Gender De-institutionalization is for the Privileged

29 Dec 2019

Professor Shelley Wilcox, in her chapter ”Who Pays for Gender De-institutionalization?” within the edited volume Gender Identities in a Globalized World, points out how some women step out of traditional gender roles and expectations precisely by  locking less fortunate women into them. 

STI Experts

Gone are the days when it was a cultural given in the western world that women would attend to the care of the home and the children while men earned in the marketplace the money to support the entire family. Yet when both parents work outside the home, be it by necessity or choice, alternative arrangements for the care of the children and the home are required. Professor Shelley Wilcox, in her chapter ”Who Pays for Gender De-institutionalization?” within the edited volume Gender Identities in a Globalized World, points out how some women step out of traditional gender roles and expectations precisely by locking less fortunate women into them. Her argument is excerpted here.

 

In the United States, expanding opportunities in the public sphere have enabled many white, middle-class women to develop new gender identities.  However, these liberatory identities are increasingly predicated upon a “re-institutionalization” of traditional gender identities for the migrant workers who replace them in the domestic sphere

Wilcox describes how women who work outside the home use domestic workers as “a strategy for managing the demands of the double workday.”  Though women participate and advance ever more in the marketplace, she says, they must still conform to a masculine career model that rewards increasingly longer work hours. Yet they are still largely responsible for the home when they get there, stretching them too thin. 

In the absence of extended families to pitch in with child care and affordable, quality care facilities outside the home, hiring a live in nanny/housekeeper is an attractive choice to many families. Yet the workers are vulnerable to exploitation in a largely unregulated and unstandardized field with low status, and a high degree of inequality. 

Employers tend to exploit domestic workers in much the same way that housewives are exploited within the patriarchal family. Like patriarchal husbands, female employers clearly benefit from the labor of domestic workers. Hiring a domestic worker frees female employers from the day-to-day execution of their culturally assigned domestic duties, thereby enabling them to participate in the public sphere as equals to men. In this way, domestic workers allow their employers to develop non-traditional gender identities outside their roles as mothers. Yet, since the “products” of commodified domestic work – clean homes and well-tended children – tend to be attributed to employers, women who hire domestic workers may also satisfy cultural expectations for good mothering. In this way, domestic workers enable employers to enjoy the advantages of gender de-institutionalization without sacrificing the more traditional aspects of their gender identities.   

Professor Wilcox goes on to decry the how this scenario “contributes to an international division of labor in which migrant women from the global South increasingly reproduce the families of citizens of the global North.”

She posits that a first step towards improving the situation would be to formalize and regulate domestic jobs. Yet deeper social changes like increasing the perceived social and economic value of such work and un-pairing domestic tasks from gender, along with improving immigration policy and reducing global economic inequalities, would be necessary to eliminate it.