Gender, Power, Work: Working contexts from a feminist perspective

Who organizes, supplies, enables, impedes, simplifies care work and access to care services, and how does this happen in changing economic, political and social conditions? These questions were at the centre of the conference “GENDER MACHT ARBEIT – Working contexts from a feminist perspective”, which WIDE Switzerland organised in May 2012 in Bern. WIDE Plus platform member Lilian Fankhauser from WIDE Switzerland reports.

The economic crises and its austerity deals and economic stimulus programmes, which are mainly concerned with economizing the social sector, lead to an aggravation of the care shortage. Under accentuated economic and political preconditions, how do the roles and the positions of acting and defining institutions (households, states, markets, not-for-profit sector) shift? And what happens to the gender-specific allocation of and access to existing resources? Focussing on four different arenas of transformation in the field of work, the conference analysed the shifts between genders: 1) the setting of the private household, 2) the health care sector as a feminized sector, 3) access to welfare and social security of migrant care workers and 4) finally – from a macro- and care economy perspective – the distribution of state finances.

Care as a commons

The interdependency of paid and unpaid work became apparent once again at the conference. The perspective of the care economy makes it possible to confront the microcosm of the household with meso- and macro economic analyses. When we are concerned with the distribution of care work, not only the household features in the debate, but also working conditions and state services in the tertiary sector. Because financial crises do not only have repercussions on male dominated fields of work, but subsequently concern also feminized sectors. These “second round effects” become particularly apparent in the reduction of state expenditures due to indebtedness. That is why according to Christa Wichterich, women in the old EU can expect what women in Eastern Europe and in the new EU member states have already been faced with during the last years: „a wave of fragmentation of work into part-time, temporary and precarious work“, as well as salary cuts and redundancies through a “slimming of the public sector”. These austerity packages are usually absorbed by women. Because by cutting back on public goods and services, pressures are increasing, particularly for women, through an increase in unpaid care work.

When the private household is supposed to cushion public savings and take on more care responsibilities, the pressure mounts to organize the household like a business. Time scarcity then dominates care and support, and resource scarcity affects the quality of the provisioning needed and the necessary diligence.

Context and (De)Construction of the care debate

Concepts like commons, citizenship and bargaining household were mentioned repeatedly in the presentations and discussions of the four arenas of work. They came up as a critical echo of the appropriation of these discourses by mainstream neo-liberalism and efficiency oriented social management, as contentious issues and as parts of the feminist agenda. But we also have to continuously deconstruct and specify the care concept as a feminist thought, action and political model. So, a possible conclusion of the conference is that the observation, calculation and description of the care economy remains central to make visible gendered power relations, to design transformative concepts of society and to make political demands for statehood and democracy.

Lilian Fankhauser, WIDE Switzerland

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