Equal Opportunities

Women’s work requires different kinds of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions within different kinds of organizational structures. Unlike most male jobs, much of women’s work involves switching from one level of task to another level and from person to person, often in ways that involve different methods of communication. It usually involves the provision of comfort, emotional support, and care. It frequently involves coordination and cooperation with others, under conditions where women have little formal authority. In many cases, precisely because it is women who do the work, the actual responsibility is very different from what is formally defined.

This topic of equal opportunities for women in a workplace has only been seen as a legitimate object of enquiry since the fairly recent historical past. In traditional societies, the division of lab our between men and women was viewed as largely ‘natural’. Even with the transition to modern industrialism, we have seen that the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ of masculine and feminine activity, reflected in the division between market work and domestic work, persisted well into this century. Indeed, in many of the relatively more affluent societies in the West, the heyday of the ‘male-breadwinner’ model of the division of lab our between the sexes might be seen as being during the period immediately after the Second World War. Relative affluence and increasing wage levels amongst the working class meant that the capacity to keep a wife (and children) at home extended further down into the social hierarchy than it had ever done previously.

The male-breadwinner model of the division of lab our was reproduced by sociology in Parsons’ ( 1949) functional theory of the modern family, in which the mother was the ‘expressive leader’ (that is, she was responsible for caring, emotion, and so on), and the husband/father was the ‘instrumental leader’ (that is, the breadwinner). In this structural functionalist approach, ‘family’ and ‘economy’ were viewed as distinct entities (or separate spheres), and the family was seen as carrying out specific functions (physical reproduction, nurturing) for the economy.

Once the division of lab our between men and women was no longer seen as “natural”, and/or as following from the imperative demands of the family, it had to be explained. “Second-wave” feminism, which developed from the 1960s onwards, was very important in developing this critique. Thus from the 1960s onwards it was argued that men had excluded women from the best jobs for their own advantage. Both Hartmann ( 1982) and Walby ( 1986) described this as an expression of patriarchy. Men were seen as having developed institutions and structures which directly excluded women, in order both to gain material advantage for men as a whole and to secure the use of women’s lab our by individual men in the household. It was argued, however, that ‘patriarchy’ could not be used as a theory (that is, as a complete explanation of the situation of women). However, it is a useful term which describes men’s subordination of women.

The majority of women who work part-time say that they would not want a full-time job, this finding has to be evaluated against a number of structural factors, including both the low level of childcare available in Britain, which means that women with caring responsibilities are likely to wish to work part-time (30 % of employed mothers with children under 16 either worked at home or only worked during school hours), and also that changes in the wider economy mean that employers increasingly seek (‘demand’) flexible, part-time workers. That is, part-time work cannot simply be seen as being an expression of women’s “preferences”. Cross-national comparisons demonstrated how important national, institutional structures are in shaping women’s employment patterns. The way in which the welfare state has been developed has affected not only the extent of women’s paid work, but also the manner in which it has been distributed. Some welfare states, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, have encouraged women’s paid employment, and this employment is concentrated in the jobs created in the state-organized welfare sector. Other welfare states, such as Germany, have systems of taxation and welfare provision which discourage women’s employment. Social insurance in Germany is organized on the assumption that women will be available to carry out caring work within the home, and thus the level of paid employment amongst women is lower. …