The future of work is in proximity services … but first we need to speak about work and gender

Laetitia Vitaud
Oct 24, 2019 · 6 min read
Francois Bonvin (French Realist Painter, 1817–1887)

I’ve just published a book in French titled Du Labeur à l’ouvrage, which literally could be translated “From Labour to Work”. But if I could choose the title of my book in English, I would choose something quite different, like “Future of Work: Unbundling and Craftsmanship”. It deals with the unbundling of (mostly industrial) jobs and the future of work. In my book I argue that we are transitioning out of the Fordist “bundle” — whereby in exchange for division of labour and subordination, every worker was offered a bundle of benefits (steady revenue, health insurance, paid holidays, a retirement pension, access to housing, bargaining power via unions). As the trade-offs are becoming weaker, more people wish to return to the values of craftsmanship instead. Some want more freedom. Some more impact. Others want to find meaning by helping others.

Our industry-dominated vision of work has left us with a blind spot: we often fail to see that the future of work will increasingly revolve around proximity services — the jobs of waiters, cleaning people, hairdressers, teachers, nurses, coaches, yoga instructors, and the like. These workers never really had a “bundle” of trade-offs like industrial workers. Yet because they were never included in the protections created for the industry, these workers are now uniquely positioned to create the future of work. Replicating the industrial logic to services won’t work. If these workers want their jobs to be valued more, they will need to transform proximity services with the values of craftsmanship — autonomy, responsibility, creativity.

Alas, to understand why proximity services are our blind spot and what needs to be done to address the challenges of future jobs, we first need to speak about gender. Proximity services are largely female. And female work has long been excluded from the market and the very definition of the economy. That’s where I want to start.

The following text is a loose translation from an extract from Du Labeur à l’ouvrage. There will be other extracts in the weeks to come!

Excluded from the market and the economy: why the legacy of the sexual division of labour still affects proximity services

Proximity services are not performed exclusively by women. Indeed some, like police jobs, are even viewed as traditionally male jobs. But if we wish to understand why proximity services are rarely a subject of interest to politicians and economists, there is no avoiding the (somewhat divisive) subject of the sexual division of labour. Even though many women don’t work in proximity services and quite a few men work in them, it’s hard to grasp the uniqueness of these jobs without a good understanding of the historical specificities of female work.

The first key to understanding female exclusion is the very artificial (but no less dominant) separation between “productive” and “reproductive” work. In the traditional representation of work, all the jobs that aim to produce the goods and services that are to be sold on the market come first. The jobs that consist in “reproducing” the (present and future) labour force, i.e. feeding the workers, making their homes welcoming, and caring for their children and elderly parents come second.

“Reproductive” work is largely associated to the private and domestic sphere. It includes everything the workers do for free to be able to go to work every day: clean their clothes and bodies, feed themselves, clean their own homes, look after their offspring (tomorrow’s productive workforce), teach and feed them, etc. For classical economists (Marx included), reproductive work is at the service of productive work. It is less noble. Also productive workers are supposed to get paid for the productive and reproductive work. Their pay covers both. Therefore reproductive work is not a part of the market sphere.

These old concepts generated renewed interest among 1970s feminists eager to draw more attention to the domestic sphere. Some of them argued that it was wrong to describe 20th-century female work as a “revolution” because reproductive work should have been taken into account. The “reproductive” work of women was always “work”, they argued. For Canadian author Margaret Lowe Benston (1937–1991), our capitalist mode of production that submits “reproduction” to “production” is to blame for gender inequalities. And the subordination of women is a form of oppression that serves the interests of the capitalist elite.

Marxist-feminist theories go as far as to compare the position of women relative to men to the position of 19th-century (male) workers relative to capitalists. The dynamics of power at play in the nuclear family have made reproductive work a mostly female thing, liberating male workers from the necessity of reproducing their labour force. Thus a vicious circle started: the more they were relegated to reproductive tasks, the more women were oppressed. And the more oppressed they were, the more they were forced to focus on domestic reproduction, which gave men their dominant position in the public sphere.

Yet, it wasn’t always so. In preindustrial and precapitalist societies, the two forms of work were not separated. Artisanal and agricultural work were performed by family units where roles were not as gendered as they later became. Women “produced” as much as men did. It is only in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that women were formally excluded from guilds and banned from certain productive activities.

Wherever production and reproduction are merged, female work is valued more. In small family businesses, for example, work and life are hard to separate. The owner of a small shop will see that looking after themselves means showing their customers respect, caring for their children is a way to strengthen relationships with the local community their business depends on, cleaning the shop floor is a way to create a more valuable experience for their customers, etc.

Italian-American historian Silvia Federici believes that the artificial separation between production and reproduction and the formal exclusion of women from a large chunk of the production sphere can be dated to a specific time in the history of capitalism. For her (and for sociologists Helena Hirata and Hélène Le Doaré) it all started with the enclosures that started in the 16th century. (Enclosure was the legal process in England of consolidating small landholdings into larger farms whereby lots of land ceased to be common land for communal use.) Before enclosures, women were included in corporations of artisans and produced food in the communal lands. After enclosures they were increasingly forced to specialise in reproduction rather than production.

What used to be a traditional form of agriculture that depended on cooperation and communities became a system of private land ownership (with each piece of land clearly separated from the others by fences). But the productive work of many women depended on communal lands and the strength of communities. Enclosures made many of them lose their productive status. It paved the pay for the industrial organisation of work which generalised a sexual division of labour. Women were told to stay at home.

Naturally things became somewhat complicated when “reproductive” services were also exchanged on the market. In the 20th century, a big chunk of what used to be done for free in the privacy of the domestic sphere entered the sphere of the market and could be traded. Suddenly there were paid “reproduction professionals”. As more and more people entered the world of professional “services”, the distinction between “production” and “reproduction” became less and less relevant. Yet the legacy of this original dichotomy helps explain so much: why female work is still less valued, why care work is deemed “female”, why men have more economic power and why proximity services are paid little.

Du Labeur à l’ouvrage. L’artisanat est le futur du travail

Sortie chez Calmann-Lévy le 18 septembre 2019

Laetitia Vitaud

Written by

I write about #FutureOfWork #HR #freelancing #craftsmanship #feminism Editor in chief of Welcome to the Jungle media for recruiters

Du Labeur à l’ouvrage. L’artisanat est le futur du travail

Sortie chez Calmann-Lévy le 18 septembre 2019

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