You’ve heard all the excuses to wave away the wage gap between men and women: it’s because men work harder, work longer, don’t get pregnant, and choose to work in more prestigious, higher paying fields. The people who make these arguments seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the values that define the worth of kinds of work are entirely socially constructed (they deny the worth of the concept of social construction, for one thing). I just like to point out that if these claims were valid, and there was an objectively earned reward for hard work and time, then my father, who worked two jobs and came home exhausted with the grime of manual labor ground into his hands, should have been a billionaire.
But another point they evade is that there is an instant devaluation of a profession as soon as women begin to populate it. It’s useful to take a historical perspective and see how work is demeaned when it’s percieved as “women’s work”, as in this criticism of James Damore’s memo.
Damore seems to have bought into the conclusions of the worst kinds of evolutionary psychology. As a discipline, “evopsych” too often depends on inventing biological explanations for observed reality, rather than considering influences from culture and society. In the memo, Damore argues that “science” shows men are evolved to be more suited to computer programing. Science, of course, shows nothing of the sort. People who actually study the neuroscience of gender disagree with Damore’s conclusions. Moreover, as many folks quickly pointed out, women were the first coders. Programming was initially regarded as an extension of secretarial work, but men took over when the profession’s status (and pay) began to rise. “Computer girls” were replaced by “computer geeks” thanks to social factors, not biological ones. So much for Damore’s ideas.
There are other examples I did not know about! When men took over brewing (or when brewing became more profitable), the value of the work shifted.
Take brewing. In 14th-century England, women did most of the brewing, as Bennett first explores in a 1986 article on the village alewife. These brewsters made ale, which spoiled quickly after the cask was broached, so they would keep some for their family and sell the rest. Often, the small profits from these sales would enable them to buy ale, in turn, from other women while they waited to make a new batch. But then beer arrived in England from the Low Countries. Thanks to the preservative power of hops, it could be brewed and sold at commercial scale. The village alewife was gradually replaced by larger and larger brewing enterprises, requiring access to capital. Although there were exceptions, men had much easier access to capital than women. By the end of the 15th century, men dominated medieval English brewing.
And then there’s weaving.
One could tell a similar story about weaving, only in reverse. In the 14th century, weaving was a high-status, high-profit trade. Most weavers were men. Industrialization turned weavers into a lower-status occupation, so early-modern textile weavers in factories were generally women. It would be a mistake, as Bennett argues in her book History Matters, to merely observe the change in occupation—women become weavers—and thereby argue that women’s material or cultural status had improved. Change in occupation, she writes, does not mean transformation of status.
What I find odd is how often critics of these facts are painfully naive and ignorant about the complexity of the field they’re denying. See, for instance, this debate between Kristi Winters and Sargon of Akkad: right out of the gate, he claims the wage gap doesn’t exist at all (he also denies that campus rape is a problem…or rather, because rates are higher elsewhere, it’s a waste of time to work against it), and most significantly, just flat out rejects all of the social sciences. Which is weird, since his arguments against feminist ideas require distorting social science evidence while simultaneously claiming all social science is bogus. How does anyone know anything if you think all the disciplines that study a particular phenomenon are completely invalid?