Women, Employment of, the work of women has been economically vital since prehistory, although their contributions have varied according to the structure, needs, customs, and attitudes of society. In prehistoric times, women and men participated almost equally in hunting and gathering activities to obtain food. With the development of agricultural communities, women’s work revolved more around the home. They prepared food, made clothing and utensils, and nurtured children, while also helping to slough fields, harvest crops, and tend animals. As urban centers developed, women sold or traded goods in the marketplace.
From ancient to modern times, four generalizations can be made about women’s paid work. Women have worked because of economic necessity; poor women in particular worked outside the home whether they were unmarried or married, and especially if their husbands were unable to sustain the family solely through their own work. Women’s indentured work has often been similar to their work at home. Women have maintained the primary responsibility for raising children, regardless of their paid work. Women have historically been paid less than men and have been allocated lower-status work. Some major changes are now occurring in industrial nations, including the steadily increasing proportion of women in the labor force; decreasing family responsibilities (due to both smaller family size and technological innovation in the home); higher levels of education for women; and more middle- and upper-income women working for pay or for job satisfaction. Statistically, they have not yet achieved parity of pay or senior appointments in the workplace in any nation.
II. EARLY WOMEN WORKERS
In Babylonia, about 2000, women were permitted to engage in business and to work as scribes. In most ancient societies, however, upper-class women usually were limited to their homes, and working women were either semi-free plebeians or slaves used for unskilled labor and prostitution. In ancient Greece, women worked outside the home as sellers of goods such as salt, figs, bread, and hemp; seamstresses; wet nurses; courtesans and prostitutes; laundresses; cobblers; and potters. The work patterns of women in Asia and the Americas were similar. In India, working women crushed stones used to make roads and worked long hours weaving cloth.
A. Medieval Europe
Artisans working in their own homes not infrequently used the labor of their families. This custom was so prevalent during the Middle Ages, craft guilds of the period, including some that otherwise excluded women, often admitted to membership the widows of guild members, providing they met professional requirements. Some early guilds barred women from membership; others accepted them on a limited basis. By the 14th century, in England and France, women were frequently accepted equally with men as tailors, barbers, carpenters, and saddlers and pursuers. Dressmaking and lace making guilds were composed exclusively of women.
Gradually, the guilds were replaced by the putting-out system, whereby tools and materials were distributed to workers by merchants; the workers then produced articles on a piecework basis in their homes. Some of these workers were women, who were paid directly for their labour, while men with families were commonly assisted by their wives and children.
B. The Industrial Revolution
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, as the Industrial Revolution developed, the putting-out system slowly declined. Goods that had been produced by hand in the home were manufactured by machine under the factory system. Women competed more with men for some jobs, but were concentrated primarily in textile mills and clothing factories. Manufacturers often favored women employees because of relevant skills and lower wages, and also because early trade union organization tended to occur first among men. Employees in sweatshops were also preponderantly women. The result was to institutionalize systems of low pay, poor working conditions, long hours, and other abuses, which along with child labor presented some of the worst examples of worker exploitation in early industrial capitalism. Minimum wage legislation and other protective laws, when introduced, concentrated particularly on the alleviation of these abuses of working women.
Women workers in business and the professions, the so-called white-collar occupations, suffered less from poor conditions of work and exploitative labour, but were denied equality of pay and opportunity. The growing use of the typewriter and the telephone after the 1870s created two new employment niches for women, as typists and telephonists, but in both fields the result was again to institutionalize a permanent category of low-paid, low-status women’s work. Teaching, especially at the lower echelons, remained a career customarily open to women, and medicine also became one important field where women enjoyed some early success. Nursing was traditionally a female preserve, and the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, received her degree in 1849. Edinburgh University, famous for its medical expertise, was one of the first universities to admit women (from 1889). The professions, whose statutes were one of the first targets of equal opportunity legislation, formed something of a vanguard for female workers in the 20th century, but equal pay and opportunity in these fields has yet to be matched by comparable developments in the business sector.
III. WORKING WOMEN TODAY
Despite the fact that women constitute more than one-third of the world’s labour force, producing up to 70 per cent of Africa’s food by some estimates, in general they remain concentrated in a limited number of traditional occupations, many of which do not require highly technical qualifications and most of which are low paid. According to data from the International Labour Organization, however, as countries become industrialized, more women obtain jobs in more occupations.
A. The Developed World
The employment pattern for women in the United States, Europe, and Japan is broadly similar. Before 1990, labour-force participation rates ranged from 38 per cent in West Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) to 55 per cent in Sweden. Most of these countries have some form of equal employment or protective legislation. Collective bargaining is used more widely than in the United States as a means to improve women’s working conditions.
Employment policies in Eastern Europe and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Communism were based on a belief in both the duty and the right of women to work. In 1936 the Soviet constitution specified that no legislation should deviate from the principle of women’s equality with men. The USSR and its allies established childcare, health, educational, and recreational facilities. According to estimates, in the 1970s and early 1980s about 85 per cent of all Soviet women between the ages of 20 and 55 were employed outside the home; in East Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) the number of employed women was as high as 80 per cent. Although more integrated than in the West, women in Eastern Europe were still concentrated in some traditional occupations and industries, and almost always at lower levels of responsibility than men. In Bulgaria, for example, 78 per cent of textile workers, but only 25 per cent of engineers, were women; in the Soviet Union, these figures were 74 and 40 per cent, respectively. Although part-time employment was discouraged, about half the married women worked only part time. Communist countries reported that equal pay for equal work was achieved, but almost no women achieved high office. However, the accuracy of all these figures and the real underlying situation have been called into question following the demise of the Communist regimes throughout Europe and Eurasia; though it may remain true that women in these formerly Communist countries enjoy a higher profile in the workplace than in Western European nations. It also remains to be seen how the situation will develop with the collapse of old state industries and social security systems in Central and Eastern Europe.
Among Western nations, Sweden has come closest to achieving equality in employment. In the last two decades, women’s average hourly earnings have risen from 66 to 87 per cent of men’s earnings. At the same time, the Swedish government undertook major reforms of textbooks and curricula, parent education, childcare and tax policies, and marriage and divorce laws, all geared to accord women equal opportunities in the labour market while also recognizing their special needs if they are mothers. Counselling and support programmes were designed for women re-entering the work force. Other European countries have studied the Swedish model and some are adapting programmes to fit their social-welfare policies, though the evident economic cost of a Swedish-style welfare system is a powerful counterweight to such moves.
Japan, the most industrialized nation in East Asia, has retained some of its traditional attitudes towards working women. Female participation in the workplace is only slightly behind levels in most Western European states, but women are often expected to retire when they have children, despite the fact that Japanese higher education produces a great number of highly qualified female graduates. Equal opportunities legislation has been introduced to guarantee and facilitate employment outside the domain of the “office lady” (women in low-paid secretarial work, often performing menial office tasks), but career opportunities, especially in the higher echelons of business and government, have yet to improve to the levels seen in some Western countries.
South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and the other newly industrialized economies of East and South East Asia have provided new working opportunities for women with the expansion of their economies. In South Korea female presence in work is slightly behind that in Japan; in other such countries, the level is still lower. Traditional paternalist attitudes, the importance of the family in Confucianism, and the presence of Islam in some areas, have all tended to depress the working status and opportunities of women. That said, economic growth has allowed women to aspire to careers and wages never open to them before, and such countries are ever less willing to let such traditional constraints keep potential wealth creators out of their economies.
B. Developing Nations
Much of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America remain primarily poor agricultural economies. Most women work in the fields and marketplaces, or gathering fuel and carrying water over long distances, but their economic contributions are generally unrecognized. African countries in particular report some of the highest percentages of female participation in the workforce, but the work concerned is usually subsistence agricultural labor. As men migrate to the cities in search of increasingly important cash incomes, many rural women are left to support families alone.
The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development has defined a “basic learning package” needed for both men and women in developing nations. This package includes functional literacy, some choice of relevant vocational skills, family planning and health, child care, nutrition, sanitation, and knowledge for civic participation. Illiteracy is higher among women than among men. Even in countries where some equality has been achieved, problems such as high unemployment rates affect women adversely. In African countries, some progress is being made in widening women’s work opportunities. These women still do not have equal access to education, training programmed, or financial grants or loans, however, especially in areas necessary to a nation-building economy.