The response to care workers striking for equal pay shows we undervalue the work women do

Those who took these women for granted are not being held responsible because they are not expected to prioritise love and care. Women are.

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Today more than 8,000 employees of Glasgow city council, most of them women, decided to put vulnerable lives at risk in some misguided attempt to make a point.

At least, that is the impression one might get from some of the headlines covering today’s strike for equal pay, which follows years of disagreement between unions and the council over the underpayment of staff in female-dominated roles.

Fears for old folk as care workers go on strike”, frets the Express. “Two day walkout by care staff ‘putting lives at risk’”, warns the Times. Care workers, eh? So valuable, apart from when they’re actually working. Then you can pay them peanuts.

It’s a familiar paradox. If you are so dependent on one group of people, why not reward them in accordance with their worth? Because they’re women and because they’re carers, that’s why.

Women’s work – whether by that we mean roles that are female-dominated or tasks that are coded as feminine  – is undervalued precisely because it is so valuable. Caring, cleaning, nurturing, gestating and feeding are acts that exist beyond the realm of “real” economics because they are supposed to be acts of love.

Payment for care is distasteful because it implies a motivation of self-interest rather than compassion. As Katrine Marçal writes, “traditionally care work was conducted in the home, which was seen as the place where a man could return after a hard day in the cold, impersonal, wage-earning world.”

“Even when care work was moved out of the home and into the hospital, day care centre and nursing home, the dichotomy of love and money remained. To take care of others was something one did because one was a good person – that is, female. Not because one wanted to have a career or earn a living”.

The implication of headlines foregrounding “old folk” and lives being “put at risk”, as opposed to exploitation and inequality, is that the Glasgow care workers are not good people. Those who took these women for granted and underpaid them for years are not being held responsible because they – councillors, politicians, accountants, pen-pushers, most of them male – are not expected to prioritise love and care. Women are.

It’s true that care workers are not the only ones to be accused of dereliction of duty whenever they go on strike. Doctors, firefighters, teachers – all are told that yes, their work is important and something must be done about pay and conditions, just not that.

With work that is so specifically coded as female, however, there is an added layer of transgression. Looking at some of the responses to today’s strike, it seems clear that it’s perfectly possible to agree in principle with the concept of equal pay for equal work, yet still believe the women who demand it have overstepped the mark.

In Down Girl, Kate Manne proposes that patriarchy positions women as “human givers”, whose behaviour is stigmatised whenever they fail to prioritise the needs of others. In such a context, asking for more upsets what is viewed as the natural order of things. When women in other sectors complain of disparities in pay, they are told “women don’t ask”, yet we know that when they do, this can often work to their detriment. This can only be compounded if the very job you do is delivering resources – care and compassion – which women are meant to provide for free.  

What has been found in the Glasgow case, and in others where female council workers have compared their pay to those of their male counterparts, is that the amount owed in backpay is staggering. What tends to then follow is a series of subtle or not so subtle hints that maybe these women need to calm down and not be so greedy. There are practicalities to think of, after all. Do they want their male peers to suffer? Do they want to see cuts that will affect everyone, all for the sake of funding some abstract feminist principle?  

Because women’s work is all blood, sweat and tears, too practical, too embodied, to attach a price to so long as it’s being done. The moment it is withdrawn, those who perform it need schooling in basic moral principles. It is they, we are supposed to believe, who don’t quite understand the importance of balancing self-interest with compassion, as though this isn’t something they’ve been doing every single day up til now.

Given the care crisis we are facing, things cannot continue like this. If care work is not valued as it should be today, then when will it be? Given that poor pay and conditions are already leading to a faster turnover of staff, how can we keep on pretending that exploitation is not already putting lives at risk?

If the anguish caused by today’s strike shows us anything, it’s that care is a scarce resource and always has been, for all the stories we tell ourselves about women’s true nature. If its withdrawal is such a terrible thing, then we should learn to treasure it.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.