and changing cultural attitudes to fix the problem. In an interview conducted 25 years after publishing The Second Shift, she regretfully noted that these government policies haven’t materialized yet. She noted several things that made the position of American workers less favorable to women compared to other countries. U.S. employees work long hours and with less flex time, which hurts workers in caregiver roles, mainly women. Most other high-income countries, not just the Scandinavian welfare states, have paid parental leave. We don’t have government subsidized child care – “even talking about government help seems more like a pipedream now.” She says that the added pressure on wages and employment is hurting not just blue collar workers, but also white collar workers and workers’ families. She acknowledges the spreading of female upward mobility that has brought many female managers and CEOs, but says that overall, we have now hit a second stall in the stalled revolution.

Arlie Hochschild’s most widely read works appeared during a transitional period between two periods in the development of the feminist movement, second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism, which started in the early 1990s, put more focus on challenging and deconstructing gender roles than in the second wave that was more focused on rights. Although she was very influential, Hoschschild wasn’t the first prominent thinker to pay attention to gender relations in the workplace.

Alexandra Kollontai was one such figure from the early 20th century,  a Russian revolutionary who was the main women’s theorist and activist in the Russian Communist Party. Like other Bolsheviks, she saw social issues through the lens of class, and she produced a large body of material on issues specific to working class women. She called the unequal share of domestic labor the double burden instead of the second shift, but it was the same problem they were both describing. The difference between them comes from Kollontai’s looking at the class dynamics. Working class women (women who work for a wage and don’t own their own business or productive land) don’t share the same interests as “middle class” (petty-bourgeois) and bourgeois women. Hochschild found that working class women were more likely to be “traditional” housewives – Kollontai would explain this as them lacking access to nannies and other kinds of hired help. Her view was that in pre-capitalist, feudal society, female-based home child care was necessary because the household was the main productive economic unit. Peasant families tended their own small plots or a parcel from a landlord to grow food. Under capitalism though, this was no longer needed because the household is now a unit of consumption. Its continued existence oppressed women, so child care needed to be taken out of the private sphere and put into the public sphere:

“A labour state establishes a completely new principle: care of the younger generation is not a private family affair, but a social-state concern. Maternity is protected and provided for not only in the interests of the woman herself, but still more in the interests of the tasks before the national economy during the transition to a socialist system: it is necessary to save women from an unproductive expenditure of energy on the family so that this energy can be used efficiently in the interests of the collective; it is necessary to protect their health in order to guarantee the labour republic a flow of healthy workers in the future.

In the bourgeois state it is not possible to pose the question of maternity in this way: class contradictions and the lack of unity between the interests of private economies and the national economy hinder this. In a labour republic, on the other hand, where the individual economies are dissolving into the general economy and where classes are disintegrating and disappearing, such a solution to the question of maternity is demanded by life, by necessity. The labour republic sees woman first and foremost as a member of the labour force, as a unit of living labour; the function of maternity is seen as highly important, but as a supplementary task and as a task that is not a private family matter but a social matter.”1

Kollontai knew this transfer of the domestic burden from the individual level to the social level wouldn’t happen overnight, but thought it had to be taken on consciously and that gender equality wasn’t an automatic process. She actually had to fight with some other prominent Communist leaders on this, who thought that women’s emancipation would happen more or less automatically under socialism. Kollontai successfully agitated for creating the Department of Mother and Child in the new Soviet government, which introduced creches, canteens and public laundry facilities, either from building new ones or taking the few existing facilities into state ownership. With Yakov Sverdlov, she drafted the 1918 law on marriage, family and guardianship that legalized civil marriage, no-fault divorce, and abortion.2

She also initiated and lead the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) of the Bolshevik Party itself. One of its jobs was to make sure the new laws were actually implemented, which frequently only existed on paper. Soviet Russia inherited a lot of economic and cultural backwardness from the Russian Empire, and fighting in World War I followed by the Russian Civil War only made things worse. The Zhenotdel was unpopular among some factory managers, government departments and union activists, seen as a nuisance. Kollontai resigned her leadership role after suffering a heart attack, and the Zhenotdel’s role was diminished year by year until it was shut down by Joseph Stalin in 1930.

A lot has changed since 1920s, or even since 1989, but women are still widely disadvantaged by the same economic setup. The share of domestic labor in households has evened out more in the past twenty years in the United States but it still falls more on women than men. This effects women very sharply in terms of wages. Since overtime work is an important way to bring in more money, women’s decreased ability to work overtime because of domestic commitments hits hard.

According to a study released by the Department of Sociology at Indiana University3, the percentage of American male workers who worked 50 hours or more per week was 19%, while for women it was 7%. Women were less likely to take or keep a job that required overtime work. Employers often encourage 24/7 availability, which is also helped by how common instant, round-the-clock communication is today. The economy overall is trending more toward longer work hours and more compensation for overwork (and employers are increasingly willing to have more pay disparity within the same workplace), so this difference has the effect of counteracting trends toward gendered wage equity. The authors, Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weeden, dismiss claims that this is because women just want fewer working hours than their male counterparts. Instead, they point to multiple studies that explain the gender disparity in overtime in terms of “essentialist beliefs about female caregiving [that] continue to be a dominant cultural ideology even among people who endorse gender egalitarianism.” This means that even people who, on an intellectual level, believe that child care should be shared, in practice delegate the majority of it to the female partner.

This is one of the main mechanisms that keeps the gendered pay gap in place. Currently, women employed full-time earn on average 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. The way this happens isn’t as simple anymore as paying a female worker less for the same position as her male colleague. For young women, the gap is smaller (7% less than men), which shows that since young women are more likely to be childless they have more flexibility in the labor market.

Women’s educational achievements and amounts of workplace experience have risen highly in the last four decades, traditionally signs that they will have higher-paid jobs. But despite this, women workers are two-thirds of the 20 million in low-wage jobs (less than $10.10 per hour – actually still a poverty wage) even though they are a little less than half of the total workforce. They are overrepresented in professions that relate to caregiving, playing to ideas of traditional gender roles, like child care workers, waitressing, home health care and cleaning. Besides these jobs, they are likely to be found in sectors like fast food and retail that pay at or very close to the minimum wage.4

This trend has increased since the 2008 recession, 35% of women’s net job gains since then have been in these low-wage occupations compared to 20% for men. One third of these women are mothers. For Black and Hispanic women, the gap widens more compared to white women. At $10.10 an hour, working full-time and with year-round employment, a worker with two children would just barely keep her head above the poverty line with an annual income of $20,200. If she was paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, she would fall far beneath it at $14,500. How inadequate is $10.10 that even at full time it can barely push a woman’s wage above the government’s own official (read conservative) poverty line?

The numbers are even more dramatic for single mothers. Families with a working mom are less than 25% of the total number of families, but almost 40% of low-income families. More than half are working full time. While not all working single mothers live in poverty, the majority, 58 percent as of 2012, of female-headed working households are in low wage occupations. For African Americans it’s even higher, at 65 percent. Single mothers are an at-risk population for depression, although they often go undiagnosed and untreated because of underrating the importance of their symptoms or not being able to access health care.

Access to child care is a major barrier for these mothers, who are often forced to patch together informal arrangements with their personal support networks of friends and family. Actually, child care costs hit workers in higher-income households hard too, which goes a long way toward explaining why so much of it is still home-based in a way that disadvantages women. Enrolling a child in daycare can cost more than a month’s rent or food bill, seriously limiting the options available to working women. For some examples, full-time annual child care center enrollment can cost around $16,000 in Massachusetts for an infant and $12,300 in New York for a four year old. In 31 states, the cost is higher than it would be for a year of college in a four-year public university. In every state, it’s more than 25 percent of a single parent’s median income. For most people, staying home isn’t an option even if they wanted to have a “traditional” male breadwinner and female housewife relationship, since almost half of American families have two working parents.

At the same time, social support policies to provide child care assistance to low-income families are experiencing budget cuts. In 2013, the U.S. Congress cut $400 million from the Head Start program that gives young children from poor families access to preschool and $115 million from the Child Care and Development Block Grant that gives money to local authorities to spend on subsidies for day cares. This is part of an ongoing trend in cutting these programs, which has been partially countered but overall makes them unable to keep up their current levels of service, let alone expand. Without affordable child care made available, it falls to women by default to do it. If they have problems, if they can’t “do it all” and balance their work and home lives by themselves, they’re seen as personal failures instead of social problems.

These women basically subsidize their employers and their partners’ employers by providing their own child care. The same thing happens with maternal leave. The United States is the only advanced industrialized country in the world that doesn’t doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave after childbirth or adoption. In fact, not only is it the only high-income country that doesn’t do this, it’s the only country altogether besides Papua New Guinea. The U.S. passed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, which guarantees up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave, but there are exceptions.

The worker must have worked for at least one year at his or her place of employment, worked at least 1,250 hours during that year, and works in a business that employs at least 50 people if in the private sector. Taking unpaid time off is cost-prohibitive for many, especially in low wage jobs. Some employers do provide paid parental leave for their employees for either or both parents, with paid leave more likely in unionized workplaces and the public sector. California has a Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, an insurance fund that is paid for by contribution from employees’ paychecks and provides temporary partial compensation for people who take time off for having children, adopting or caring for a sick family member. New Jersey and Washington have similar programs. Another regressive tax on working people.

For women who don’t have a paid leave option, they either don’t take any time off at all besides what’s absolutely medically necessary or they use a combination of different legal and employer provided measures. Accumulated vacation time, personal days, sick days and paid time off may be used in some combination, plus applying for short-term disability in the states where STD benefits can be claimed for childbirth.

Women in the United States continue to struggle with an uneven playing field in the workplace, given most of the responsibility for child care and the home but not given adequate tools to deal with those responsibilities beyond what their own backgrounds and personal support systems can give. We need to take concrete steps toward leveling the playing field. As stated above, most countries already have guaranteed paid parental leave. The Netherlands, an advanced capitalist economy but not nearly as rich as the U.S., offers 16 weeks at full pay. Canada requires between 17 and 52 weeks of leave for new mothers depending on their employment time, with an additional partially paid (not the full wage) benefit that can be shared between both parents. All thanks to the pressure exerted by the working class movement.

Subsidized or public child care should also be brought up to at the level it’s at in the other high-income countries. Ideally, the U.S. would bring back the brief universal child care program it had between 1943 and 1946, where the federal government sponsored cheap child care for women to access so they could work as part of the war effort.



  1. Alexandra Kollontai, “The Labour of Women in the Evolution of the Economy.”
  2. http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/960/alexandra-kollontai-emancipation-through-the-russi/
  3. Cha Youngjoo, “Overwork and the Slow Convergence in the Gender Gap in Wages.”
  4. http://www.nwlc.org/resource/underpaid-overloaded-women-low-wage-jobs

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


five × = 35