Women’s Futures of Work

Private property, wealth, public finances and gross domestic product are not, for the most part, in female hands. The bulk of the world’s fragile and dwindling resources and the ‘golden tickets’ to access them, sit in the hands of an extreme few. And most of them are men.  

In 1907 in From Serfdom to Socialism, Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party wrote: “In the United States of America, where capitalism has reached its fullest development, one per cent of the population owns ninety-nine per cent of the wealth.” 

In 2016, President Obama gave his final address to the UN General Assembly with the observation that: “A world where 1 per cent of humanity controls as much wealth as the bottom 99 per cent will never be stable.” 

Within these statistics, women find themselves disproportionately among the poorest on earth, on account of either overt, or more subtle forms of discrimination in the context of property rights, the labour market and professions, or because they shoulder a huge and disproportionate share of the domestic and caring responsibilities within the family, which are either treated as completely without monetary value or significantly under-resourced and under-rewarded. Unsurprisingly then, it’s suggested that it will take 170 years for women to achieve even mere pay equality with men. 

But what can the futures of work offer women?  

We are told the robots are coming. Indeed, bank tellers and supermarket check-out workers are fast becoming a thing of the past. In the UK at least, much of manual manufacturing is already long gone. Driverless cars and wave upon wave of anticipated artificial intelligence are likely, we are told, to make more and more of our jobs obsolete. We are being increasingly scared into the insecure work and artificial self-employment of the so-called gig economy, spun artificially ‘high’ employment figures, whilst being taught to know our places in the new ‘precariat’. But as with previous industrial revolutions, this one might yet bring opportunities as well as challenges for organised and therefore empowered working people – including women. 

This is not least because the latest iteration of exploitative capital has a dramatically unintelligent design fault – if the generation of goods and services is increasingly automated and human labour replaced and redundant, who will be left to pay for them? Even in the cruellest political economy, something will have to give and this may provide the greatest opportunity for the left in a century. This post-industrial revolution could force a new democratic consensus and fundamental re-think around how we live, learn, work, share and steward our societies and planet. Let the robots do the brain-numbing and back-breaking work. Let’s take the benefits and invest in the things that humans still do best: in the infrastructure of innovation and the caring economies. 

For women this could finally mean the recognition of domestic labour as a form of valuable employment and the guarantee of high-quality universal childcare. This would provide further skilled caring employment as well as vital support services to the rest of the workforce. Recognition of domestic labour would have a significant impact on the fight for gender equality. We know that the world would not function, nor humanity sustain itself without the currently unaccounted-for private sphere of women giving birth to and nurturing the next generation of little workers, leaders and reproducers. There can be no question that this kind of work is, or has ever really been, trivial.  

In 2015, the United Nations Statistics Division calculated that when house-work and caring duties are taken into account alongside remunerated employment, women work a total average of thirty minutes a day longer than men in developed countries. This rises to fifty minutes more in the developing world. The private nature of domestic labour renders these forms of work invisible and unrecognised – yet, as evidenced by the UN, work that is unpaid absorbs enormous amounts of time.   

Sadly, economic inequality for women does not end at the threshold, nor even within the walls of the family home. Women earn less than men in all sectors and occupations: in most countries women working full time earn between 70 and 90% of what men earn. Despite global legislation on Equal Pay, which began in the UK with the Equal Pay Act 1970, women are being paid almost half of male pay globally. It seems clear then that equal pay laws have no teeth without positive obligations on employers to provide transparency in pay policy, for example auditing gender pay gaps and publishing the results. Equally, too much onus is placed on individual employees to enforce the law, without adequate access to information. In the future, instead of leaving it to female workers and their trade unions to demand equal pay, the state could take on an inspection and enforcement role just as it does with food and school standards and health and safety provision. Why shouldn’t company auditors and tax inspectors look at the equal pay performance of employers as well as their governance and tax responsibilities? 

The world of work is highly segregated both horizontally and vertically along gendered lines. So even a woman who gains access to paid employment is more likely to do so in traditionally and stubbornly ‘female’ employment characterised by low pay, low status, long hours and part-time or informal working arrangements. Discrimination arises at every stage of the employment process, from seeking work, to workplace practices, remuneration, promotion and job security. Increased automation could free up time to experiment with time-limited affirmative action to un-gender, de-racialise and out-class the world of work. Little girls and boys (many of them fatherless in practice) could benefit from more nurturing male role models amongst their primary school teachers.  

Radical change is particularly needed in the great modern science of economics, in which women are under-represented both among its senior disciples and in its thinking which has too often regarded women’s domestic labour as a wholly ‘non-economic phenomenon’ in spite of centuries of feminist contributions, from figures such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Marilyn Waring, who argue for the professionalisation of domestic labour.  

Senior academics and judiciaries alike could benefit from a kick-start to greater gender and class equity. Until July 2017, with the appointment of The Rt Hon Lady Justice Black, only one of eleven justices of the UK Supreme Court was a woman: Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond. This stood in marked and embarrassing contrast with three out of eight women in the US Supreme Court and the record of senior judiciaries all over the common law world. Excuses for this state of affairs are often frankly embarrassing, insulting and a disservice to every defender of the UK legal system. The suggestion that ‘diversity’ and ‘merit’ are in competition for judicial appointments fails to understand their interconnectedness when selecting people who must quite literally sit in judgement over others. The demographic legitimacy of the independent judiciary anywhere in the world cannot be ignored. Where gradualist progress such as wider recruitment pools, encouragement and mentoring of under-represented candidates, has either not succeeded or not been fast enough, forms of affirmative action must be adopted, even if this requires legislative or constitutional change. These can begin with greater transparency of data relating to appointments and move into aspirational targets that can be monitored and scrutinized by the public and polity. 

Similarly, corporate governance is another crucial seat of power and influence where women remain underrepresented. In 2015 Credit Suisse examined over 3000 global companies and found that only 14.7% of board seats were held by women – which was a 54% increase since 2010. A number of nations, such as Norway, require the boards of large or public companies to contain a proportion of women directors as a matter of law. There are also now quota provisions in Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Italy and Spain. In 2015 the European Commission reported that the greatest progress among its member states in the previous ten years had been in countries with legislative quotas. 

Whilst some brave explorers younger than me may find their futures in other worlds, it seems incumbent on my generation to learn from history and our current struggles to prevent a dystopian nightmare in the future world of work. The robots may be coming, but let’s never pretend it was down to the robots alone or that technology is our only saviour. Rights come with responsibilities and my cohort of humanity has much to remedy, improve and fundamentally change which can be rectified through social policy, law and community cohesion, as well as, but not only by means of, automation. It is not enough to dream of, or even design a better future. Like all super-powers; this kind of vision brings with it an enormous duty to make the vision a reality. In the end, I believe that women and men the world over will be better off when the top tables of power are more diverse and the gap between them and those lower down is substantially smaller. Women are under-represented at most top seats of influence and over-represented among the poorest in the world, including those on low wages or no wages at all. This unlocked and underdeveloped power and potential of half of humanity is a great natural resource. All we really need is the imagination and courage to unleash it, and perhaps one of many ‘futures of work’ might just hold the key.


Shami Chakrabarti is Britain’s leading human rights campaigner. Labour’s Shadow Attorney General and a member of the House of Lords, Chakrabarti is an Honorary Professor of Law at the University of Bristol and the University of Manchester, an Honorary Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge and Mansfield College Oxford and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple. Chakrabarti was the Director of Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties from 2003 to 2016 and the Chancellor of the University of Essex from 2014 to 2017. Her latest book, Of Women, is published by Penguin.


Image Credit: Ross Findon on Unsplash